‘I will do something sooner or later,’ wrote Beatrix Potter in the secret diary she kept in a private code. It was March 1883 and 16-year-old Potter, still mostly confined to the nursery of her parents’ house in South Kensington, had made a second visit to the Winter Exhibition of old masters at the Royal Academy. She did not identify the ‘something’ she had in mind, but it almost certainly referred to art. Although a painting by Angelica Kauffman stiffened her resolve and bolstered her confidence, the statement was one of intent above conviction. ‘It shows what a woman has done,’ she reassured herself. By the end of the decade she had made good her promise: her first Christmas card designs were published by Hildesheimer & Faulkner in 1890; in the same year her illustrations to doggerel by Frederic Weatherly marked her first sortie into print. In both cases the subjects of Potter’s art were rabbits.
Rabbits overwhelm the posthumous reputation of Beatrix Potter, who was born 150 years ago next year. The astonishing, instantaneous success of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, published in 1902, encouraged publishers Frederick Warne & Co. to describe her as ‘Author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, &c’ on the title page of subsequent stories. Then, as now, the epithet stuck. Potter stood her rabbits on two legs, she provided them with clothes, handkerchiefs, teapots and, in the case of old Mr Bunny, a sharp little switch, but unlike earlier illustrators she insisted that they remain rabbits, her chief focus anatomies that were very different from the human figure (which she never fully mastered). Like Jane Austen, whom she admired, Potter confined herself to a narrow canvas. Although privately she sometimes tired of rabbits, she remained loyal on the printed page. As in the animal paintings of Landseer, albeit Potter’s work as storybook illustration lacked Landseer’s instinct to grandeur, her vision of English wildlife included both heroism and poetry. ‘Everything was romantic in my imagination,’ Potter once wrote. In the many hundreds of watercolour paintings she completed before her eyesight began to worsen in middle age, she balanced romance with an unaffected sincerity born of her lifelong excitement in the natural world.
Much of Potter’s art has a narrative quality — appropriately, given how many of her paintings (whatever their original purpose) ultimately illustrated her stories for children. Towards the end of her life she suggested that the impulses to paint and to write were coeval: ‘I do not remember a time when I did not try to invent pictures and make fairy-tales — amongst the wild flowers, the animals, trees and mosses and fungi — all the thousand common objects of the countryside.’ The measure of the best of her paintings is their impact when viewed without their familiar accompanying text. Potter is unusual among British artists and illustrators in the perennial popularity of her work and enduring critical acknowledgment of its value. ‘We have no hesitation in calling her pencil perfect,’ wrote the Times Literary Supplement in 1904. In 1918, reviewing The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse, the Bookman suggested, ‘the pictures are among the very best Miss Potter has done …[She] need not worry about rivals.’ Few subsequent commentators have disagreed. Potter’s tales have sold tens of millions of copies and her painting continues to be regarded as an adjunct of her writing.
Both of Beatrix Potter’s parents sketched and drew. Although her barrister father Rupert never painted, as a young woman in the 1850s her mother Helen Leech produced agreeably ladylike watercolour landscapes. Beatrix herself was taught drawing and painting in oils and watercolour. The last proved her preferred medium. Her earliest mature paintings used a dry-brush technique of miniaturist precision.
Over time her mastery of colour washes increased and her style became more fluid and fluent. Pen-and-ink and wash served her well: there is also a limpid quality to many of her depictions of landscape. The Newlands Valley backdrops in The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle are ethereal to the point of stylisation, gossamer-pleated hills like butterfly wings, a vision of the sublime akin to that of the Romantic poets who shared her attachment to the Lake District. In addition, her paintings of nature betray that quality of observation that family friend John Everett Millais identified in Beatrix as a young child.
As a young woman Beatrix Potter admired Raphael’s use of colour, which she described as ‘wonderful, clear, transparent and brilliant, yet soft and gentle’. It was a quality to which she aspired in her own work, in paintings of rodents and well-dressed newts, as well as microscopically detailed studies of ticks and careful botanical images of fungi. Anxiously she identified that she was in danger of an excessively brown vision (hence Benjamin Bunny’s red handkerchief and her fondness for deadlier sorts of toadstool). It was a pitfall she triumphantly avoided.
Matthew Dennison’s biography of Beatrix Potter will be published by Head of Zeus in 2016.