Nearly 80 years after her death, Beatrix Potter (1866–1943) remains among the world’s most beloved and popular children’s book authors, having sold 250 million copies of books such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
But a new show dedicated to the artist at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum aims to paint a much fuller picture of her life, highlighting Potter’s work in the natural sciences, her stewardship of the English landscape, and her accomplishments as a sheep farmer, as well as her literary success.
“Her legacy can be seen in more than one way,” Annemarie Bilclough, the show’s curator, told Artnet News. “We wanted take a broad view of her achievements beyond her storybooks, because there was such a wide range.”
“Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature” is so titled because “the theme of nature underpins everything she did,” she added.
The show, which is accompanied by a gorgeously illustrated monograph published by Rizzoli, features 200 artworks, manuscripts, photographs, and other artifacts, including little-known scientific drawings. (For a time, Potter studied to be a mycologist.)
Though Potter lived until London until she was in her 40s, she grew up in a family that had a deep-seated interest in the natural world, fueling her interest in plants, animals, and the landscape. This passion is reflected even in her earliest artworks, a series of sketchbooks done when Potter was eight, nine, and 10 years old. She began formal art lessons at 12.
“She was already drawing scenes from nature, with flowers and landscapes, almost as part of homeschooling,” Bilclough said. “There is a page of caterpillars, and on the other side, she wrote notes about where they lived and what sort of things they ate and what they looked. But she finishes off mid-sentence, as if she forgot to finish her homework.”
That careful observation of living things is at the heart of “Drawn to Nature,” which is organized in partnership with the National Trust, to which Potter had left the bulk of her manuscripts and watercolors, as well as 4,000 acres of the rural Lake District in northwest England’s Cumbria region.
As a teenager, Potter began vacationing in the area, and fell in love with the picturesque countryside. In 1905, she purchased and moved into the 17th-century farm Hill Top, the first of many properties she bought in the district as part of her efforts to protect the landscape there. (Later in life, Potter actually became a prizewinning breeder of Herdwick sheep.)
Potter often based her drawings on her real-life pets. During her lifetime, she had 92 of them, including rabbits Peter Piper and Benjamin Bouncer, who became Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, perhaps her best-known characters.
Designed to appeal to Potter fans all ages, the exhibition includes interactive elements and, if you listen carefully, a cheeky soundtrack of mice scrambling in the walls, as if her characters are getting into mischief just out of view.
See more of Potter’s work below.
Beatrix Potter, The Mice at Work: Threading the Needle from The Tailor of Gloucester artwork (1902). Courtesy of Tate, London.
Beatrix Potter, illustrated letter to Noel Moore from Heath Park, Birnam, Scotland (1892). Photo courtesy Princeton University Library.
“Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature” is on view at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL, February 12, 2022–January 8, 2023.
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