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Cream satin waistcoat embroidered with coloured silk, Gloucester, England, UK, 1770. Museum no. 652A-1898

Cream satin waistcoat embroidered with coloured silk, Gloucester, England, UK, 1770. Museum no. 652A-1898

Many of Beatrix Potter’s stories begin ‘Once upon a time…’. The Tailor of Gloucester is unusual in that the story takes place at a specific period – ‘the time of swords and periwigs’ – between about 1735 and 1785. Beatrix went to extraordinary lengths to create an authentic setting. Passing a tailor’s shop in Chelsea one day, she deliberately tore a button off her coat and took it in to be mended so she could observe at first hand the tailor’s posture, tools and workbench.

Beatrix sought inspiration for the Mayor of Gloucester’s coat and embroidered waistcoat in the 18th-century clothes owned by her local museum, the V&A. She wrote to her publisher, Norman Warne:

'I have been delighted to find I may draw some most beautiful 18th century clothes at the South Kensington Museum. I had been looking at them for a long time in an inconvenient dark corner of the Goldsmith’s Court, but had no idea they could be taken out of the case. The clerk says I could have any article put on a table in one of the offices, which will be most convenient.’
(Letter to Norman Warne, 27th March 1903).

Her sketches are so accurate that it is possible to identify the original garments, including the mayor’s waistcoat, ‘worked with poppies and corn-flowers’, in the V&A’s collections.

In May 1903 Beatrix made many sketches of Gloucester whilst visiting friends in nearby Stroud. The street scenes in her story, particularly that of the tailor’s shop in College Court, depict actual places in the city.

Her frontispiece is an exception. Here, Beatrix based her illustration on a London street scene by William Hogarth (1697–1764). She used the painting to establish the period setting of her story, even picking out details of the gentleman’s attire (‘swords and periwigs and full-skirted coats’) in her opening sentence.

Hogarth’s original painting, Noon of 1736, is at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire and Beatrix is unlikely to have seen it. Instead, she may have come across the engraved print on one of her many visits to the ‘Art Reading Room’ at the V&A.

A gift in your will

You may not have thought of including a gift to a museum in your will, but the V&A is a charity and legacies form an important source of funding for our work. It is not just the great collectors and the wealthy who leave legacies to the V&A. Legacies of all sizes, large and small, make a real difference to what we can do and your support can help ensure that future generations enjoy the V&A as much as you have.