Beatrix Potter is known to almost every parent, but not as well known as her most famous creation, Peter Rabbit. In Marta McDowell’s new book Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: the plants and places that inspired the classic children’s tales (Timber Press $24.95) we meet Peter’s progenitor. In 1890, the 24 year old Beatrix bought Benjamin Bouncer at a pet shop and used him as the model for Peter for some paintings that she sold. That was the beginning of a career that she never imagined, and that her parents never wanted for her. This charming book, illustrated with historic photographs, Beatrix’s paintings, and photos of her world as they are now, lets us follow her from the enclosed gardens of London parks, to the holiday estates of her youth and finally to the farms where she spent the last 30 years of her life.
The simple, delicately illustrated stories that Potter wrote do not suggest to readers today that they were conceived by an independent woman who became a passionate naturalist, a successful business woman and a conservationist who left thousands of acres of land in the Lake District to the newly founded National Trust.
Beatrix Potter was the quintessential shy Victorian daughter whose life was ruled by her parents. She was educated at home and her social circle was limited to relatives and family friends. Still she enjoyed her life and the gardens of London the were near her home, and country visits to the Lake County and to Scotland. She loved plants and flowers; with her younger brother Bertram she often had a menagerie of animals going.
Her love of nature led her to a serious study of mycology – mushrooms. Her uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe who was knighted for his contributions to chemistry, took her to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to work, but although she was finally allowed to visit and study in the gardens, her insights and theories were ignored. She was a spinster, and an amateur. She could not possibly have anything to offer the scientific world. Her mycological and scientific work now resides at the Ambleside Museum in the Lake District. Her mentor, Charlie McIntosh, gave his collection of her work to the Perth Museum and Art Gallery in Scotland. Her paintings and drawings are so accurate and well identified they are useful today to those studying fungi.
McDowell carries us along on brief tale of the events of her life, but her focus is on descriptions of the landscapes and gardens that were a part of her early life, and her later life as a farmer. Part Two: The Year in Beatrix Potter’s Gardens takes us on a charming tour of the gardens she created at Hill Top Farm and Castle Cottage listing plants in their season, as well as garden schemes and designs. What makes this book especially enjoyable is the use of Beatrix’s own words, from her letters and other sources.
Part Three: Visiting Beatrix Potter’s Gardens is a guide book that will give tourists the information they need to visit the gardens and landscapes of Beatrix Potter’s youth, as well the gardens she made in her maturity with her husband William Heelis. Again, this section is illustrated with wonderful and useful contemporary photos, and Potter’s illustrations of those scenes as she captured them so long ago.
This is a beautiful book that gives a strong sense of the strong and practical woman that Beatrix Potter was. Nearly every page has a photograph or delicate painting from one of her books.
Five years ago I read the excellent biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature written by Linda Lear (St. Martin’s Press. It was there I first learned about her scholarship, the difficulties of her life with her parents, and the tragedy of the death of her fiancé, Norman Warne. It gave me such a different view of the kind of woman who would have told those stories of mischievous animals, illustrated them with such charming paintings, and insisted on the small size of the books for small hands.
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life is a visual feast and McDowell skillfully takes us through her life, only lingering with detail in the garden and the way they were transformed in her books. It also led me to the Beatrix Potter Society in England. It turns out 2013 is the 100th Anniversary of The Tale of Pigling Bland, a tale of adventure and romance, as well as the 100th Anniversary of Potter’s marriage to William Heelis. The Society has turned this occasion into a special event and an exhibit that includes parallels between these two events. I am happy to think that her own life, like her little books, had 30 years of happily ever aftering with Mr. Heelis. ###
Between the Rows November 30, 2013
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