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 Now a new museum collection and catalog of her unpublished work and memorabilia make abundantly clear that Potter's art grew out of her passion for observing nature -- from fungi and oak leaves to bats, mollusks, and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.

``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.''

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.

Peter Rabbit was her own pet. So was the hedgehog, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. So was Hunca-Munca, the mouse. Others -- like Mr. Tod, the dandified and cunning fox; Squirrel Nutkin, the impertinent character who annoyed Old Brown, the owl (her brother's pet); and the innocent but determined Jemima Puddle-Duck -- were ``types,'' but they were still drawn with careful accuracy from living models.

Beatrix Potter's small, illustrated tales have become indelibly fixed in the imagination of generation after generation. They have never been off the shelves of any British bookshop worthy of the name since they were published, and they have been translated into numerous languages from Welsh to Afrikaans, from Finnish to Spanish, from French to Icelandic -- most recently even Japanese. Her life was the subject of a masterly and touching biography by Margaret Lane published in 1946 and newly revised.

Under the detailed terms of her will, Britain's National Trust is responsible for most of the finished original paintings for her books and for Hill Top, the small farm she bought in Sawrey as her first gesture of independence in a long, timid tussle for freedom from a stiflingly middle-class parental domination. The trust is planning to open a gallery to display her paintings near Hill Top, and its much-visited house.

Leslie Linder was probably the ideal person to preserve Miss Potter's works and memorabilia. Linder was, like Potter herself, a compulsive hoarder. It is an attitude of mind that fits perfectly Potter's status as an ``observer'' rather than an ``inventor.'' Linder, no less than Potter, enjoyed keeping the detailed objects of her affection intact. She would never allow Hill Top to be changed, not even the arrangement of its china. Her will specified even the placing of Gerard's Herbal and a can dlestick.

It seems likely she would have been pleased, therefore, with the meticulous efforts of Linder and the V & A to preserve such small, things as a leaf torn from a cash book inscribed, ``Books to be kept''; a cardboard box containing some sheep wool and a pebble; and even some threads of cherry-colored twist (catalog No. 1,878). Cognoscenti, of course, will know that this last item is intimately connected with her story of ``The Tailor of Gloucester.''

What comes across above all from this new catalog is the seriousness and beauty of Beatrix Potter's natural-history paintings. She had a passion for fungi, and made lovely watercolors of them. So also of beetles and birds, bats and mollusks, oak leaves and cabbage plants, pigs and mice and frogs and ferrets: ``I must draw,'' she once said, and the evidence of this compulsion (not so different from a collector's) is richly present. But her depiction of such minutiae is never dry or academic . It stems from an amazing interest, a kind of intimate relationship between her -- a lonely, introspective, sensible child and young adult -- and the secret world of animals and nature.

The extraordinary thing, which the Linder collection rewardingly illustrates, is the way she brought into her little child-stories this love of nature without losing its realism. Her art and writing, like her character, combine a sort of toughness and a gentleness of heart. As she described herself to a city girl who came to the country during wartime looking for a job on her farm: ``I am very downright, but I get on with everybody.''

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