The Art (and Legacy) of Beatrix Potter
There are books that we will always remember from our childhood—books that are read to us over and over again, their images forever imprinted on our minds. For me, one of those images is Tom Kitten being turned into a roly-poly dough and butter pudding by two large rats! (The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or The Roly-Poly Pudding by Beatrix Potter, originally published in 1908).
Children’s books have been on my mind a lot recently, as I am a new aunt and have been enjoying revisiting favorite books from my childhood with my nephew. It’s been fun to read him the books that I loved as a child, and to see them again through fresh eyes. The Art of Beatrix Potter: Sketches, Paintings, and Illustrations by Emily Zach has been a similar walk down memory lane.
Beatrix Potter began publishing children’s books in 1902 to immediate success, and The Art of Beatrix Potter is a beautiful tribute to the author—as well as a chance for fans of art and children’s books alike to look further into her work. Famous images of Peter Rabbit sit alongside rarely seen sketches that show Potter’s artistic process. Organized geographically, you can follow along the journeys she made from busy London to the quiet countryside of the Lake District and Wales.
Growing up in London, I felt the similar escape of leaving the city each summer to camp in the countryside and explore the wildlife of the regions we stayed in. My brothers and I did not draw the landscape that we played in on those trips, but our examination of the details of the wildlife and animals painted pictures in my mind that I still see to this day: running wild in the heather in Wales, collecting shells and rocks at Bognor Regis beach, and writing on rocks with chalk we had gathered at the White Cliffs of Dover. I am reminded of these connections to places I have not been in many years by following along Potter’s life journey in this book.
Each piece of artwork in the book comes with information on the landscapes, animals, and local characters that influenced Potter’s drawings. It’s delightful to see an early sketch of the Flopsy Bunnies, asleep on a head of lettuce, paired up next to the finished artwork of the cover which depicts the whole family (Benjamin Bunny, his wife Flopsy, and their large group of baby bunnies) walking towards the rubbish heap that contains said delicious lettuce.
Alongside the sweet illustrations, each story contains a moral that you cannot easily forget: as the bunnies sleep after their meal, Mr. McGregor finds them and stuffs them in a bag so he can take them home to eat them! Luckily, Benjamin and Flopsy rescue the bunnies and fill the bag with old vegetables to trick Mr. McGregor. But the fear of getting caught and eaten by someone else (like Tom Kitten, the almost roly-poly pudding) is something to watch out for in the world of Beatrix Potter. Even though the country life and farmhouse tales were unlike my busy city upbringing, and the early 1900s morality tales seemed harsh to my 1980s standards, the tales will always be a part of my childhood.
Love of nature was also a driving force in Potter’s life, and alongside her long literary career, she was an avid farmer and spent much of her later life focusing on sheep farming, land conservation, and other rural pursuits. She was an extremely accomplished naturalist, and her illustrations of fossils and fungi form part of museum collections, and were published in 1967 in Wayside & Woodland Fungi. I was not aware that Beatrix Potter had such a scientific approach to her work until now, and it helps to explain why her illustrations of plants and animals are so detailed and accurate, even when fanciful.
While Beatrix Potter has received much-deserved praise for her work as a legendary children’s book author, The Art of Beatrix Potter digs deeper into her skill as an artist and naturalist, and reminded me of many small details in her books that I had forgotten. The landscapes, the colors, and the lightness of the illustrations and watercolors still make me feel like I am there in the book, even though I am only turning the pages.
What are some of the books from your childhood that resonated so much with you that they are unforgettable? What is your favorite Beatrix Potter book? Share your thoughts in the comments.
You can find The Art of Beatrix Potter here.
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