I just returned from a ten day trip to the English countryside, a trip I’d been wanting to take with my son since he was just 5 yrs old. Isaac, who just turned 18 used to love the Beatrix Potter books when he was young. Together we read all 23 of her stories countless times. Somehow reading them aloud and having an inquisitive child notice nuances and details in the illustrations and stories that even I didn’t, created a very memorable permanent space in our minds.
When people refer to the world of Beatrix Potter, it’s no joke! There is an extensive family tree of animals and characters she imagined that is quite complex and sophisticated. Beatrix Potter, as most artists do, integrates layers of her own life into her drawings. After delving into this world of hers as a literary tourist these past ten days, I have a new appreciation for her talent as a powerful artist and for her creative imagination. In fact, I think we are a bit similar!
On this trip, as I retraced Beatrix’s sources of inspiration, I was reminded of the power of my own imagination as a young child.I grew up in the hills of Salinas, raised rabbits for show with the local 4-H club, had tons of pets, a horse and goats. I used to design and sew elaborate clothes for my collection of 4” tall Steiff bears (picture the Adidas sweatsuit or Gunnysack dress on the bears). I also spent hours imagining and drawing out stories about my rabbits and dogs with my closest childhood friend. Rabbit weddings, adventures, etc.
Although I was surrounded by opportunity and resources to study illustration at RISD, I didn’t. Illustration was daunting to me, and seemed too hard. After this trip, I wish I had spent a bit more time in the nature lab and given it a try. Beatrix really studied the physiology and movements of the animals, and the nature surrounding them. It was quite scientific and then she started to put clothes on them and transform them into characters full of personality. Illustration is a documentation of realistic scenes, and animals she saw around her, but coupled with her imagination became purely magical.
The photo above is taken from Gwaenynog Farm, the gardens on the family estate where Beatrix spent summers visiting her aunt and uncle. It was here that she drew and imagined The Flopsy Bunnies-it’s a great story if you haven’t read it! We were warmly welcomed here personally by Beatrix’s great great niece, Janie Smith, who graciously spent her afternoon sharing family stories with us showing us the special spots around the garden which are in the book! It was a magical experience for all of us. The drawing I’m choosing to share here is not the most beautiful part of the garden but it really shows how she brought this to life This is where Mr. Mc.Gregor was carrying what he thought were the flopsy bunnies into the kitchen to be made into pie!
Our adventure lead us to spots I had researched which inspired many of Beatrix’s drawings and illustrations, often from stories that may be more obscure to others. The shop in Gloucester where the little mice helped finish the tailor’s coat, the island in Lake District where Squirrel Nutkin tormented old brown owl, the long wall where Mr.McGregor found the soporific flopsy bunnies sleeping in the freshly cut grass in Wales.
We made our way up to Hilltop and stayed int the village of Near Sawrey, to visit the home where Beatrix spent the last thirty years of her life, surrounded my sheep, dogs, mice, dogs and rabbits which she famously brought to life for so many of us. I thought it would be touristy, but it really wasn’t. Not many people there, and we were surrounded by the rolling hills and serene lakes that she used her money to purchase in order to preserve the land. We woke up to the sound of sheep in the fields, which we could see from the window of the 300 yr old Inn we slept in. ( It happens to have been the same Inn which you can faintly see in the distance in Jemima Puddle Duck).
I came away feeling a closeness to Beatrix Potter. Her illustrations and stories enchanted my son when he was young, sparked his curiousity and touched our lives a hundred years later. For that, I am truly grateful. Also, she makes me feel like less of an oddball for imagining animals in this way.