Thursday, 28 July 2016

Happy birthday Beatrix Potter / VÍDEO:Miss Potter (2006) - trailer

Happy birthday Beatrix Potter: the author’s legacy 150 years on

As Peter Rabbit and friends return in a brand new tale and on Royal Mail stamps, Nicholas Tucker remembers the writer, illustrator and sheep farmer

Nicholas Tucker
Thursday 28 July 2016 06.59 BST

The only picture Beatrix Potter drew of Kitty-in-Boots. Illustration: courtesy Frederick Warne & Co and the V&A Museum

Beatrix Potter was a writer of strong contradictions. A keen business woman, the first author to license fictional characters to a range of toys and household objects still on sale today, she allowed herself to be short-changed over her royalties for years. She was an expert in natural history, boiling down animal corpses to extract their skeletons so she could understand their anatomy well enough to draw them, yet she wrote stories in which rabbits wear blue jackets and hedgehogs pinafores. A huge success, she turned her back on her literary achievements in middle age to pursue a career as a sheep-breeder.

She had a lonely home-bound childhood with parents intent on keeping her on as their companion, but she still managed to get engaged twice despite their disapproval. She lost her first fiance, Norman Warne, through his premature death and married her second, William Heelis, at 47. By then she had become as tough as the old boots she wore to sheep fairs or while working in her Lake District garden. Often seen in her oldest clothes, her resemblance to Mr McGregor, the distinctly unsmart gardener in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was sometimes remarked on locally.

My friend, the fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, claimed that in 1940 her younger sister and a friend were slapped by Potter for swinging on her gate. But with respect, I doubt this. Diana’s family and mine were living in the same Quaker commune on Lake Coniston to escape the blitz. There were many cross old ladies who resented noisy young evacuees up from the south, any one of whom could easily have been mistaken by us children for Potter.

She was certainly austere, insisting on good manners from visiting children. But the number of beautifully illustrated letters she sent to appreciative readers attests to someone with a great love for the young, albeit more easily expressed at a distance.

What remains indisputable is her genius as an author-illustrator. She insisted on a miniature format for her works. This was unpopular with bookshops, which preferred uniform sizes, but was ideal for small hands. Often using a bare minimum of words on the page, she made her illustrations play an active part in taking the story forward. She was devoted to the King James Bible, always open by her bedside, and revelled in its cadences and vocabulary. “Children like a fine word occasionally”, she wrote to her publisher. Later she insisted on retaining “scuttered” to describe the hurried movements made by an evil family of rats even though neither she nor her editor could find this term in a dictionary.
Her stories have the same toughness found in fairytales, with foolishness punished and danger never far away. But her cottage interiors, with their open fireplaces, inglenooks and vernacular furniture, provide a vision of country living at its most charming.

She helped to establish the National Trust; her wish that none of her tenants living in traditional Lake District farmhouses should be allowed to build indoor lavatories or have wireless masts is offset by her generosity in leaving to the nation large tracts of countryside.

The exhibition of her illustrations in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Mail’s special stamp set released on what would have been her 150th birthday are testament to a remarkable author and artist. And there is still one more story to come. The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, published on 1 September with illustrations by Quentin Blake, includes favourite characters, from the sinister badger Mr Todd to Peter Rabbit, now “older, slower and portlier”. It won’t just be children who want to get their hands on this final offering.

• Beatrix Potter’s London is at the V&A, London SW7, from Thursday. 

Potter had been a disciple of the land conservation and preservation ideals of her long-time friend and mentor, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, the first secretary and founding member of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. She supported the efforts of the National Trust to preserve not just the places of extraordinary beauty but also those heads of valleys and low grazing lands that would be irreparably ruined by development. She was also an authority on the traditional Lakeland crafts, period furniture and stonework. She restored and preserved the farms that she bought or managed, making sure that each farm house had in it a piece of antique Lakeland furniture. Potter was interested in preserving not only the Herdwick sheep, but also the way of life of fell farming. In 1930 the Heelises became partners with the National Trust in buying and managing the fell farms included in the large Monk Coniston Estate. The estate was composed of many farms spread over a wide area of north-western Lancashire, including the Tarn Hows. Potter was the de facto estate manager for the Trust for seven years until the National Trust could afford to buy most of the property back from her. Her stewardship of these farms earned her wide regard, but she was not without her critics, not the least of which were her contemporaries who felt she used her wealth and the position of her husband to acquire properties in advance of their being made public. She was notable in observing the problems of afforestation, preserving the intake grazing lands, and husbanding the quarries and timber on these farms. All her farms were stocked with Herdwick sheep and frequently with Galloway cattle.

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