The charming tales of Peter Rabbit and his animal friends have been a beloved part of children’s literature for 120 years – a bestseller from the day the first story was published in 1902.
But while the name of their author and illustrator, Beatrix Potter, is equally famous, how many of us really know that much about her?
From the subject of her stories and the quaint images of Beatrix dressed in her Victorian clothes, you might assume she was a reserved country woman.
In reality, she was a complex and accomplished character, whose contribution to the world was not limited to her timeless stories and magical illustrations.
Beatrix was a talented scientific artist, who studied mycology to a high amateur level, a successful businesswoman and later, a prize-winning sheep farmer and conservationist.
She was a woman ahead of her time and despite setbacks because she was female, she never stopped pursuing the things she believed in.
This story of the woman behind the books is the subject of the wonderful Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature exhibition which recently opened at the V&A in London.
Created in collaboration with the National Trust – which was gifted much of its land in the Lakes by the author, along with an archive of her work – the show gets to the heart of what made her such a female icon.
I was lucky to be able to visit the exhibition for a press preview last month and also to interview one of the curators for a national newspaper feature.
Compared to the museum’s spectacular Alice in Wonderland show last year, this one is much smaller and quieter – but this suits the subject. It also makes it easy to get around in an hour if you haven’t much time or have kids with a short attention span.
It’s split into four rooms, which each one covering an aspect of her life – her childhood and background, her studies of the natural world and interest in fungi, her stories and books, and her life in the Lakes as a farmer.
The first thing that struck me about her life was she actually spent the first 40 years living in London. I’d no idea of this, such was her affiliation with the countryside.
Beatrix was born into a wealthy family living in Kensington but hated the isolation and greyness of the city, living for the time when they would retreat to Scotland for the summer – and then later, Cumbria.
When at home, she and her brother had lots of pets and preserved the dead ones for studying or making anatomically accurate drawings. She had a real skill for this and some of her botanical artwork is highly impressive.
It also meant that when she came to illustrate her stories – which started out as letters to the children of friends and family – she made the animals accurate, when though she anthropamorphised them.
Despite her privilege, her life was quite lonely and she was expected to say home and care for her parents, unless marrying into the correct strata of society.
When she became engaged to her publisher Norman Warne, her parents did not approve and sadly he died of suspected leukaemia before they could wed.
Before this, she had purchased Hill Top Farm in Sawrey in the Lakes as a holiday home for them. She decided to keep hold of it and installed tenant farmers.
Through this link to the Lakes, Beatrix would meet William Heelis, who she married aged 47 and embarked on her happiest times as a farmer.
The books were her key to freedom and making her own decisions, something she had fought for her whole life.
She assisted the National Trust in buying swathes of land for conservation and also gave urban children access to the countryside way before any of us were espousing the benefits of nature.
During the war, she helped district nurses get fuel for their cars.
Beatrix had once tried to publish a paper on her studies of fungi reproduction but her sex had stopped her being taken seriously and presenting her findings to the Linnean Society, a prestigious natural history organisation.
Years later, in the 1990s, they would apologise for this slight and say she had been “treated scurvily”.
Another thing I discovered was that she had the nouse to create a Peter Rabbit toy and licence her characters for products – no authors were doing that at the time.
The exhibition has a wonderful selection of photos, drawings and artefacts, such as her farmers clog and walking stick. The latter had a little magnifying glass built into the handle so she could look at flowers and also the view close up.
There are fantastic interactive elements too, such as microscopes to look as specimens as she would have done, character clothes to dress up in and little silhouettes of mice that run across the information screens.
One of the things I took away from it was how rich her life was and how Peter Rabbit was just a relatively small part of her achievements, but intrinsically linked to all her other passions.
And not only is her literary legacy still going strong (I mean, the latest Peter Rabbit films are just awesome!), but a huge chunk of the Lake District National Park would not exist without her.
A true female icon, if ever there was one.
Beatrix Potter: Drawn To Nature is at the V&A Museum in London until Sunday 8 January 2023. Tickets are £14.
Read my feature about Beatrix Potter in the Mirror
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