Beatrix Potter: The Art of Illustration
The tales behind the pictures
Beatrix Potter’s extraordinary flair for storytelling distinguishes her from many other children’s book illustrators of the ‘golden age’ who, rather than writing their own stories, illustrated traditional fairy and folk tales, fables and nursery rhymes. Randolph Caldecott illustrated such rhymes as The House that Jack Built, Bye Baby Bunting, Ride a Cock-Horse to Banbury Crossand Sing a Song for Sixpence. A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go may be traced back to a mid-16th century work, The complaynt of Scotlande (1549).
Text and illustration are equal components in Beatrix’s stories. She paid great attention not only to the precise meanings and sounds of individual words but also to their physical appearance on the page. She composed the original version of her frog story in Dunkeld on 5 September 1893 in a picture-letter to Eric Moore, the son of her friend and former governess, Annie Moore. Although her drawings of A Frog He Would A-Fishing Go accompanied some rather unremarkable verses by Clifton Bingham in Nister’s holiday annual for 1896, Beatrix’s own version of her story reappeared in 1906 as The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, published by Frederick Warne.
Before Frederick Warne could publish The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher Beatrix had to buy back the copyright of her frog drawings from Ernest Nister. Some years later she explained,
‘I bought back Jeremy Fisher; both all the pen and ink drawings and zinc blocks … directly after Peter Rabbit was printed. They [Ernest Nister] professed to have destroyed them until I bid them up to £6, when they were promptly “found”. They evidently thought me very eccentric to make a fuss about getting them back’
(letter to Fruing Warne, 16th June 1926). After Beatrix’s death the nine zinc blocks were found wrapped in a piece of brown paper on which was written, ‘bought back, with copyright, from E. Nister & Co.’.
A mistake to fly in the face of nature
Beatrix claimed that ‘all writers for children ought to have a sufficient recognition of what things look like’. She criticised Kenneth Grahame (author of The Wind in the Willows) for describing ‘Toad’ as ‘combing his hair … A mistake to fly in the face of nature - A frog may wear goloshes; but I don’t hold with toads having beards or wigs!’ (letter to Mrs M.E. Wight, 26th June 1942).
Both Beatrix and Caldecott endowed their frogs with human emotions and habits which actually complement rather than contradict the frogs’ animal natures. Mr. Jeremy Fisher lives in a ‘little damp house’, enjoys ‘getting his feet wet’ and is ‘quite pleased’ when it rains. Caldecott’s frog is terrified of cats and escapes out of the window in a typically frog-like fashion.
In order to replicate the correct postures and physical features of animals Beatrix and Caldecott examined and sketched stuffed specimens and skeletons in their local museums. Caldecott’s home at 46 Great Russell Street was conveniently located opposite the British Museum. Beatrix’s home at 2 Bolton Gardens was closer to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. She described the museum as ‘the quietest place I know – and the most awkward’ (journal entry, Friday 20th December 1895). Beatrix also sketched her pet frog, ‘Punch’, and on one occasion presented her publisher with a live frog in a jam-jar to verify Mr. Jeremy Fisher’s yellow colouring.