I grew up on a steady diet of Beatrix Potter’s illustrated tales, reading about the antics of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny and even eating snacks off plates adorned with creatures from the British writer’s children’s books. But it was only a few years ago that I learned she had also made detailed studies of her surrounding flora and fauna. Naturalist art was actually Potter’s first focus before she turned to renderings of anthropomorphic rabbits, mice, and guinea pigs, and a book by Emily Zach, recently published by Chronicle Books, features many examples of her careful and highly accurate pictures. Collected together with preliminary sketches and finished illustrations of her more renowned animal characters, these glimpses of wildlife and landscapes from the British isles highlight how nature influenced her career even as she moved from reality into fantasy.
An archive of about 200 images, organized geographically, each one accompanied by a description, The Art of Beatrix Potter relays Potter’s life through the regions that most influenced her, from London to Scotland to Wales. (The book’s publication coincides with the 150th anniversary of the writer’s birth year.) With its smoky streets and limited greenery, Victorian London, where Potter’s family lived, was a difficult city for young Potter to find inspiration. Yet it’s where she cultivated her attention to detail early on, spending much of her time indoors — in part because of her strict parents — sketching her pets, which ranged from birds to bunnies to bats. She and her brother are known to have even dissected these creatures upon their deaths, and Potter would study their anatomies. With a keen interest in science, she also learned to create her own slides of insects and used her brother’s microscope to examine and draw studies of these preserved marvels. Living near the Natural History Museum, too, was a boon; the institution served as a major source of inspiration and education. But it was during her family’s vacations in the spring and summer, often spent outside the city in Scotland, that Potter felt the least constrained, finding in those landscapes visions unseen in the smoggy capital.
“It was in the countryside that Potter could indulge the creative and curious personality that would not fit in neatly with the image of a proper Victorian young lady,” illustrator Eleanor Taylor writes in the book’s afterword. “Free to work as she pleased, she abandoned the sentimental Victorian art training she’d received; she wasn’t one for insincerity.”
Examining Potter’s naturalist studies makes her artistic curiosity immediately clear: pencil and watercolor images of caterpillars, made when she was nine, capture the bugs with a variety of colorful patterns and hairstyles. She had observed these while in Dalguise in Scotland, also jotting down notes on their behavior on an adjacent page of her sketchbook. Potter also often drew her subjects in an array of angles, positions, and scales, exemplifying her keen attention to form: watercolors of a bat record both its belly and its back; studies of a butterfly portray the winged creature in full but also hone in on its wing patterns.
It was fungi, ultimately, that captivated Potter. She studied mycology and mentored with Charles McIntosh, a naturalist from Perthshire, who helped her develop her scientific interests and encouraged her to meet with mycologists at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. But drawing, rather than scientific research, remained her passion. Although Potter produced over 450 drawings of local fungi between 1892 and 1898, she eventually dedicated herself to storytelling. Her books quickly proved lucrative: she bought land with her royalties, gaining financial independence from her family.
Illustrations from The Roly-Poly Pudding (my personal favorite) to The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies make up much of the later pages of The Art of Beatrix Potter. The book makes clear that Potter always infused her skillful observational eye into her artworks, even as she delved further into fiction. Rabbits still pose and move as they would in reality; many of the settings in these narratives have evolved from Potter’s watercolor or pen-and-ink sketches of landscapes, architectural interiors, and buildings in towns she passed through while traveling. Her children’s tales appeal because they transform animals into endearing characters, but a large part of their magic, too, is their believability — their pages present scenes that remain faithful to the natural world.
The Art of Beatrix Potter is available through Chronicle Books.