If you have ever read any of the Beatrix Potter tales, you will know that it is the beautiful, intricate illustrations that bring her stories to life.
When my daughter was born in 2009 we decided to create a Beatrix Potter themed bedroom for her and you would not believe how difficult it was to buy anything Beatrix Potter at that time! However, with much searching on the internet we eventually found a large wall mural featuring many of the main characters (right) and a lovely vintage wallpaper frieze which we found on Ebay (and came all the way from the USA). We also found a second hand collection of all the books (as a new set was quite expensive) ~ thanks to Ebay again! We spent many a bedtime, reading the stories to our daughter and many became firm favorites ~ although strangely, it was always the shorter ones that were read most often (having fallen foul of The Tale of Pigling Bland and The Tale of Ginger and Pickles which are somewhat wordy and would take forever to read!). A few years later, just as my daughter was entering her pink, butterfly phase ~ it was time to start redecorating her room. It was then, of course, that there seemed to be an explosion of Beatrix Potter merchandise on the market. We were apparently ahead of our time!
The resurgence of Potter's popularity had been slowly growing since the film ‘Miss Potter’ was released in 2006, and it continued to escalate as the 150th anniversary of the birth of Potter (1866) approached. Since then, there have been several biographies, two Peter Rabbit films, a CBBC animation series, and even a Royal Mint coin collection (to name but a few), celebrating her life and work!
Photo: Natasha Blair
Jump to 2022 and Beatrix Potter remains just as popular.
2022 actually marks the 120th anniversary of her first published book 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit'. In honour of this occasion, the V&A have paid homage to this remarkable author, illustrator, conservationist and all round, ground-breaking, entrepreneurial business women in the form of an exhibition ‘Drawn to Nature’.
The V&A have curated an absolutely charming exhibition, with many of her original paintings, letters, possessions and illustrations displayed against an imaginative and playful backdrop, accompanied by a soundtrack of bird song.
Displayed in a set of 'rooms', the exhibition takes you through her early childhood, with many of her original paintings, possessions and illustrations on display. This includes her sketchbooks, letters, original books, prototypes and collectibles. Did you know that Potter was the first author to develop and copyright a range of merchandising for her characters? This included stuffed toys (the first being her own, hand sewn Peter Rabbit doll) and a board game which she designed and developed. She later oversaw the manufacturing of teasets and developed wallpaper, handkerchiefs and stationery ~ an empire that is worth more than $500 million dollars today!
Just last week I had the opportunity to visit the exhibition and I was fascinated to see some of her early drawings and paintings from childhood. Having taught art to hundreds of children in school myself, I was amazed to see how advanced her work was for her age ~ both in level of skill and observation.
The V&A actually holds the world's largest collection of Beatrix Potter drawings, literary manuscripts, correspondence and photographs. A collection which began with a substantial bequest by Leslie Linder, who, as a super fan, collected her work for many years and who is also known for decoding Potter's secret diary. I particularly enjoyed spying the dutch edition of 'The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck' (below) with the title translation 'Het Verhaal van Kwakkel Waggel-Eend!
Throughout the exhibition it is her love of nature that absolutely shines out. She had a remarkable ability to observe and record with immense accuracy. A skill which resulted in work that was so scientifically accurate she could have easily worked in the sciences ~ if only she had not been female. Despite trying to access scientific societies of the day, her work was rejected and was not considered to be of any import. Such societies actually banned women from being members, and from attending meetings or even submitting scientific papers.
Here you can see one of the 'rooms' in the exhibition, which displays many of her scientifically accurate paintings ~ many of these are of fungi. She had a great interest in mycology and collected a broad range of specimens which she carefully observed under the microscope and recorded with great accuracy. Even today her drawings are used by scientists to inform their work.
Photo: The Costume Society
Photo: first edition - Peter Harrington Books
Her passion for painting and nature is clear to see throughout the exhibition. The culmination of these two passions in the form of her first book 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit' saw her embark on a lifetime of story telling. The success of which, made her independently wealthy, to the point where she was able to become a farmer and landowner in her beloved Lake District.
Did you know that over 45 million copies of this book alone have been sold in the last 150 years?! A copy of this first edition (right) was sold at auction for £43,400 in 2016.
If you've never read any of these little books (perfectly and deliberately designed by Potter for little hands) then why not seek out the cosy corner in the exhibition where you can sit for a while and read them!
You might even get a chance to relive some your own Beatrix Potter childhood memories!
The exhibition 'Drawn to Nature' has been running since February and continues until 8th January 2023 so if you fancy taking a peek, there's still time!
Visit https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/beatrix-potter-drawn-to-nature to book tickets.