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Beatrix Potter, scientific illustrator

June 1, 1996  |  By Robert McCracken Peck

Originally published in June 1996

At a time when many house museums have difficulty keeping their doors open, a small cottage in the English Lake District can barely manage to close its doors at all.  Hill top (Pl. VII), the two-hundred-acre farm where Beatrix Potter lived for the last thirty-eight years of her life, is so overwhelmed with visitors each summer that the National Trust, which has owned and operated the property since Potter's death in 1943, has imposed a limit of eight hundred visitors a day to avoid overcrowding.

Potter’s house Hill Top, near Sawrey, England. National Trust; photograph by the author.

To the eighty thousand visitors who traipse through the tiny cottage annually-some from as far away as Japan-Hill top represents a nostalgic return to the comforting childhood world of Jemima Puddle-Duck, Squirrel Nutkin, and the many other animals whose adventurous lives filled the pages of Potter's books.  Although it is Peter Rabbit with whom most associate the cottage and its one-time owner, Potter created Peter long before she moved to the country.  Inspired by a real rabbit of the same name, Peter Rabbit's fictional character was born in a letter Potter wrote in 1893 to the five-year old son of her friend and former German teacher, Annie Carter Moore. It was the very lack of news that inspired the extraordinary content of her letter. "My dear Noel, I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were-Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter. They lived with their mother in a sand bank under a big fir tree..."1 So enthralling was the tale that followed, and so beguiling the sketches that accompanied the text, that Noel Moore put the letter away to read again and again. Seven years later Potter asked him if she could borrow the letter, and just before Christmas 1901 The Tale of Peter Rabbit first appeared in print. The simple but endearing story of a mischievous young rabbit's adventures in a forbidden British garden brought Potter lasting literary fame. Since translated into more than a dozen languages, from Afrikaans to Japanese, it may well be the most popular children's story of all time.2

Largely overshadowed by her success as a children's writer was Potter's extraordinary talent as a wildlife artists and illustrator. Had she been born a century later her outstanding abilities might have sustained a career in natural science. Potter, however, was the product of an age when few women were taken seriously as thinkers or encouraged to engage in any activity with professional intent.3 Overlooked, ignored, or rejected by the scientific establishment of her day, Potter eventually gave up her inspired observations and renderings of the natural world in favor of the more acceptable and anthropomorphic creations for which she is now remembered. Only in recent years have her talents as a scientific illustrator begun to receive the recognition they deserve.4

Best known for the joy she has given children, Potter, ironically, had a childhood that was anything but joyful. The only daughter of an excessively strict and overly somber upper-middle-class Victorian family, she was raised by governesses in virtual isolation from the outside world. Unlike her younger brother Bertram 91872 - 1918), who provided brief companionship before being sent away to boarding school, Potter never went to school.5 Her mother, convinced that Potter had a delicate constitution, permitted her few friends, few activites, and no sports. One of the very few places in London she was allowed to visit alone as an adolescent was what is today the Natural History Museum, a few blocks from the Potters' proper but cheerless house in South Kensington, London. The only other time she was freed from the confines of her third-floor room was during the family's extended summer holidays in Scotland or in England's ruggedly beautiful Lake District. Whether in the museum or in the countryside, Nature became synonymous with freedom, so it is small wonder that throughout her life Potter focused so much of her creativity on examining the natural world.

Beginning at the age of five, Potter kept her own zoo in the nursery. The menagerie included a green frog named Punch; tow lizards, Toby and Judy; some water newts; Sally, a ring-necked snake; minnows; a dormouse named Xarifa; two house mice, Hunca Munca and Thomas Thumb, whom the butler had caught in the kitchen; birds; bats; a family of snails; guinea pigs; a hedgehog named Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle; and her favorites, a succession of rabbits that included Benjamin Bouncer and Peter, whose antics she eventually immortalized with pen and brush.6

These animals provided companionship and were the objects of her minute attention. At the age of nine she recorded the feeding habits of caterpillars in her journal. Surprised to hear her newts squeak, she studied their breathing systems to find out how they made the sound. She followed this experiment with a comparative study of the breathing system of frogs. She also recorded the hibernation patterns of her hedgehog. In her journal she deliberated on the comparative evolution of fossil plants and fungi, and noted every detail of her rabbits' behavior. Periodically she measured each of her pets, recording the statistics in a notebook. In 1888 she submitted a letter to the London Times about the habits of hawfinches.7 When her pets died, she sometimes boiled off the skin and flesh to study and sketch their bones.8

