The appeal of Beatrix Potter's book illustrations lies in the combination of romance and fantasy with a strong sense of place captured in realistic backdrops. The places she visited with her family provided endless inspiration for her imagery. The Potter family regularly travelled during the year, whether visiting relatives, exploring the seaside towns along the south or east coasts while their servants spring-cleaned in March or April, or leasing large country houses, which became their home away from London for several months in the summer.
The real Mr. McGregor's garden
In 1903 the Potters rented Fawe Park, a large villa in the Lake District by Derwentwater. Here, Potter could sketch the terraced gardens that sloped down towards the lake. The kitchen garden, with its greenhouses and potting shed was a favourite retreat and inspired the setting of Mr. McGregor's garden for The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904). Its planters, plank walk, water butts, baskets and plant pots gave Potter inspiration for hiding places as she skilfully visualised the clutter at animal level.
In 1903, while staying at Fawe Park, Potter sketched on the shore of Derwentwater near to the house. She depicted the details of the shoreline, including the rocks and trees at the water's edge and the islands on the other side of the lake. A local mystery involving red squirrels, which mysteriously appeared on St Herbert's Island during nut gathering and then just as mysteriously disappeared, inspired Potter's story of the squirrels using their tails to sail their rafts across the water.
Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle's laundry
In 1904, Potter stayed in a house further around Derwentwater from Fawe Park, called Lingholm. Both estates sit on the same lakeshore as the foot of the small fell called Cat Bells. The babbling springs that flowed out of the hillside, a doorway to one of the many mine shafts in the area and the majestic view of the Newlands Valley from the top of Cat Bells set Potter's imagination racing while planning The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. The 'real little Lucie of Newlands' to whom the story was dedicated, was Lucie Carr, daughter of the Vicar of Newlands.
The "prettiest kind of garden"
One of Potter's favourite haunts was Gwaynynog in Denbigh, North Wales, the old rambling home of her uncle and aunt, Fred and Harriet Burton. In 1905, following the unexpected death of her fiancé, Norman Warne, Potter fled for solace to Gwaynynog with two pet rabbits, Josey and Mopsy, for companions. The garden inspired the setting of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. It was "the prettiest kind of garden, where bright old fashioned flowers grow amongst the currant bushes". Potter visited Gwaynynog again in March 1909 while working on her illustrations for the story. Adept at sketching outdoors, she soon amassed enough background sketches "to finish up the F. Bunnies without further delay".
Furnishing the imagination
Potter used revenues from her book sales to purchase Hill Top, a small 17th-century Lakeland farm in Near Sawrey, Ambleside by Esthwaite Water in the Lake District. Distraught at the recent loss of her fiancé, Norman Warne, she threw herself into completing the purchase and renovating the farmhouse. Hill Top was never a permanent home, but a retreat from life in Kensington whenever she could get away. Potter furnished it in the manner of a museum, using family heirlooms and furniture from London and old oak furniture bought at local farm sales.
The hall or 'firehouse' was the heart of a Lakeland farmhouse. Potter restored Hill Top with an oak court cupboard, "a pretty dresser and some old-fashioned chairs; and a warming pan that belonged to my great-grandmother". The oak dresser and vase-splat chair in the firehouse provide an elegant backdrop to the illustration of Anna Maria running with the dough in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (1908). The house and garden also became the setting for The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907). Jemima Puddle-Duck lived in the farmyard.
Potter later bought Castle Cottage in the same village and settled there permanently in 1913 after she married William Heelis, a solicitor from Hawkshead whom she had got to know through her land purchases.
Inspired by a story about a real tailor called Mr Prichard who came home to find his work had been finished for him, The Tailor of Gloucester was Potter's favourite of her books. While many of her stories begin "Once upon a time…", The Tailor of Gloucester is unusual in being set in "the time of swords and periwigs" between about 1735 and 1785. Beatrix went to great lengths to create an authentic setting. She sketched the streets of Gloucester and the cathedral court, and, 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.
However, it was at the South Kensington Museum (later renamed the V&A) near to where she lived where Potter found inspiration for the Mayor of Gloucester's coat and embroidered waistcoat, and other sumptuously embroidered costumes in her illustrations. On 27 March 1903 she wrote to her publisher, Norman Warne:
"I have been delighted to find I may draw some most beautiful 18th century clothes at the S. Kensington Museum, I have 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."
Her sketches are so accurate that it is possible to identify the original garments in the V&A's collections, including the mayor's coat, the waistcoat, "worked with poppies and corn-flowers" – although Beatrix gave hers cherry button-holes – a blue dress coat, the leaf decorated pet en l'air worn by one of the mice, and the court coat whose pocket she sits on.
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".
Potter captured the patchwork beauty and rich palette of the south Devon countryside, its vibrant coastal towns, romantic cottages and expansive estuaries with impressionistic brush strokes and a bold use of colour. 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 1930) while on a family holiday to Cornwall in 1894. But the landscapes Potter depicted in her illustrations are those of Devon and Dorset. The story takes place in the "pretty little town of Stymouth" – a fictional blend of Sidmouth and Teignmouth in Devon and Lyme Regis in Dorset.
Despite containing predominantly black and white line illustrations, The Tale of Little Pig Robinson 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".