Thursday, September 18, 2014

Beatrix Potter and the "world of realism and romance"

 “I do not remember a time when I did not try to invent pictures and make for myself a fairyland amongst the wild flowers, the animals, fungi, mosses, woods and streams, all the thousand objects of the countryside; that pleasant, unchanging world of realism and romance, which in our northern clime is stiffened by hard weather, a tough ancestry, and the strength that comes from the hills.”
Helen Beatrix Potter was a fascinating woman. Her story is dramatized in the film Miss Potter starring Renee Zellweger, and the Public Domain Review recently ran a ripping overview of her career. At the National Trust's Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead, Cumbria (near her cherished Hill Top farmhouse), you can see her beautiful  paintings and learn about her life. Along with photos and first editions, they have original illustrations for 20 of the 23 little storybooks; more than 700 watercolors, ink drawings, and greetings cards designed by Potter; butterfly cabinets; and more. (When she died in 1943, Beatrix left 4,000 acres of land, including 15 farms, to the care of the National Trust.) Above left is a sketch of flower borders, Victoria and Albert Museum. You can peruse our Potter books here, and please enjoy the sampling of her work below.
Potter was born in London in 1866, but her summer holidays as a child were often spent in Hertfordshire, with her grandparents at Camfield Place in Essendon. She described it as "the place I love best in the world." This original illustration from the British Museum comes from The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies (1909).
Above, Jemima Puddle Duck. As The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published on 2 October 1902, Potter already had prepared The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester (her own favorite).
Potter often wrote with a particular child in mind. She remarked that the secret to the success of The Tale of Peter Rabbit was that it was addressed to "a real live child … not made to order."
Do you have a favorite Beatrix Potter character? (Right: 'Simpkin Housekeeping', c.1902. Tate Museum.) "The world of realism and romance" applies to her own work, as well as to her perception of landscape—don't you think? Below, Renee Z. as Miss Potter.


  1. Her illustrations have a charm and a (this sounds a bit nuts) plausibility that is unique. The facial expressions and the way the animals carry themselves seem natural and unforced. One could easily imagine a fox with such a look, or rabbits walking thus.
    Ms. Potter's attention to detail made her a scientific illustrator, and her drawings of fungi were aids to classifying the different kinds. She had a business sense, too, savvy enough to market coloring books and a Peter Rabbit doll.
    Thanks for highlighting this side of her talents!

  2. You sum her up so well ... I was thinking the same thing about her animal characters as I was looking at various illustrations.

  3. I had never actually heard of the movie Miss Potter, so thank you (as always) for the enlightenment! I will say that Renee Zellweger was a great casting choice, as she has quite a resemblance to the photo you posted.

  4. Molly, I wanted to love the movie, but sadly I found it more irritating than enjoyable, but I might be too much of a BP fan to judge.

    My favorite characters are The Foxy Whiskered Gentleman from Jemima Puddleduck, Mrs. Tiggywinkle, and Pigling Bland and PigWig.