Glass reviews the V&A’s Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature

Children’s author Beatrix Potter has come full circle. Potter grew up on Bolton Gardens, a short walk from the South Kensington Museum, today the Victoria and Albert museum, where we can now find Potter’s studies and stories in Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature.

Curators Annemarie Bilclough at the V&A and Helen Antrobus at the National Trust have created a family friendly space where adults and children alike can wonder at the author and illustrators world with the same set of eyes.

Beatrix Potter Drawn to Nature, installation image (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2)Beatrix Potter Drawn to Nature. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The exhibition is a much needed reminder that nature can be found and enjoyed wherever you are. While Potter preferred the countryside, a lot can still be said for the first 47 years of her life in Kensington.

London was where she could visit the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood artist, John Everett Millais at his nearby studio in Cromwell Place, where she could take art exams or frequently visit the National History museum next door.

At the London Zoo Potter wiled away afternoons sketching animal movements, and spent her mornings strolling along the excavated Thames, fascinated by the archaeologists Roman discoveries. Upon seeing Angela Kauffman’s Design at the Royal Academy Potter exclaimed “I never thought there could be such pictures!” inspired by “what a woman has done.”

It’s safe to say Potter was an inspiration herself. After complaining about always being short of money, her brother Bertrand suggested she sell her self made Christmas cards which always used to amuse the family – unsurprisingly they quickly sold out, “It is pleasant to feel I could earn my own living.”

Beatrix Potter Drawn to Nature. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.Beatrix Potter Drawn to Nature. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Her wealth grew further when she signed a publishing deal with Frederick Warne & Co. in 1902, publishing two titles a year for a decade. The first of her 23 tales began with The Tale of Peter Rabbit, a character based on the family’s pet rabbit Peter Piper who was bought for an “exorbitant” four shillings and six pence, the equivalent of £25, on the Uxbridge road in 1892.

Potter referred to Peter Piper as her “quiet friend” and “affectionate companion.”

Indeed she sought friendship in many of her pets. In the exhibition we find a particularly memorable photograph of Beatrix with her pet rabbit Benjamin Bouncer at Bedwell Lodge, Hertfordshire in September 1891.

The rabbit sits in profile with a collar and lead on, whilst Potter appears to be glancing down chatting away to Bouncer, like a mother to her young child.

Beatrix Potter Drawn to Nature. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.Beatrix Potter Drawn to Nature. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

We are informed that Bouncer is a Belgian hare ‘partial to hot buttered toast and would come running at the sound of the tea bell.’ It’s these witticisms and humane flourishes paired with Potter’s sharp, articulate drawings that lift her characters out of the page and come bouncing, scurrying or leaping to life before us.

Over a century later it doesn’t seem too far a stretch of the imagination to envisage a mouse hastily reading a newspaper through oval spectacles, sat atop a bobbin, or a curled up hedgehog donning stone blue boots.

Throughout the exhibition it’s hard to believe that you are in fact looking at the works of a self taught artist. Even from the tender age of nine she was drawing like for like imagery of hippopotamus’s swimming and ambling tortoises.

Potter put her artistic talents down to her “irresistible desire to copy”, but Millais’s explanation seems more applicable when he explained to her that “plenty of people can draw, but you…have observation.”

Her observation prospered under her obsessive gathering of insects, animals, ferns and rocks, to perform taxidermy and collect animal anatomy with her brother. Potter was particularly fond of mycology, the study of fungi.

Aged 39 Potter took the leap from only holidaying out of London to permanently moving out when she bought Hill Top Farm in the Lake District. Once she was fully submerged in nature, her writing began to take a back seat, whilst conservation and farming took a front seat.

As a member of the Community Association, she helped employ district nurses and ensured traditional farming practices could survive, whilst also encouraging Girl Guides to visit, opening up the countryside for all.

Beatrix Potter Drawn to Nature. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.Beatrix Potter Drawn to Nature. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Her dedication to nature was unwavering and continues to thrive. Potter donated over 4000 acres and 14 working farms upon her death in 1943 to the National Trust, an organisation she described as “a noble thing, and…immortal”. It is in the final room of the exhibit where you gain perspective and begin to understand the importance of Potter’s work as an entrepreneur, farmer, conservationist and natural scientist on top of her more famous roles.

Whether it’s the Tale of Miss Moppet, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Timmy Tiptoes or Squirrel Nutkin that transported you as a child, you can try them on for size at Drawn to Nature or peer through a microscope over the fantastical detail of a flys leg, mushroom, sheep’s wool or a dragonfly’s wing.

That’s if you can fight the kids of all ages off first.

by Charlie Newman

Book tickets and find out more about Beatrix Potter Drawn to Nature.

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