A celebration of small furry creatures. Exhibit of Beatrix Potter's work shows her skill as artist and illustrator

ONLY dedicated cat lovers could possibly have anything bad to say about ``Beatrix Potter: Artist and Storyteller'' on view at the Pierpont Morgan Library here. And even then, they would have to admit that their criticism derived largely from Miss Potter's apparent inability to empathize with animals of the feline variety. Not only are her cats generally stiff and bug-eyed, they often also appear quite mad and villainous.

But then, perhaps that's understandable, considering how devoted she was to mice, rabbits, squirrels, hedgehogs, and other small furry creatures.

Literally hundreds of these friendly little animals, together with an assortment of birds, insects, and reptiles, populate this truly delightful exhibition. It was organized by Britain's National Trust, which owns many of Potter's original watercolors and drawings. Linda Lloyd Jones is the curator. The Ford Motor Company is the corporate sponsor.

For those few who might not know, Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), was the creator of Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Squirrel Nutkin, and a host of other characters that have delighted children - and more adults than might wish to admit it - from the time the books in which they appeared were first published to the present.

What even her most devoted admirers didn't generally know, however, was that she was also an avid student of natural history with a particular expertise in mushrooms.

Several of her exquisitely detailed watercolor drawings of different species of fungi, as well as microscopic drawings of spiders, beetles, and butterfly wings, hang beside her illustrations for children's books and landscape studies.

And to round off the show, its organizers have included her childhood sketchbook; her first commercially successful drawings for greeting cards; numerous letters, manuscripts, photographs, and other memorabilia, including her paint box, clogs, and hat.

Of particular interest is the illustrated letter she wrote to a young child that became the basis for ``The Tale of Peter Rabbit.'' Sold at auction and purchased by an anonymous collector several decades ago, its whereabouts remained unknown until a recent newspaper advertisement drew a response from its owner and the promise of its loan to the present exhibition.

That letter detailing the adventures of Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail was written in 1893 and transformed into book form in 1902 by Frederick Warne & Co., who eventually published all 23 of her ``little books.''

``The Tale of Peter Rabbit'' was an immediate success. Its first edition of 8,000 copies sold out instantly, and by the end of the year, 28,000 copies of the book were in print.

It was not her own favorite, however. That honor went to ``The Tailor of Gloucester,'' a story about an old tailor whose success was due to a group of mice who helped him with his work in gratitude for saving them from his cat.

She first published it privately, at her own expense, but then cooperated with her publishers in bringing it out commercially in 1903.

Potter always insisted that her books remain small and inexpensive so that children could afford them. Many began as stories or ideas written in picture letters to children. Others, like ``The Tale of Two Bad Mice'' and ``Jemima Puddle-Duck,'' were based on the animals she kept in her London home or on her Lake District farms. (One of her first pet rabbits was named Benjamin Bouncer). Since she took children seriously, she went to great pains to write simply and directly, and to find the perfect match of work and picture. Her extra efforts paid off: To date, over 65 million copies of her ``little books'' have been sold.

And small wonder, for the world she created, while never overly sweet nor stickily sentimental, nevertheless projects an aura of goodness and wholeness. In it, the tiny and helpless usually (or ultimately) win out, the simple virtues of cooperation, hospitality, and friendship are celebrated, and gentleness, love, and consideration for others are always taken for granted.

Or so it must seem to the very young, who perceive the occasional villains and other less-than-perfect characters as more naughty than evil, more mischievous than destructive.

Older readers, however, may well detect traces of cruelty and meanness in some of her animals, most particularly a number of the cats, although these negative qualities are fairly well suppressed in typical Victorian fashion.

In all, hers is a near-perfect world presented in carefully observed and exquisitely rendered detail, and in a style that combines precision and great skill with warmth, affection, and just the appropriate amount of whimsy.

At its best, what she produced was first-rate illustration - although a few of her larger watercolor landscape studies, freed as they are from the need to please young readers or to help carry a story line, do come across as charming, minor works of art.

She was most successful when fashioning small, delicately colored and precisely delineated images of animals for which she had genuine affection - rabbits and mice, in particular - which she often executed in a drybrush technique that gave her greater freedom in the rendering of such things as fur and feathers. A large number of the works in this exhibition, in fact, fall into this category.

At the Pierpont Morgan Library through Aug. 21.

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