Beatrix Potter: The Art of Illustration

Illustrated manuscript of 'The Owl and the Pussy-cat', by Beatrix Potter, about 1897. Museum no. BP.619A. © Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.

Illustrated manuscript of 'The Owl and the Pussy-cat', by Beatrix Potter, about 1897. Museum no. BP.619A. © Frederick Warne & Co.

Beatrix Potter and Edward Lear

From early childhood, Beatrix Potter was fascinated by Edward Lear's nonsense rhymes and limericks. The Owl and the Pussy-cat was a particular favourite. She copied it in several letters to children, interpreting Lear's words in her unique illustrative style. Like Lear, she understood children's delight in the sounds and meanings of words. Her language is similarly rhythmic and precise, and she, too, invented words and experimented with the limerick form.

Both Potter and Lear often wrote with a particular child in mind. She remarked that the secret to the success of The Tale of Peter Rabbit was that it was addressed to 'a real live child … not made to order'. Lear conceived his nonsense rhyme of The Owl and the Pussy-Cat as a 'picture poem' for Janet Symonds, the daughter of his friend John Addington Symonds. Four days earlier, Lear had noted in his diary, 'Their little girl is unwell - & all is sad'.

The two writers also both suffered periods of debilitating sickness, isolation and depression. Potter believed she was 'born to be a discredit' to her parents. Lear felt excluded by his epilepsy. He despised social propriety and yearned to 'giggle heartily and to hop on one leg'. To escape the constraints of polite society, they indulged their imaginations and revelled in rebellion and excess. Lear's 'old men' are impulsive and indulgent; Peter Rabbit sheds his jacket and shoes and gorges on lettuces and broad beans.

Cicely Mary Barker (1895–1973), Illustration of the Pink Fairies for Flower Fairies of the Garden, 1944. Reproduction of Flower Fairy illustrations, © The Estate of Cicely Mary Barker, 2009

Cicely Mary Barker (1895–1973), Illustration of the Pink Fairies for Flower Fairies of the Garden, 1944. Reproduction of Flower Fairy illustrations, © The Estate of Cicely Mary Barker, 2009

Beatrix Potter and Cicely Mary Barker

In the early 19th century there was a widespread enthusiasm for flower fairies. This originated in J.J. Grandville's illustrations to Les Fleurs Animées of 1847 – incited by the Narcissus, Grandville's flowers become disenchanted with their 'flower-life' and beg the Flower Fairy to permit them to live on earth as humans. From the late 19th century onwards the genre developed further in the work of Kate Greenaway and other artists, and in the 1920s it was popularised by Cicely Mary Barker, beginning with Flower Fairies of the Spring (1923). In her fascination with natural history and scientific observation Cicely Mary Barker has often been associated with Beatrix Potter. Potter also imagined 'a fairyland amongst the wild flowers, the animals, fungi, mosses, woods and streams, all the thousand objects of the countryside'.

Both artists began their careers producing designs for greetings cards manufacturers, and both were largely self-taught. Potter's lack of formal schooling preserved her originality, while Barker claimed to draw 'without any real thought or attention to artistic theories'. However, both were strongly influenced by what Potter described as the Pre-Raphaelites' 'niggling but absolutely genuine admiration for copying natural details'. Their principal concern was to explore the world of the imagination while remaining faithful to the true likeness of things. Sketching always from life, Barker produced meticulous preparatory studies of flowers and even obtained cuttings of less common varieties from Kew Gardens. Both she and Potter show a keen eye for natural beauty and a botanist's concern for scientific accuracy.

'Oakmen unloading the wagon, whilst rabbits eat', pencil & wash drawing by Beatrix Potter, 1916. © Frederick Warne & Co.

'Oakmen unloading the wagon, whilst rabbits eat', pencil & wash drawing by Beatrix Potter, 1916. © Frederick Warne & Co.

Beatrix Potter and Ernest Aris

Beatrix Potter had always illustrated her own stories but by 1916 her eyesight was beginning to fail and her hands were growing stiff. She urged her publisher to find 'some second string' to illustrate her new tale, The Oakmen.

Keen to retain the credit for the illustrations, Potter sought a commercial illustrator who would 'draw to order'. She sent pencil sketches of her designs, along with instructions, to a prolific children's illustrator, Ernest Aris (1882 - 1963). However, she was careful to conceal both the text of her story and her own identity.

In the end, copyright difficulties meant that The Oakmen was never published. Potter in any case felt that Aris was 'not quite a good enough artist'. For her, his work demonstrated 'considerable technical facility' but 'no originality'. Instead, Potter recounted the story in a picture-letter to her niece, Nancy Nicholson.

It may have been Aris's business-like approach that can account for his lack of imagination and subtlety. Indeed, he himself said that his artistic method had always been governed by a set of 'commandments'. Potter, however, refused to work to order, arguing that 'The more spontaneous the pleasure - the more happy the result'.

Maurice Sendak in front of Beatrix Potter's house, Hill Top Farm, Sawrey, Cumbria, UK. © Frederick Warne & Co

Maurice Sendak in front of Beatrix Potter's house, Hill Top Farm, Sawrey, Cumbria, UK. © Frederick Warne & Co

Beatrix Potter and Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak (1928 - 2012) was the internationally acclaimed American author and illustrator of Where The Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen. The power of his stories both to delight and disturb made him one of the most highly honoured yet controversial children’s authors and illustrators of our time. Sendak often drew on the work of earlier artists. His influences include Beatrix Potter, but also Albrecht Dürer, William Blake and Randolph Caldecott. He admired Potter’s art for its ‘beauty’, ‘poetry’ and ‘aliveness’: ‘And how she could draw! – a gift not all illustrators are endowed with.’

