Beatrix Potter is known for her imaginative children's stories but in her journal she wrote: 'I can’t invent: I only copy'. The appeal of Potter's book illustrations lies partly in the combination of romance and fantasy with her attention to minute detail and the strong sense of place captured in realistic landscape backdrops. The artist was inclined to sketch anything, from the most mundane everyday objects: "I caught myself in the back yard making a careful and admiring copy of the swill bucket, and the laugh it gave me brought me round to majestic landscapes". (1884)
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.
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 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 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 tale 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.
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 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 had an extraordinary ability to view the world from an animal's point of view – the narrow path, low box hedges and towering pink flowers make a perfect rabbit-sized backdrop for the adventures of the Flopsy Bunnies.
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.
One of Potter's favourite haunts was Gwaynynog in Denbigh, the old rambling home of her uncle and aunt, Fred and Harriet Burton. Beatrix's uncle spent some of his large cotton fortune on collecting 18th-century mahogany furniture that would enhance the house's original oak furnishings. His 'perfect taste' inspired Potter's own passion for antiques, while the narrow passageways and oak-panelled rooms were among her favourite places to sketch and study furniture. The house features in her unfinished story of two bats, Flittermouse and Fluttermouse, who live 'amongst the dusty rafters'.
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, "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 produced skilful work quickly and soon amassed enough background sketches 'to finish up the F. Bunnies without further delay'.
Furnishing the imagination
Distraught at the loss of her fiancé and needing independence on her return to the role of unmarried daughter, Potter used revenue from her book sales to purchase Hill Top, a small 17th-century Lakeland farmhouse in Sawrey. This building 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).
Hill Top was never a permanent home. Instead, Potter furnished it in the manner of a museum, using family furniture from London and old oak furniture bought at local farm sales. She arranged each room as a stage on which to play out the stories in her imagination.
The kitchen or 'firehouse' was the heart of a Lakeland farmhouse. Potter restored Hill Top's 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 Potter's illustration of Anna Maria in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers.
Snow in Sawrey
Although never a permanent home, Hill Top Farm in Sawrey provided frequent respite from Beatrix's 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.
The Tailor of Gloucester
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 [later renamed the V&A]. 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.
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, like 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.