The naturalist in Beatrix Potter
BEATRIX POTTER was extremely accurate. She was very serious about her art. She had ample opportunity to practice it. Throughout her childhood and as a young woman she was able to observe animals at length. The daughter of a prosperous middle-class barrister and his wife, she remained sheltered and confined despite having an independent spirit. Her parents seem to have continued to think of her as a child even into her 30s. They never wanted her to marry. But if they limited their daughter socially, they seem to have been, on the whole, remarkably tolerant of her affection for nature, and of animals in particular.
She and her younger brother kept, and endlessly played with, all kinds of pets in their London home. The pets went with them on family holidays - periods of lengthy leisure in the countryside where their fascination could range more widely to include farm animals (special favorites were sheep and pigs), birds, spiders, butterflies - and even bats.
Actually it was Bertram, her brother, who specialized in bats, but she also observed and drew them with precise attention, and once began a story about two bats called ``Flittermouse and Fluttermouse'' with their ``little blinking winking eyes like small black beads.''
But when needs be, she could be as unsentimental about them as her brother. Away from home, he left her in charge of his bats, but she wrote to tell him she was finding them very difficult to feed properly. He replied: ``I suppose ... you will have to let loose [sic] the long-eared bats.... As for the other, I think it would be almost wrong to let it go, as we might never catch another of that kind again. If he cannot be kept alive as I suppose he can't, you had better kill him, & stuff him as well as you can.'' He went on to tell her to measure the bat carefully and how to stuff it - which, presumably, she did.
But there is also little doubt that animals provided Beatrix with a considerable amount of much-needed companionship. Some of her best friends were mice, rats, hedgehogs, lizards, and rabbits. Even when she was 30 she recorded in her journal one day: ``Played much with Peter Rabbit.'' This affectionate relationship of human with animal (though always tempered with realism) is one of the most endearing qualities of her children's books.
But her parents were not always a drawback. Her father liked art and took his daughter to the galleries and museums. And his friendship with the ex-Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais was a source of great interest to Beatrix (as we know from her journal). He recognized her potential as a painter and may well have encouraged her father to pay for her to have special tuition - though sometimes her teachers' ideas conflicted sharply with her own vigorously developing convictions and tastes.
Beatrix took an interest in flora as well as fauna. For example, a drawing of a bean shoot made in preparation for a background in ``The Tale of Benjamin Bunny'' shows how closely she observed plant life. Anyone who has tended a vegetable patch will know how accurate the background renderings are and appreciate the care and relish Beatrix Potter had for them.
A recent study of Potter (``Beatrix Potter 1866-1943: The Artist and Her World,'' published by F. Warne & Co. and the National Trust) includes an essay by Anne Stevenson Hobbs called ``Flora and Fauna, Fungi and Fossils.'' It explores in some length the scientific-naturalist side of Potter, which certainly deserves more attention. Her drawings of fungi were, says Ms. Hobbs, ``unusually detailed for her time, especially for an amateur.'' Beatrix's own humorous comment was: ``Now of all hopeless things to draw, I should think the very worst is a fine fat fungus.'' She made more than 300 drawings of them, fine work, sensitive in draftsmanship and coloring.
The pine cone drawing shown below gives a good idea of the exactness of form she could achieve in her paintings of small aspects of nature; possibly she felt better able to paint a pine cone than a whole pine tree - once again the ``little rubbish'' principle. ``Study of a Pine Cone'' falls somewhere between a botanical study and an independent work of art - a descendant, perhaps, of D"urer's early 16th-century watercolors of small natural details.
Potter was also influenced by some of her Victorian predecessors. One or two of her early still lifes strongly suggest her admiration for the paintings of William Henry Hunt, with their almost miniaturist delight in the intensity and texture of mosses, shells, ivy leaves, primroses, blossoms, and fruit. In her journal in 1884 she records a visit to the Potter home by Millais. While there, he looked at some pictures recently inherited from her maternal grandmother. One of them was clearly a William Henry Hunt. She must have agreed with Millais's assessment. ``He admired the Turner exceedingly, said it was most wonderful .... The Hunt's too; he said of the hawthorn, you come, put your hand into it, and how naturally the primrose grew.'' That kind of English hedgerow naturalness pervades Potter's own work, particularly in the backgrounds of her story illustrations.