Beatrix Potter‘s life and art combine and complement each other. From an early age, she had many interests, including natural history, mycology, archaeology, fossils and farming, but always she liked to draw and record whatever she was studying. She was born on 28 July, 1866 at No. 2, Bolton Gardens, Kensington, and her early life was typical of many Victorian children with wealthy parents. First a nanny and then a series of governesses presided over the nursery on the third floor and she recorded in her journal that this was preferable to formal schooling. It allowed her to develop her own interests without being forced into a regulation mould.
These interests began with the many animals she and her brother Bertram kept in their nursery, varying from newts, frogs, bats and a snake to the more usual rabbit Beatrix called Peter Piper. The creatures were drawn and painted exhaustively. As Beatrix grew older, her early studies were widened to include different aspects of the countryside. She could not resist what she called ‘the irresistible desire to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye … I must draw, however poor the result!‘
The best opportunities for sketching came during the family holidays. These were taken in April, two weeks at a seaside resort, and during the summer, three months in the country. At first Scotland was the choice, at Dalguise in Perthshire, but from 1882 it was mainly the Lake District. Beatrix discovered the beauty of fungi at Dalguise, learning much about them from the local postman, Charles Mclntosh. She became knowledgeable about obscure species and studied their propagation. Eventually she had over 250 drawings of fungi, over 40 of different mosses and many microscope studies of the process of germination. Her theory on this process was presented in the form of a paper ‘On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae‘ to the leading scientists of the day at a meeting of the Linnean Society, but though proved to be right in later years, it was not then considered tenable.
Beatrix Potter was one of the most iconic and influential figures of the Lake District and also a member of the Armitt almost from its founding in 1912. She was a major benefactor and on her death in 1943 she bequeathed to us her exquisite botanical drawings and watercolours, together with her personal first edition copies of her ‘little’ books. With this archive together with material from the National Trust Archive, The Frederick Warne Archive, and the Beatrix Potter Society, we have created an exhibition on her life that is guaranteed to fascinate anyone who loves the Lakes.
Between 1888 and 1898 Beatrix Potter developed a passion for the study of mycology, culminating in her research paper on the germination of macro-fungi being presented to England’s oldest natural history organization, The Linnean Society in London. The intriguing outcome of her venture into Victorian science can be discovered in ‘Image and Reality’. During this period she produced over 450 drawings and watercolours to support her research. These works have the almost unique distinction of being both scientifically accurate and beautiful works of art. She herself considered them to be amongst her best work. On her death she left her portfolios of mycological work to the Armitt and we are proud to be the custodian of her scientific legacy.
Beatrix Potter also had a strong entrepreneurial streak that lasted long after she lost interest in publishing. From 1913 she turned away from writing to take up farming in her beloved Lake District. This became her life. In the final act of this singular journey she used her great wealth to buy up large areas of the Lake District, that she believed were at risk, with the sole purpose of leaving it all to the nation through the National Trust.
‘Image and Reality’ is Beatrix Potter’s remarkable story told through her own words and images and through the great wealth of archival material held at the Armitt; it is a portrait of an extraordinarily rich life lived during a period of great social upheaval.