From a very early age Potter taught herself to draw by copying illustrations from books in her library. With some basic art training from her governess and mild encouragement from the Victorian portraitist Sir John Everett Millais (1829 - 1896), a family friend, she drew all the natural subjects she could find. She began with her pets, sketching them in different positions and at various distances and levels of magnification. She collected, studied, and drew shells, fossils, deer antlers, dead fish, bird eggs, flowers, spiders, caterpillars, and bats. In her diary she wrote:

It is all the same, drawing, painting, modeling, the irresistible desire to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye. Why cannot one be content to look at it/ I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result.9

And darw she did. Her pencil sketches and delicate watercolors capture everything from the microscopic scales of a butterfly's wing (see Pl V) to the sun-dappled leaves and blossoms of a water lily.

Sometime in the early 1890s Potter began to sketch the wild mushrooms and fungi she found during family holidays in Scotland., thereby creating some of her finest paintings and bringing her into contact with fellow enthusiast, Charlie McIntosh (Fig. 3), with who she formed a close friendship. McIntosh was a retired postman who had become an expert on the mosses, ferns, and fungi of Perthshire, Scotland, while walking his fifteen0mile postal route up and down the River Tay. Potter wrote in her journal that at an early age she used to ‘hop from puddle to puddle in the strides of Charlie's hob-nailed boots."10 Years later, when she became aaware of his botanical interests, she asked himto look at her drawings and give her advice. She wrote of this meeting in the autumn of 1892 with characteristic warmth, humor, and honesty:

Accordingly by appointment he came, with his soft hat, a walking stick, a little bundl, and very dirty boots, at five o'clock to the minute. He was quite painfully shy and uncouth at first, as though he was trying to swallow a muffin, and rolling his eyes about and mumbling...He was certainly pleased with my drawings, and his judgement speaking to their accuracy in minute botanical points, gave me infinitely more pleasure than that of critics who assume more, and know less, than poor Charlie. He is a perfect dragon of erudition, and not gardener's Latin either.11

For years McIntosh sent Potter fungus samples, and she sent him copies of her mushroom paintings in return.12 He taught her the importance of using binomial monenclature, rather than common names, and he advised her to pay more attention to the minute details of mushrooms, not just the colorful caps that originally captured her attention. Under his tutelage her paintings became more accurate, her language more professional, and her enthusiasm more directed.

Potter was, of course, not alone in her love of nature and talent for drawing.13 Zealous amateurs abounded, but few focused their avocation with as much dedication as Potter. An important step toward professionalizing her botanical studies was her introduction in 1896 to the authorities at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, new London. This was arranged in what she called a "sudden fit of kindness'14 by her uncle Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe (1833 - 1915), a distinguished chemist, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and the vice-chancellor of London University. Kew's director, William Thiselton-Dyer (1843 - 1928), and his assistant, George Masse (1850 - 1917), praised Potter's work and issued her a much-coveted open ticket of admission to visit the gardens.

As a result of her success at Kew, Potter threw herself into her fungus studies. In 1897 she wrote to a friend, "I have been drawing funguses very hard. I think someday they will be put in a book."15 The previous summer, while on holiday in the Lake District, she had begun to pay special attention to the way fungi grow, reproduce, and overwinter. She wrote in her journal:

It stands to reason all such as grow on fresh manure for a few weeks in the summer must have some other form to take them over the winter months... I think that all the higher fungi have probably a mould...It does not follow that all could be grown, but probably in every instance that can be got to sprout, they could with luck and patience.16

Her hunch took her farther than she, or anyone else, expected. With careful experimentation Potter discovered a way to sprout mushroom spores and subsequently raised more than forty varieties. Sketchbook in hand, she recorded the germination of many of them, in at least one case drawing the spores every six hours under six-hundred-power magnification.17 Potter was eager to share her findings with the professionals at Kew, although heruncle tried to temper her enthusiasm by warning her of the reception she might receive. "You have to discover a great deal that has been done before, before you find anything new," he cautioned.18 Nevertheless he helped her send what she called a "fishing letter" to Massee asking "for the name of a book, by way of finding out what they knew, without saying [what] I did."19 She wanted to guage Massee's knowledge of spore growth before she revealed her own.