Sendak’s illustrations to Robert Graves’s children’s story, The Big Green Book (1962), incorporate several images by Beatrix Potter, including sketches of the bedroom she slept in at Camfield Place, the gabled roof of Bush Hall and the potting shed at Bedwell Lodge, immortalised as Mr. McGregor’s potting shed in The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It has been said that ‘No other children’s book artist has had the nerve to borrow with the abandon and playfulness of Sendak. His use of borrowed imagery is vigorous, transforming, never slavish.’

Beatrix Potter, 'A frog he would a-fishing go', 19th century. Linder Bequest LB 1040 (BP 507m) © Frederick Warne

Beatrix Potter, 'A frog he would a-fishing go', 19th century. Linder Bequest LB 1040 (BP 507m) © Frederick Warne & Co.

Beatrix Potter and Randolph Caldecott

From childhood Beatrix was an enthusiastic admirer of Randolph Caldecott’s picture books, published by George Routledge & Sons between 1878 and 1885. In her journal entries for 8 and 9 February 1884, Beatrix Potter recounts how her ‘extravagant’ father ‘went on the sly’ to the Fine Arts Gallery in London and bought ‘two small pen-and-ink sketches from Caldecott’s Frog’. Rupert Potter was a keen collector of Randolph Caldecott’s original drawings and Beatrix, sharing her father’s artistic interests, ‘bought his picture books eagerly as they came out’.

Caldecott (1846–86), along with Walter Crane (1845–1915), and Kate Greenaway (1846–1901) are generally thought of as heralding a ‘golden age’ in English children’s book illustration. Walter Crane himself recalled:

‘In those days it was usual to bracket Kate Greenaway, Randolph Caldecott & myself together as special children’s book providers …’ (letter to Isidore Spielmann, 10th April 1905)

Beatrix Potter, however, claimed that other artists ‘commonly bracketed’ with Randolph Caldecott were not on the ‘same plane at all as artist-illustrators’. Beatrix singled out Caldecott as ‘one of the greatest illustrators of all’ and wrote candidly of her ‘jealous appreciation’ of his work (letter to Jacqueline Overton, 7th April 1942).

Randolph Caldecott, 'A Frog he would a woo-ing go', 19th Century. Museum no. E.267-1899

Randolph Caldecott, 'A Frog he would a woo-ing go', 19th Century. Museum no. E.267-1899

Beatrix maintained that her ‘best’ work was ‘done in imitation of Caldecott’. This is most typically exemplified in her exquisite sequence of drawings entitled A Frog He Would A-Fishing Go. Beatrix derived her ‘disconsolate’ angler from Caldecott’s gentleman frog in his picture book, A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go, printed by Edmund Evans for George Routledge in 1883 and later for Frederick Warne in 1895. It was for this picture book that Caldecott had prepared the two pen-and-ink drawings purchased by Rupert Potter in February 1884.

Beatrix intended her drawings oA Frog He Would A-Fishing Goto be published in a similar format but instead she agreed to three pages in Ernest Nister’s Holiday annual for 1896.

The power of the line

According to his friend and biographer, Henry Blackburn (1830 - 97), Randolph Caldecott ‘delighted in shewing the power of line in drawing’, conceding that ‘the fewer the lines, the less error committed’. More recently Rodney K. Engen has paid tribute to Caldecott’s ‘economy’ and ‘supreme control’ of line and his ‘unique ability to define the gesture of an animal with the flick of a pen’.

Even before its publication in October 1902, Beatrix Potter believed she could ‘do better than Peter Rabbit’. She was eager to interest Frederick Warne & Co. in an idea for another project – a book of nursery rhymes, ‘in a style between Caldecott’s and the Baby’s Opera’. Beatrix delighted in Caldecott’s exuberant sepia pen and ink drawings, which dramatically expanded the humour and scope of his story-telling. Although Warne had insisted upon colour illustrations for The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix suggested juxtaposing colour and line drawings in a larger picture-book format:

‘Do you think everything has to be coloured now, or can one still have part in pen and ink?’

When Norman Warne, Beatrix’s publisher and fiancé, died in August 1905 she abandoned her nursery rhyme book. However, the larger format was adopted for several other books, including The Roly-Poly Pudding (1908). Keen to ‘do pen and ink better’, Beatrix applied herself to mastering what Caldecott called ‘the art of leaving out’ – the ability to evoke movement, humour and expression with a minimum of pen strokes. Her vigorous and expressive line drawings, printed in sepia in the first edition, were reproduced in black when the book was re-issued in 1926 in a small format and renamed The Tale of Samuel Whiskers

Unlike the languid, melancholy figures in Kate Greenaway’s almanacs and birthday books, Beatrix’s animals, like those of Caldecott, are full of exuberance and energy. Both Beatrix and Caldecott mastered ‘the art of leaving out’. They created depth and background with a few skilfully executed lines representing water, raindrops and river plants. Their drawings, unlike the densely decorated pages of Walter Crane’s picture books, seem to float on the page unimpeded by frames or borders.

Beatrix Potter, 'Jeremy Fisher fishing'. © Frederick Warne

Beatrix Potter, 'Jeremy Fisher fishing'. © Frederick Warne & Co.

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.’.

Randolph Caldecott, 'Study of a frog'. Museum no. E.3683-1932

Randolph Caldecott, 'Study of a frog'. Museum no. E.3683-1932

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.

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