Leslie Linder and the Beatrix Potter collection

On his death in 1973, the scholar and collector Leslie Linder (1904 – 73) left the V&A his unrivalled personal collection of about 2,400 Beatrix Potter drawings, manuscripts and books (many of which were first editions owned by Beatrix or her family), as well as photographs by her father Rupert and a few personal effects.

But Leslie Linder was more than a collector. From around 1950, with the support of his sister, Enid, he studied and collected Beatrix Potter's work at a time when little was known of the artist. His ground-breaking books on Potter's art and writings are still in use today and remain a tribute to his scholarship. Later, he used his large collection to promote the artist's work in the UK and abroad, revealing to the world Potter's multi-faceted talent beyond her storybooks. Perhaps Linder's most significant achievement was to decipher Potter's journal, which she had written in code. When it was finally published in 1966, The Journal of Beatrix Potter was a revelation, uncovering a young woman's reflections on life and her dry sense of humour.

Leslie and Enid Linder in the garden of their home,
Leslie and Enid Linder in the garden of their home, St Just, Buckhurst Hill, polaroid photograph, unknown photographer, 1960s. Archive no. AAD/2019/5/41, given by Jack and Audrey Ladevèze. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London / Estate of Leslie Linder

Leslie Linder followed his father into the firm Coubro and Scrutton in 1922 as an engineer, becoming an expert on lifting gear for cargo loading onto ships and eventually the company's joint managing director in 1962. Like other members of his family, he was active in the work of the local Congregational church in Buckhurst Hill, Essex. From 1945, whilst restocking the children's library attached to the church, Linder rekindled his interest in the storybooks of Beatrix Potter. He came across a biography, The Tale of Beatrix Potter (1946), which inspired him to research the writer's life story. 'Almost nothing is known about it', wrote the biographer Margaret Lane, 'for the apparently sufficient reason that there is nothing to know'. As Linder's research into Potter progressed, he came to a different realisation. He discovered that from her late teenage years into her twenties, Beatrix's time was 'filled with intensive and inspired work… in fact so much that hardly a day could have gone by without some active though unconscious preparation for her work of later years when she was producing her books'. He was to discover that her illustration career began long before her storybooks were published and that she adapted some of her early artwork, which she had made as gifts for relatives, for her later book illustrations.

Toy picture with flap revealing hidden illustration, by Beatrix Potter, 1890, watercolour, pen and ink and collage on paper. Museum no. Linder Bequest BP.552. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy of Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.

Collecting Potter's art

Linder began researching the whereabouts of Potter's early artwork and founded his art collection with material in Potter's own possession at the time of her death, which went to auction in 1950. Within five years, Linder owned enough artwork to be able to compile The Art of Beatrix Potter (1955). The book is illustrated with works from his own collection along with finished illustrations to Potter's Tales, which were by then mostly in the possession of the National Trust. The Art of Beatrix Potter was the first book to reveal to the world the extent and variety of Potter's art, from the book illustrations familiar to so many, to lesser-known nature studies and landscapes, including art she had produced as a child. Published at personal financial risk with the help of William Herring, Production Manager at the publisher Frederick Warne, the book was lavishly illustrated with colour photographs taken and developed by Linder himself and therefore had a hefty price tag of 18 pounds, 10 shillings (equivalent to £500 today). This price did not discourage buyers and within six weeks the book sold out.

Guinea pigs gardening, by Beatrix Potter, January 1893, watercolour, pen and ink and pencil on paper. Museum no. Linder Bequest BP.521(a). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy of Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.

Decoding Potter's Journal

Meanwhile, Beatrix Potter's cousin, Stephanie Duke had discovered an 'extraordinary…bundle of loose sheets and exercise books in cipher-writing' in Potter's home, Castle Cottage in Near Sawrey in the Lake District. Around a dozen exercise books and other scraps remained of what turned out to be a secret journal written in code by Potter between the ages of 14 and 32. On 20 February 1952, Stephanie and her husband paid a visit to Linder at his home, 'St Just' in Buckhurst Hill, Essex. As they boarded the train home, they invited him to visit to see what he could make of the writing. Few people knew of the existence of Potter's journal, but late in life Potter had described it in a letter to her cousin, Caroline Clark, as, 'exasperating and absurd compositions … long-winded descriptions, hymns(!) and records of conversations in a kind of cipher shorthand which I am now unable to read even with a magnifying glass'. No key to the alphabet survived – Potter had used it regularly and for so long that she was able to write her compositions at speed from memory.

Photostat of a page from Beatrix Potter's journal, made by Leslie Linder
Photostat of a page from Beatrix Potter's journal, made by Leslie Linder, 1952 – 58, photocopy on paper. Archive no. AAD/1981/6/161, Enid Linder Bequest, 1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London / Estate of Leslie Linder

And so Leslie Linder began the painstaking process of trying to make sense of the code. It was a substitution alphabet which switched in characters from several alphabets, including Greek and Cyrillic, along with a few numbers. Potter occasionally abbreviated words, for example using 'gr' to refer both to her grandmother and grandfather, which made Linder's task deciphering her text more complicated. She also used numbers to express common words: the number '3' represented 'the', and much like modern text writing, Potter used the numbers '2' and '4' for words pronounced or beginning with 'two', 'to', 'too', and 'for' or 'four' respectively, so for example would write '4get' instead of 'forget' and '2gether' instead of 'together'.

