Graham Greene in his ground-breaking essay on Beatrix Potter published in 1933 writes of ‘her great comedies’, her ‘great near-tragedies’ and ‘her Tempest’ (Little Pig Robinson). He calls Peter Rabbit and his cousin Benjamin ‘two epic personalities’ and invokes Dickens, Forster, Cervantes, Rabelais and Henry James as well as Shakespeare. He gets some of his dates wrong, underrates The Tailor of Gloucester, quite unaccountably dismisses The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher as a failure, but considers Samuel Whiskers (The Roly-Poly Pudding) her masterpiece, and characteristically revels in her ‘dark period’ and her ‘gallery of scoundrels’, among whom he rather unfairly includes Mrs Tittlemouse’s muddy-footed neighbour, Mr Jackson the toad (‘No teeth, no teeth, no teeth!’). The essay, which is perhaps only partly, if at all, ironic, ignores Potter’s illustrations almost entirely and concentrates especially on her literary qualities, the ‘elusive style’, the ‘creation of atmosphere with still-life’, ‘those brief pregnant sentences, which have slipped, like proverbs, into common speech’.
This exhibition does the opposite, though Ian Dejardin, the new director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, points out in his Foreword to Anne Stevenson Hobbs’s splendid catalogue that of all the illustrators who have written their own texts, ‘only Potter is as famous for her words as for her images’.
The illustrations to the 21 Tales — or 23, if you count the two books of nursery rhymes — are, of course, at the heart of the exhibition, but they are surrounded by a wealth of the material which went to create that unforgettable alternative world of small English creatures and their settings. Here are the early drawings — mostly watercolour and/or pen-and-ink — of mice, bats, rabbits, squirrels, birds, spiders, moths, fish, frogs, fungi and even fossils in which she honed her skills of close observation and meticulously detailed depiction during her teens and twenties. Some of the drawings, such as the wing scales of a moth, a hairy black jumping spider (seemingly huge) and a study of the dorsal and lateral views of a freshwater planktonic copepod, were made, when Potter was about 20, from observations through a microscope. One is reminded of the tailor of Gloucester’s buttonholes: ‘the stitches of those buttonholes were so small — so small — they looked as if they had been made by little mice!’
Here also are drawings of wild flowers, market scenes, landscapes, streets, gardens, buildings and their interiors, which would feed into the scenery of her Tales. A fearsomely cool drawing of the wolf confronting Red Riding Hood from behind a stone stile up a flight of steps — an illustration for Perrault’s fairytales — looks forward to her ‘dark period’, when Mr Tod smashes up one of his own houses in a fight with Mr Brock, while the rabbits cower in a tunnel underneath, and ‘the gentleman with sandy whiskers’ ushers silly Jemima Puddleduck into his woodshed filled with feathers. Mrs Tiggywinkle’s uncle, wearing nothing but a pair of blue and white shoes and sitting amiably under a bush, has a portrait to himself and so does an early version of Jeremy Fisher, fishing from his lily-pad under an umbrella in a particularly beautiful Art Nouveau composition.
Potter’s earliest published works were greetings cards showing rabbits and guinea pigs wearing clothes and walking on two legs, but six publishers turned down her first ‘little book’, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and she began by publishing 250 copies herself, with black-and-white illustrations. Nine months later, in October 1902, Frederick Warne — still her publisher and co-publisher of the exhibition catalogue — brought out 8,000 copies with coloured illustrations and her great series of Tales was launched, ending brilliantly with Johnny Town-Mouse in 1918 and adding a disappointing coda (pace Greene’s reference to The Tempest) with the unusually long and tedious Little Pig Robinson (an early work resuscitated) in 1930.
In the classic Tales of those 16 years a century ago, her genius (Greene’s well-deserved accolade) is always perfectly balanced between the text and the picture. Indeed it leaps from side to side of the double page, so that the picture does not just illustrate what the text says, but adds details to the story: Old Brown the owl, for instance, folding his claws tightly round the squirrels’ offering of fat mice as he closes his eyes and ‘pays no attention whatever’ to the ‘excessively impertinent manners’ of the show-off Squirrel Nutkin.
Potter lends these absolutely realistic creatures our clothes, our two-legged status (though in fear or haste they easily revert to going on four), our domestic equipment and ability to use it (watch Mrs Tiggywinkle ironing or Jeremy Fisher punting his lily-pad), but above all our language and consequent self-consciousness; and in the process, very gently, subtly, laconically, without being didactic or sentimental, introduces us for the first time in our lives not only to the infinite pleasures of art, drama and narrative, but also to ourselves as both individual and social beings.