Published: December 4, 2012
The Tale of Peter Rabbit and other books by Beatrix Potter (1866‱943) have become classics of children’s literature and represent one of the most successful publishing enterprises in the history of the British book trade. Yet Peter Rabbit began not as a commercial publishing venture, but as a story created to entertain the child of a family friend †all told in an eight-page letter illustrated with pen-drawn vignettes.
On view through January 27 at the Morgan Library & Museum, “Beatrix Potter: The Picture Letters” explores the tale of how Beatrix Potter, a largely self-taught artist and writer, used a series of private letters to develop some of the most vividly depicted animal characters in all of children’s literature †in the process creating a wholly original artistic and literary style.
“The Picture Letters” brings together for the first time 22 letters †including the famous Peter Rabbit letter †from important American private holdings as well as from three major institutional collections: the Morgan, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University. The letters are supplemented and enhanced with more than 80 related items, including Potter’s privately printed The Tale of Peter Rabbit and other printed books, original artwork, manuscripts and early children’s toys and games inspired by Potter’s stories.
“The Morgan’s exhibition program is noted for taking visitors behind-the-scenes with artists and writers as they develop ideas and themes that will become trademarks of their finished work,” said William M. Griswold, director of The Morgan Library & Museum. “Beatrix Potter: The Picture Letters is an excellent example. The show explores the author’s deep, early interest in animals and the natural world and how she drew on this to compose her extraordinary illustrated letters †from which she later created some of the most universally beloved characters and stories in the history of children’s literature.”
By all accounts Potter had a sheltered childhood. Her closest companion was her younger brother, Bertram, with whom she shared a love of the outdoors and a fascination with natural history. Although strict in many ways, her parents allowed the children to maintain a fully stocked menagerie of animals and insects in their London home. Of the rabbits, her two favorites were Benjamin H. Bouncer and Peter Rabbit, both of whom would be immortalized in her stories.
The Potters could afford to leave town as often as they liked for extended holidays, mostly in Scotland or England’s picturesque Lake District. On these excursions Beatrix explored the countryside, studied nature and developed her talent for drawing plants and animals. Her sketchbooks contain studies of flowers, portraits of pets and her earliest attempts to draw comic animals in human garb. She formed her taste in art by visiting galleries in the company of her father, a friend of the painter John Everett Millais.
Although she had lessons in painting and drawing from private tutors, Beatrix developed her own fine drybrush technique in her watercolors of natural history subjects such as lichens, fungi and insects. The exhibition includes an imposing drawing of a spider she made with a microscope borrowed from her brother.
Also on view in the exhibition are works by illustrators and writers who influenced Potter’s artistic and literary development. Like many Victorian children, she was brought up on the books of Edward Lear, Kate Greenaway, Randolph Caldecott and other leading illustrators of that era. Her father collected Caldecott drawings, including pen and ink sketches for A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go , 1883, which would inspire one of her earliest commercial efforts, “A Frog He Would a Fishing Go.”
The exhibition also features a pen, ink and wash drawing, “Cinderella’s Coach with Rabbits.” It is one of several drawings on the subject, but this one had the greatest significance for the artist. She gave this moonlit romantic fantasy to her fiancé, Norman Warne, on the day of their engagement. Tragically, Warne died just a few months after they were engaged.
The Morgan Library & Museum is at 225 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street. For more information, 212-685-0008 or www.themorgan.org .
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