Leslie Linder studying Beatrix Potter's handwritten journal
Leslie Linder studying Beatrix Potter's handwritten journal, unknown photographer, 1964, reproduced from a glass plate negative. Archive no. AAD/1981/6/243, Enid Linder Bequest, 1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London / Estate of Leslie Linder

It took Linder six years to find a way into the code. Finally, on Easter Monday, 6 April 1958, when he was almost at the point of giving up, he spotted a sentence three lines up from the bottom of one page containing the Roman numerals 'XVI' and the number '1793'. Reasoning that the number represented a date, Linder consulted an almanac and came across a historical fact that fitted. He guessed that Potter had kept some of her alphabet unchanged and deduced that a long word within the sentence containing the character 'x' sandwiched between two identical characters may represent the word 'execution'. Within six hours, he worked out the meaning of the sentence and, from this, solved much of the alphabet.

Original sentence from Beatrix Potter's journal

Handwritten version of the sentence

Sentence deciphered

Working methodically, Linder photographed pages from the journal and then enlarged them, writing his transcription out on similar sized sheets to match the original's layout line by line and leaving gaps for words he had yet to decipher. He continued to check facts and dates in encyclopedias to confirm and correct his transcription and to help verify the accuracy of his alphabet. Years later in 1966, on the centenary of Potter's birth, he finally completed the transcription and published The Journal of Beatrix Potter, which unveiled a 15-year long period of the artist's musings on art, science and life in the years before she published The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901).

Beatrix Potter’s alphabet
Beatrix Potter's alphabet, written out by Leslie Linder, 1952 – 58, pencil on paper. Archive no. AAD/1981/6/109, Enid Linder Bequest, 1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London / Estate of Leslie Linder

Potter's journal

Potter seems to have started writing her journal at least as early as 14 years old, since she went back over her earlier entries and added annotations to the effect that some were 'copied off scraps of paper, probably written about 1880'. The last full entry is dated 1897 as Potter was completing a scientific paper on fungi (now lost) and several years before she started publishing storybooks. The notebooks are now in the collections of the National Trust, to whom Potter bequeathed her estate.

Potter may have written in code to prevent her journals from being read by family or servants at home, as her observations sometimes included indiscrete anecdotes or opinions of relatives and acquaintances. Writing her journal helped develop her skills at storytelling, by allowing her space to elaborate on her experiences, introduce humour or descriptive prose and engage in flights of imagination – some of her entries were expressed to an imaginary friend named Esther. She wrote anecdotes about her favourite pets, including her rabbit Benjamin, a show-off and 'handsome rascal', but also 'an abject coward', who bolted when he saw a little wild rabbit in a cabbage patch. Her affectionate rabbit Peter, in 1896, caused her to reflect 'what may happen when Peter Rabbit stamps, which is one of the most energetic manifestations of insignificance which has come under my notice'.

The journal is a collection of memories and observations, some of them incidental facts gleaned from newspapers, or jokes overheard in conversations. It provides insight into life in Victorian London and her day-to-day irritations, such as the neighbour's regular chimney fires or battles with her mother over use of the family carriage. She expressed opinions on new fashions, such as on knickerbockers and their practicality: women should certainly wear them, she thought, when out scrambling in the countryside and, 'I shall be much surprised if within a few years a lady cannot appear in them without exciting hostile comment…a specimen about town on a bicycle did not appear so queer as might have been expected…'

Modelling in clay, by Beatrix Potter, about 1884 – 85, white clay, painted. Museum no. Linder Bequest BP.865. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy of Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.

There are glimpses into her development as an artist from her teenage years. We learn that she received formal art lessons from the age of 12 from a Miss Cameron, learning 'freehand, model, geometry, perspective and a little watercolour flower painting', but that she despised the lessons in oil painting arranged with an unidentified professional painter referred to only as 'Mrs A' – 'Of course, I shall paint just as I like when not with her...I am convinced it lies chiefly with oneself…I don't want lessons, I want practice'. On finding some white clay while on holiday in Hertfordshire in October 1884, she wrote: 'I have got something here which I have often wished for…beautiful white clay under a bit of riverbank. I wish I had found it earlier in the summer'. She wanted to use it to copy 'the raised plaques of Wedgwood. There is no doubt it is a great help in drawing to model, particularly if one knows no anatomy'. From the age of 17, she penned detailed reviews and descriptions of artworks she saw at exhibitions, such as the Royal Academy. She even mentions visiting the library at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A).

As expected from a journal, she also wrote of her family holidays and we sense the impact they had on her. During her first holiday to the Lake District, as a teenager in 1882, she described 'a series of adventures' during a walk to the nearby village of Hawkshead: 'Inquired the way three times, lost continually, alarmed by collies at every farm, stuck in stiles, chased once by cows'. She thought it a 'poor starved country'. But by 1896 she had begun to reflect on the 'ultra-romantic' nature of the same landscape, the 'largeness and silence going up into the hills' and described the tiny village of Near Sawrey as 'nearly perfect a little place as ever I lived in' – 10 years later she was to purchase her first farmhouse there called Hill Top.

