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Beatrix Potter, 'Rowing boats in a beach, Teignmouth' © Frederick Warne

Beatrix Potter, 'Rowing boats in a beach, Teignmouth' © Frederick Warne & Co., 2006

West country colours

'The soil was red, the grass was green; and far away below in the distance they could see the red cliffs and a bit of bright blue sea. Ships with white sails sailed over the sea into the harbour of Stymouth.'
- from The Tale of Little Pig Robinson

Beatrix Potter captured the unique patchwork beauty of the south Devon countryside, its vibrant coastal towns, romantic little cottages and expansive estuaries with impressionistic brush strokes and a surprisingly bold and rather contemporary use of colour. The rich palette of the West Country inspired not only a series of exquisite watercolours but also some of Potter's most evocative writing.

Potter conceived The Tale of Little Pig Robinson (published in 1930) while on a family holiday to south Devon in 1883. The story takes place in the 'pretty little town' of 'Stymouth' - a fictional blend of Sidmouth and Teignmouth in south Devon and Lyme Regis in Dorset. Despite containing predominantly black and white line illustrations the story is one of Potter's most colourful stories.

After an 'uneventful' upbringing at Piggery Porcombe farm, Little Pig Robinson's senses are awakened on his journey to Stymouth by 'the dark blue sea', 'great white gulls', 'yellow pussy willow catkins', 'green fields', 'red ploughland', the scent of 'primroses in hundreds on the bank', daisies and buttercups and the 'warm smell of moss and grass and steaming moist red earth'. Its evocative narrative, which so vividly brings the landscape to life, makes The Tale of Little Pig Robinson one of the most substantial of the Peter Rabbit books.

Beatrix Potter, ‘Fawe Park’ © Frederick Warne

Beatrix Potter, ‘Fawe Park’ © Frederick Warne & Co., 2006

Fawe Park: The real Mr. McGregor's garden

In 1903 the Potters rented Fawe Park, a large, comfortable house in the Lake District, on the edge of Lake Derwentwater. Here, Potter was able to escape outdoors, sketching the terraced gardens that sloped down towards the lake and the beautiful fells beyond. The kitchen garden, with its greenhouses, cold frames and potting shed was a favourite retreat and inspired the setting for The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904).

When sketching backgrounds for her book illustrations Potter would often attempt to adopt the viewpoint of an animal. She drew aspects of the kitchen garden at Fawe Park that she imagined a rabbit would find appealing: a plank walk 'under a sunny red-brick wall', towering lettuces and broad bean plants. Potter used these as the backdrops for Peter and Benjamin's adventures in Mr. McGregor's garden. In an ingenious blending of reality and fantasy, she incorporated them into her narrative having made few changes. The animal characters were positioned with an expert eye, and a few recurring motifs, such as Peter's red handkerchief, were used to add a splash of colour to the greens and browns of the garden.

Potter produced meticulous preliminary studies for even the smallest and most insignificant details in her finished book illustrations. Among her sketches of the kitchen garden at Fawe Park are several drawings of onions and carnations, and an exquisite study for a potted fuchsia that appears in The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

Beatrix Potter, sketch of a wooded landscape viewed from Gwaynynog, Denbigh, 1909. Musuem no. BP.305-1994

Beatrix Potter, sketch of a wooded landscape viewed from Gwaynynog, Denbigh, 1909. Linder bequest: LB 547, BP.305-1994. © Frederick Warne & Co., 2009


Gardens neatly razed: The art of the Flopsy Bunnies

One of Potter's favourite haunts was Gwaynynog in Denbigh, the old rambling home of her uncle and aunt, Fred and Harriet Burton. In 1905, at the age of 39, Beatrix defied her parents' wishes and accepted a proposal of marriage from her editor, Norman Warne. Within a month of their engagement, Norman had died unexpectedly of pernicious anaemia (a now-treatable blood disorder). Potter fled to Gwaynynog with two pet rabbits, Josey and Mopsy, for companions.

The house features in her unfinished story of two bats, Flittermouse and Fluttermouse, who live 'amongst the dusty rafters'. However, it was the garden that inspired the setting of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, 'the prettiest kind of garden, where bright old fashioned flowers grow amongst the currant bushes'. Potter visited Gwaynynog in March 1909 while working on her illustrations for the story. Adept at sketching outdoors, she produced skilful work quickly and soon amassed enough background sketches 'to finish up the F. Bunnies without further delay.'

Beatrix Potter, ‘Sketch of Kep guarding sheep’ © Frederick Warne

Beatrix Potter, ‘Sketch of Kep guarding sheep’ © Frederick Warne & Co., 2006

Sawrey in snow

Distraught at the loss of Norman and needing to make a gesture of independence in the face of a return to the role of unmarried daughter, Potter used revenue from her book sales to purchase a property in the Lake District: Hill Top Farm in Sawrey. It was this building that provided the model for the farmhouse in The Tale of the Pie and the Patty Pan (1905), and the setting for The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907).

Although never a permanent home, Hill Top Farm in Sawrey provided frequent respite from her lonely life in London. In particular, she found it a 'refreshment' to sketch outdoors, winter was a favourite time of year, when the mountain scenery, appeared 'even more impressive' covered in snow and mist. Perhaps, too, winter was a season for reflection: 'Somehow winter seems more appropriate to the sad times, than the glorious summer weather.'

Frosty days of the long Lakeland winter often lingered into the sunnier months of March and April, when it was 'almost too hot in the sun in spite of snow on the hills'. Potter's impulsive sketches of landscapes around Sawrey made in March 1909 capture effortlessly the watery impression of sunlight on snow and the 'peculiar blue' of frost.

Preparatory sketch for book illustration for 'The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin’, early 20th century. Linder Bequest: LB 918, © Frederick Warne & Co. 2011

Preparatory sketch for book illustration for 'The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin’, early 20th century. Linder Bequest: LB 918, © Frederick Warne & Co. 2011

Beatrix Potter country: a legacy in Lakeland and beyond

‘My brother and I were born in London because my father was a lawyer there. But our descent, our interests and our joy was in the North Country.’

Beatrix Potter spent many family holidays in the Lake District exploring and sketching the wildlife and changing nuances of the British countryside. In 1905 she purchased Hill Top farm in the Cumbria village of Near Sawrey, aided by the proceeds from her first ‘little books’.

Potter went on to acquire other farms and land in the area and in 1913 she married the Hawkshead solicitor William Heelis. She spent ever less time in London and soon farming became her chief interest and occupation instead of stories and illustration. After her death in 1943, the Heelis Bequest gave over 4300 acres to the National Trust’s holdings in the Lake District. Fields, farms, cottages, houses and woodland were given on the condition that they would be preserved and the farms kept as working farms.

The legacy of Beatrix Potter has also stretched further afield than the Lake District. Many houses and estates at which Potter stayed during her lifetime have been conserved partly because of their connection to her. Many are open to the public today but some still pass silently between private owners.

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