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The tale of Beatrix Potter, artist. THE Peter Rabbit stories she wrote and illustrated have delighted several generations of children, but Potter's animals are much more than mere cartoon creatures. Now a new museum collection and catalog of her unpublished work and memorabilia make abundantly clear that Potter's art grew out of her passion for observing nature -- from fungi and oak leaves to bats, mollusks, and mice.

By Christopher AndreaeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 1985



``I can't invent -- I only copy,'' Beatrix Potter once told a friend. It is typical of the kind of matter-of-fact self-appraisal that distinguished the English painter and storyteller who presented the world with the 23 Peter Rabbit books, classics of children's bedtime reading ever since the early part of the century. Miss Potter -- or Mrs. Heelis, as she much preferred to be known after her happy-ending marriage to a country solicitor in 1913 at the age of 47 -- developed a rather prickly outspokenness about her little books. She had a way of dismissing as ``great rubbish, absolute bosh'' attempts to place her as an artist in the ranks of the ``great.'' In her secret diary (no longer secret after its code was cracked in 1958 by an engineer named Leslie Linder), she recalled with pleasure a compliment received as a young woman from Sir John Millais, the rather superior Victorian painter. ``Plenty of people,'' he told her, ``can draw, but you . . . have observation.''

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Admirers of her work are likely to dispute her claim to a lack of inventiveness. And now they have new evidence at hand, assembled by the late Mr. Linder.

Linder, whose hobby as a collector of everything and anything connected with B. P. marked him as the Potter-phile to top all Potter-philes, transcribed her enormous diary and wrote comprehensive volumes about her art and her writing.

Now Linder's collection of more than 2,000 items of Potter material, which he left to Britain in 1973, has been cataloged ``up to museum standard'' by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. One result is a small exhibit of items from the collection on view at the museum through Feb. 2. Another is a handsome book, alive with illustrations, which manages to be at the same time an orderly reference for serious future study of Beatrix Potter and a fine coffeetable book. It is titled ``Beatrix Potter: The V & A Collection'' (published by the Victoria and Albert and Frederick Warne this month in Britain and next March in America).

Compilers Joyce Irene Whalley, the current honorary secretary of the Beatrix Potter Society, and Anne Stevenson Hobbs, successor to Ms. Whalley as the ``V & A's'' curator of the Beatrix Potter Collection, have had to arrange an extraordinarily complex mass of items. Sketches, manuscripts, illustrated letters to children, unpublished paintings, first editions, and photographs mingle with fringed table mats, dried ferns, and even a damaged paintbrush with a brown handle.

The exhibition and the book make clear that all of Potter's work was firmly rooted in affectionate observation of her chosen surroundings. The inhabitants of Sawrey, the Lake District village where she lived, often saw her sketching the rolling meadows, the drystone walls, the cottages, the village shop -- and the animals. The animals, though dressed up in her books and presented as small types of human as well as animal behavior and adventure, were never cartoon creatures or soft toys animated; t hey were creatures she knew and studied.