On holiday she went fossil hunting, sometimes with her father, and watched the shepherds at work. She revelled in describing details such as the pleasure experienced 'watching a pair of buzzards sailing round and round over the top of Wansfell' or observing an 'ancient shepherd' react to seeing a few sheep escape his dog: 'a mere speck in the slanting sunlight down the great hillside, this aged Wordsworthian worthy, awoke the echoes with a flood of the most singularly bad language'. She experienced freedom driving a pony and trap on her own in the countryside, and once described a near-accident she had with another driver.

Potter's journal also highlights her scientific interests. The Natural History Museum (then a branch of the British Museum) opened in 1881 and Beatrix visited often to learn about fossils and insect taxonomy. She found it a frustrating place with 'nothing but labels and contrasts...without method' as well as 'the quietest place I know – and the most awkward'. The journal also includes crucial insight into an intensive period of study in fungi and spore germination, Potter's efforts to get the scientists at the Natural History Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew interested in her theories, and her preparations for an essay she had presented on her behalf at the Linnean Society in 1897 (now lost). The journal ends at this important crossroads in her life, just four years before she converted one of her illustrated letters about 'four little rabbits' into a storybook.

Polypore fungi, photographed by Beatrix Potter, 9 October 1896, Britain, albumen print. Museum no. Linder Bequest BP.357(a). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy of Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.

Researching Potter's writings

At the same time as he was deciphering Potter's journal, Linder had also begun to delve deeper into Potter's working practice as an author and illustrator, which he untangled in A History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter (1971). Curiously, although he was a skilled photographer, Linder chose to study Potter's manuscripts by replicating them in physical form, recreating their approximate look in exercise books of similar size to the original manuscripts. His copy of Potter's manuscript for The Tale of Benjamin Bunny resembled hers even down to the loose sketches taped onto the pages, and crossings out and alterations to text. In his copy of Potter's unpublished 'book of rhymes', Linder attempted to replicate her colour illustrations.

Copy of Beatrix Potter's manuscript of The Tale of Benjamin Bunny
Copy of Beatrix Potter's manuscript of The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, by Leslie Linder, about 1966, pencil and ink on paper, sellotape, in a cloth-bound exercise book. Archive no. AAD/1981/6/118, Enid Linder Bequest, 1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London / Estate of Leslie Linder

As part of his research, Linder also studied and analysed her artwork. The endpapers, pasted inside the front and back covers of Potter's books, reveal a complex publishing story not immediately apparent from the books themselves. They advertised forthcoming storybooks by subtly introducing new characters with each new design. One endpaper, used for the first time in September 1904, introduced a hedgehog character who hid her name and an unnamed guinea pig. By the next endpaper, first used in September 1907, the hedgehog was revealed to be Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, but the guinea pig disappeared to be unceremoniously replaced by a fishing frog. Such minor details reveal that a verse book was planned for 1905 but was then cancelled in favour of another storybook, The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906). The 'Amiable Guinea Pig' had to wait 12 long years before he appeared in Appley Dapply's Nursery Rhymes (1917), a smaller selection of verses – the complete book of verse was never published.

(Left to Right:) Endpaper design number 3, by Beatrix Potter, first used September 1904 for The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, Britain, watercolour and pen and ink on paper. Museum no. Linder Bequest BP.461. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy of Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.; Endpaper design number 4, by Beatrix Potter, first used September 1907 for The Tale of Tom Kitten, watercolour and pen and ink on paper. Museum no. Linder Bequest BP.462. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy of Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.

Exhibiting Potter's work

In the 1960s, anxious to show the world Potter's lesser-known art, Linder separated off a tenth of his collection (317 objects), which he named the Linder Collection and used it to promote her work in international exhibitions and at the National Book League (now Book Trust). The exhibition held at the National Book League in London in 1966, on the centenary of her birth, attracted 18,000 visitors who formed such long queues that the police had to be drafted in to control them.

Thanks to Leslie Linder's tireless scholarship and enthusiasm for collecting, we now have considerable knowledge about Beatrix Potter, her thoughts as a young woman and her development as an artist. In the words of Peter Hollindale writing in Signal in May 1999, 'Leslie Linder was the most formidable kind of amateur…a salutary model for professional academics'.

Mouse reading 'The Day's News', by Beatrix Potter, probably 1893 – 94, watercolour, pen and ink and pencil on paper. Museum no. LC 20/A/2, given by the Linder Collection. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy of Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.

Leslie Linder and the V&A

The Linder Bequest, as the foundation gift is now called, has since been joined by the Linder Collection (2020). In 1980, Enid Linder also bequeathed Leslie's working papers, known as the Linder Archive, which have since been supplemented by the Leslie Linder Papers (2019 and 2021), given by Jack and Audrey Ladevèze.



Header image:

(Detail) Guinea pigs gardening, by Beatrix Potter, January 1893, watercolour, pen and ink and pencil on paper. Museum no. Linder Bequest BP.521(a). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy of Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.