Massee recommended the formidable twelve-volume Botanische Untersuchungen über Schimmelpilze by German authority Oscar Brefeld (1839 - 1925), a pioneer in culturing spores. Both Potter and her uncle understood German, but Brefeld's work was so complex and pedantic that Potter admitted it ‘nearly finished me."20 Her encounters with Massee seem to have convinced her that she knew at least as much as he did, and as she advanced her study of spores, he became less and less receptive.21 He feigned indifference when she showed him her germination drawings. After a particularly frustrating meeting with Massee Potter wrote to Thiselton-Dyer:

We wish very much that someone would take it [sporte germination] up at Kew to try it, if they do not believe my drawings. Mr. Massee took objection to my slides, but the things exist, and will all be done by the germans.22

On December 7, 1896, she mustered the courage to present her drawings and theories to Thiselton-Dyer himself, resulting in another dismissal. As she wrote in her jrounal:

Very dree he was, and in a great hurry. I was not shy, not at all. I had it up and down with him. His line was on the outside edge of civil...he hadn't time to look at my drawings, and referred me to the University of Cambridge. I informed him that it would all be in the books in ten years, whether or no, and departed giggling. I ought to wear blue spectacles on these occasions.23

Thiselton-Dyer was less amused and wrote a testy letter to Potter's uncle about this meeting. The letter has not survived, but Roscoe told his neice that it was "rough-spoken," "rude," and "stupid,"24 and it was evidently unpleasant enough that he refused to show it to her. "I imagine it contained advice that I should be sent to school before I began to teach other people," she conjectured in her jrounal.25 Later she wrote, "I fancy he may be something of a misogynist,"26 speculating that Thiselton-Dyer opposed her not as a scientist but as a woman.

With Roscoe's help, Potter consolidated her experiments and wrote a paper about the results entitled "On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae." (Agaricineae is an antiquated term for any fungi with gils, including many species of mushrooms and toadstools.) Potter unwittingly chose one of the most difficult challenges in the field of mycology. Spores of the agarics are much more difficult to sprout than spores of non-gill fungi. At the time only Brefeld in Germany had succeeded in germinating the agarics. Potter was the first to achieve the same success in England, despite the lack of scientific equipment and her isolation from the leading experts in the field.27

Meanwhile, challenged by Potter's achievements, Massee was making efforts to grow spores himself. When, after a string of failures, he finally succeeded in sprouting one of Potter's spores, he conceded that her experiments were more important than he had previously believed. To Potter's surprise he agreed to present her paper to the prestigious Linnean Society of London, which at the time admitted only men to its meetings. On Febraury 22, 1897, Potter wrote to McIntosh:

I have had a good deal of trouble about the paper....The thing which causes so much contradiction is that I succeeded in sprouting the mushroom spore...but it seems that no one else is admitted to have done it, and therefore no one expect my uncle and one gentleman at Kew will believe that any of my slides are right....I should be obliged if you would not mention it to anyone concerned with botany, until the paper is actually sent, because without meaning to be uncivil they are more inclined to grow the things themselves than to admit that mine are right.28

In yet another disappointment, the Linnean Society rejected the paper. Potter wrote to McIntosh that Massee told her that the paper was "‘well-received'...but they say it requires more work on it before it is printed."29 Thiselton-Dyer presided over the meeting, which, in light of his animosity toward Potter, casts suspicion over what transpired. The paper no longer exists, and its fate remains unknown. Whatever happened, Potter's discoveries found no wider audience. Ignorance, malice, or misogyny-perhaps all three-put an end to a promising project.

Exploring the relationship between algae and fungi in lichens, Potter became one of the first to discover that lichens actually consist of both algae and fungi. Unfortunately, she never published her research, and her discovery went unrecognized. Potter's journal ends without explanation on January 31, 1897, just as the project was coming to a climax.

After years of rejection Potter appears to have tired of attempting to achieve recognition in the competitive world of professional science. Instead she turned to the audience that has always appreciated her most-children. She had a knack for storytelling and an imagination made fertile by three decades of entertaining herself. She retrieved her Peter Rabbit letter, expanded the story, and illustrated it until she had a forty-two-page prototype. This she sent in the summer of 1900 to Frederick Warne and Company, England's leading children's book publisher, which returned it after several weeks with a courteous rejection. The successive, and less friendly, rejections of five other publishers convinced her that if she was ever to see Peter Rabbit in print, she would have to pay for publishing it herself.

