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Beatrix Potter, Design for the back cover of 'Peter Rabbit's Painting Book', 1911. Museum no. BP.1103IV

Beatrix Potter, design for the back cover of 'Peter Rabbit's Painting Book', 1911. Museum no. BP.1103IV, © Frederick Warne & Co., Ltd.

Beatrix as book designer

Beatrix Potter showed an avid interest in the design of her books. Her proposals for title pages, endpapers, covers and bindings reveal an expert understanding of how books were put together. She was also involved in print production, carefully inspecting proofs and even recommending the most suitable method of colour printing. The correspondence between Potter and her editor and friend Norman Warne, provides a fascinating insight into a close and frank working relationship. Warne had great respect for Potter's extraordinary talents as an illustrator and writer, and encouraged her involvement at every stage of production.

Covers and title pages
Potter maintained that a book's cover and title page should be 'strong and distinct', to contrast with the more 'restful' endpapers. The covers usually depict colour vignettes of the protagonists. In the case of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, Warne approved Potter's initial drawing but suggested that the prancing squirrel be contained with a circle. With just one exception, her original title pages feature bold, black-and-white wood-engraved motifs. She would produce several variant designs until she was completely satisfied with the result.

Potter preferred plain endpapers, 'to rest the eye between the cover and the contents of the book, like a plain mount for a framed drawing'. In 1903, however, Frederick Warne decided to create a more colourful look for her increasing series of little books. He asked Potter to design a pictorial endpaper that featured a selection of characters from across the different stories. She produced a finished design featuring Old Brown, Squirrel Nutkin, Peter Rabbit and mice from The Tailor of Gloucester. She pointed out that it 'may look rather heavy for so small a book' but eventually conceded that it would be alright if 'kept rather small or rather light coloured'.

Potter had 'got into a perplexity' when designing these endpapers. She thought Warne wanted a black-and-white line-block design, so produced a drawing in pen and ink. In fact, Warne wanted a colour design printed using the three-colour process. Potter was annoyed:

'I will do whatever sort you wish but one ought to know, because it is useless to do anything in fine pen and ink for half-tone process; it cuts up the line, and there would be the tone all over the paper'.

In 2002, Frederick Warne (by now an imprint of Penguin Books) issued a new edition of the Original Peter Rabbit Books with plain, pale-blue endpapers in keeping with what Potter herself originally specified.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Potter was both a distinguished illustrator and a storyteller. Text and illustrations were equally important components of her stories from the outset. Her concern with the interdependence of text and image can be seen in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. Each opening consists of a page of text paralleled by a full-page illustration. When preparing the story for publication, Potter created a dummy manuscript so she could establish exactly, page by page, how the text and the pictures should correspond.

The story of Squirrel Nutkin, like many of Potter's tales, first appeared in a letter to a child, this one written to Norah Moore on 25th September 1901. Potter copied both the letter's text and illustrations when preparing the story for publication.

Warne issued The Tale of Peter Rabbit in two editions, a paper-covered one selling at 1s and a cloth-bound one at 1s 6d. However, Potter thought 'there was not sufficient difference between the two styles of bindings' and that 'If the cloth binding had been more distinctly different, and pretty, there might have been more inducement to buy it'.

For The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin Potter chose a special deluxe cloth binding, with a 'flowered lavender chintz' from her grandfather's calico printing works in Manchester. Predicting that the lettering might not show on a fancy cloth, she had the title and her name printed in gold on vellum labels.

Colour printing
The forms of colour printing that dominated in children's books in the late-19th-century were colour wood engraving and chromolithography. Potter, however, preferred the recently introduced three-colour, half-tone process. It was more expensive but Warne agreed it would 'give the most artistic result'.
Warne employed Hentschel to prepare the zinc printing blocks for The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. Potter inspected the proofs with an expert eye - she approved the blocks but not Hentschel's printing of them:

'I notice one page of proofs is all too green, another all too red, etc., so I think it is clearly the printer's fault. The blocks seem very fine in themselves and register all right'.
Eventually, a superior printer, Edmund Evans, undertook the final printing of the book using Hentschel's blocks.

Peter Rabbit jigsaw, about 1930, © F. Warne

Peter Rabbit jigsaw, about 1930, © F. Warne

Beatrix Potter, 'Peter Rabbit's Race Game' showing the top of the lid, Made by Frederick Warne, c.1930, Museum no. MISC.41-1977

'Peter Rabbit's Race Game' showing the top of the lid, made by Frederick Warne & Co Ltd., c.1930, Museum no. MISC.41-1977

Beatrix Potter, ‘Peter Rabbit’s Race Game’ © Frederick Warne

'Peter Rabbit's Race Game' showing the game board, made by Frederick Warne & Co Ltd., c.1930, Museum no. MISC.41-1977

All the little side shows

Beatrix Potter was the first fully to exploit the merchandise possibilities of fiction. Peter Rabbit became a popular culture phenomenon twenty-five years before Walt Disney conceived his screen icon, Mickey Mouse. Today, The Tale of Peter Rabbit remains one of the best-selling children's classics of all time and The World of Beatrix Potter™, initiated by Beatrix herself in 1903, is one of the world's largest international literature-based licensing programmes.

Peter Rabbit was the preferred choice for merchandise from the outset. By December 1903, Warne had published its sixth edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit in just over a year. Encouraged by the book's success, Beatrix began making a Peter Rabbit doll for the niece of her publisher, Norman Warne:

'I am cutting out calico patterns of Peter, I have not got it right yet, but the expression is going to be lovely; especially the whiskers - (pulled out of a brush!)' (Letter to Norman Warne, 10 December 1903)

In 1902, Beatrix had omitted to secure the copyright of The Tale of Peter Rabbit in the United States. The ensuing loss of royalties had taught her a valuable lesson: she photographed her finished Peter Rabbit doll and registered it immediately at the Patent Office. The following year Beatrix presented Norman with a design for a Peter Rabbit game:

'I have written the rules at some length, (to prevent arguments!) but it is very simple, & the chances are strongly in favour of Peter.' (Letter to Norman Warne, 7 December 1904)

As the series of Peter Rabbit books extended so too did the character-base for merchandise, referred to by Beatrix Potter as her 'little side shows'. Benjamin Bunny, Jemima Puddle-duck and Tom Kitten soon appeared beside Peter Rabbit in painting books and on calendars, handkerchiefs, jigsaw puzzles, slippers, stationery, tea-sets and wallpaper.

Beatrix pursued her merchandise interests long after failing eyesight forced her to relinquish illustrating children's books. Never short of ideas, Beatrix monitored every stage of product design, her principal concern always to remain faithful to her original book illustrations. Even today, whether Peter Rabbit promotes Barbie dolls, Konica cameras or Japanese mayonnaise, the 450 licensees worldwide continue to uphold Beatrix's original intentions.

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