Her first privately published edition of two hundred and fifty copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit was so popular with her young friends that she had another two hundred printed within a few months. On the urging of a family friend she then resubmitted the book to Warne and Company, which agreed to take it and has been publishing it ever since. There is no indication that Potter ever regretted her shift from fact to fiction. Perhaps in her own mind there was little difference, since many of her nature studies, then still unpublished, found new application in her children's books. Even her make-believe characters were grounded in fact, for Potter often combined the physical traits of family pets with the personalities of people she had known. So recognizable were the characters in The Fairy Caravan, her last significant book, that she published it in the United States to avoid exposing her Lake District neighbors and herself to unwelcome local publicity.30

Could McIntosh have inspired the creation of the immortal and irascible gardener Mr. McGregor/ In Potter's stories, Peter Rabbit and his siblings repeatedly come into contact with McGregor-or at least with his muddy boots. Potter's intimate contact with McIntosh's Hobnailed boots as a child no doubt helped her develop a rabbit's-eye view of the world. McIntosh's long beard looks suspiciously like McGregor's in Potter's illustrations, as does his wrinkled, weathered face, wire-rimmed eyeglasses, and deer-stalker hats.31

Then again, McIntosh's shy and quiet disposition could hardly have given rise to McGregor's foul temper. That may have been borrowed from a cantankerous gardener employed by Potter's uncle at Woodcote, surrey, where Potter often played as a little girl.32 The name itself could have been appropriated from the Mr. McGregor who was the owner of Eastwood, the Potters' rented vacation house in Scotland.33 Although many have claimed to know the identity of the real McGregor, Potter insisted that he "was no special person."34

Potter always looked upon her pets as unique personalities as well as scientific curiosities. She wrote that her snails had "such a surprising difference of charact."35 Xarifa the dormouse (also known as Poor Miss Mouse0 was ‘in many respects the sweetest little animal I ever knew.36 Rabbits she found of ‘warm volatile temperament but shallow and absurdly transparent."37 Peter was ‘an affectionate companion and quiet friend,"38 while Benjamin Bunny was "a noisy cheerful determined animal, inclined to attack strangers."39 Of dogs she wrote, "I respect dogs to a certain extent, though I don't think they are moral characters."40 Cats she found less appealing: "I don't consider cats thoroughly domesticated animals. I have twice been attacked by two which had not kittens, when trying to turn them out of the garden."41 As for the bat that belonged to her brother Bertram, she considered it "a charming little creature, quite tame and apparently happy as long as it has sufficient flies and raw meat."42 She also noted that its tail was "very useful in trapping flies."43

Potter even imbued fungi with personalities. About myxomycetes, a colorful slime mould that thrives on decayed organic matter, she wrote, "I know mixomycetes walks about, I have seen him go from one end of a log to another.44 Even more fancifully she liked to imagine that fungi ‘laugh and clap their hands, especially the little ones that grow in troops and rings amongst dead leaves in the woods."45 It was therefore a small step for Potter to move from fact to fiction. Fungi appear in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and take center stage in the unpublished sequel to The Fairy Caravan, entitled "A Walk Amongst the Funguses." Here one fungus advises another,"It is injudicious to throw nuts at things which we do not understand"46 (a not-so-subtle reference, perhaps, to her own encounters with the closed-minded botanists at Kew).

In 1905, with the money she earned from her children's tales, Potter bought Hill Top, the Cumbrian farm that now draws so many admirers. Eight years later she married William Heelis, a local solicitor, and began to savor a life of long-denied freedom. At Hill Top she wrote thirteen more books, using details of her farm and nearby villages to adorn herm make-belief world.

As a farmer, Potter relished working outdoors all day long, surrounded by the animals she loved. As the duties and pleasures of the farm overtook her, she farmed more and wrote less. She was too busy leading her own life to continue creating fictional ones. Sheep breeding and conservation became central to her, and she became the first woman elected president of the Herdwick Sheep breeder's Association, although, sadly, she did not live to assume the office.47 She willed her land-fourteen farms on four thousand acres-to the National Trust so that the open spaces and rural way of life she had championed could be preserved for future generations.48 Hill Top was opened to the public in 1946.

Potter will long be remembered for her children's tales and drawings, but there was clearly much more to her life than the twenty-nine books that bear her name. She had a creative imagination, to be sure, but as her scientific illustrations reveal, she was first of all an observer of fact. Beneath the charm and sentiment of her stories lies the skeletal framework of reality. 

Robert McCracken Peck, a fellow of teh Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, has long had an interest in the intersection of science and art.

Footnotes

 

 

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