Between naturalism and fantasy: the art of Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter, Dinner in Mouseland, 1890-1895 / Beatrix Potter Gallery

The wildly imaginative works of Beatrix Potter have entertained readers for decades. But is there more to her work than kittens in pinafores and toads in dinner jackets? Our extensive collection of her illustrations, unpublished sketches and personal letters reveal a lifelong affinity for the natural world as well as for anthropomorphic fantasy.

Lessons from nature

Beatrix Potter was fascinated by the natural world from an early age. With her younger brother Bertram, she kept a menagerie of animals in the nursery - at various times they kept rabbits, mice, lizards, a bat, a frog and a snake. The children studied their pets' behaviour, and Beatrix made many detailed drawings of them in a homemade sketchbook.

Beatrix Potter's study of her pet rabbit, 1898.This 'real' rabbit, called Peter Piper, was the namesake of the beloved fictional character. / NT 242725
Pencil study of Beatrix Potter's pet rabbit

Whilst Bertram was sent to boarding school, Beatrix was kept at home where she was educated by a series of governesses. She was instructed in drawing and painting and, in conjunction with trips to the Museum of Natural History, was encouraged to study and sketch animals. Separated from her brother and isolated from other children her age, she found solace and inspiration in the natural world.

At the age of 15 Beatrix received her Art Student's Certificate from the Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education. Although her early drawings show a certain stiffness of composition, she earned praise from the pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais for her skills in drawing and observation.

" Plenty of people can draw, but you ... have observation."
- Sir John Everett Millais to Beatrix Potter

Happily, Beatrix and Bertram were reunited for three months during the summer holidays. Each year, the Potter family (including Beatrix's pets) would pack up and move to the country, typically in Scotland or the English Lake District. These holidays provided Beatrix with an inexhaustible supply of natural objects to study and draw.

Beatrix became particularly interested in mushrooms and toadstools, and from the late 1880s to the turn of the century she produced hundreds of finely detailed and botanically correct drawings of fungi.

Beatrix Potter, Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), 1890. She later remarked that the botanical studies she made in her youth underpinned her more fanciful drawings. / NT 242757
Beatrix Potter, Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), 1890 / Beatrix Potter Gallery

Her watercolour study of Fly Agaric, perhaps the most iconic of British fungi, demonstrates her talent for botanical illustration. The study shows the distinctive red cap with white spots and ridged underside. But this is not a specimen drawn in isolation. Beatrix has convincingly depicted the fungus in a naturalistic setting amidst ferns, ivy, beech leaves, mosses and lichen.

This naturalism did not come at the expense of imagination. For Beatrix, the countryside was also magical. She later wrote, 'the whole countryside belonged to the fairies'. As she would later show in her art, realism and fantasy could happily coexist.
 

" I remember I used to half believe and wholly play with fairies when I was a child. What heaven can be more real than to retain the spirit-world of childhood, tempered and balanced by knowledge and common-sense..."
- Beatrix Potter, 17 November 1896

This balance of the spirit-world and scientific knowledge, of imagination and reality is evident throughout her illustrations and story books, where an exacting observation of the natural world provides the foundation for anthropomorphic fantasy. Her meticulous drawings of fungi, ferns and mosses lend themselves to an exploration of a tiny world that mirrors human life. In Dinner in Mouseland for instance, a flawlessly sketched mouse - drawn with the eye of an investigative scientist - joins his family for dinner wearing top hat and tails in a most convivial domestic scene.

Dinner in Mouseland, 1890-1895. Beatrix made this drawing in pencil, ink and watercolour using the grisaille technique. / NT 242737
Beatrix Potter, Dinner in Mouseland, 1890-1895 / Beatrix Potter Gallery

From picture letters to illustrated books

As a young adult, Beatrix developed a friendship with Annie Moore (née Carter), her former governess. Beatrix would visit Annie's children, often accompanied by her pet mice or rabbit; when she went on holiday, she would send them letters with amusing anecdotes. These letters were often illustrated with pen and ink sketches, recounting stories when there was no news to tell. Some of Beatrix’s earliest books originate in the stories first told and pictured in letters to the Moore children.

Beatrix Potter's copy of her 1893 letter to Noel Moore: 'I don't know what to write about so I shall tell you a story of 4 little rabbits, whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter' / NT 242253
Copy made by Beatrix of the original Peter Rabbit story letter that she wrote to Noel Moore from Eastwood, Dunkeld, 4 September 1893


When the eldest of the Moore children, Noel, fell ill with scarlet fever in 1893, Beatrix sent him a letter describing the adventures of a naughty rabbit named Peter. Beatrix later had the idea of turning this story into a book. When the story, with its black and white illustrations, was rejected by six publishers, she decided to print it privately. An edition of 250 copies was issued in December 1901, and proved so successful that a further 200 copies were issued in February 1902.

Frederick Warne & Company ultimately reconsidered, and on the condition that Beatrix provide colour illustrations, a commercial edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in October 1902. It was an immediate success, selling 50,000 copies in just over a year. Since that time, it has never been out of print. 

While Beatrix honed her business acumen (she played a critical role in the production and promotion of her books), she remained a steadfast observer of the physical world, amassing many studies and sketches of her natural surroundings. These studies and sketches - many made in the Lake District - formed the pictorial basis of her imaginative tales.

Lakeland

Beatrix first visited the Lake District at the age of 16 when her father rented Wray Castle on the shore of Lake Windermere for the family’s long summer holiday. This visit introduced Beatrix to the lakeland scenery that would become the setting and inspiration for so much of her best-loved work.

The family returned to the Lake District for their holidays in subsequent years, staying in various large country houses around Keswick, Windermere and Sawrey. It was while staying at Lingholm on the shore of Derwentwater in 1901 that Beatrix was inspired with the idea for her first Lake District book, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.

View of Derwentwater from the Squirrel Nutkin sketchbook. The ink, pencil and watercolour studies in this 1901 sketchbook provided background scenery for the 1903 publication. / NT 242740
Sketchbook drawing in watercolour by Beatrix Potter


The character of Squirrel Nutkin first appeared in a picture letter to Norah Moore in September 1901. The letter is illustrated by twelve pen and ink sketches, including one which shows a group of squirrels on little rafts sailing across a lake. That same year Beatrix filled an entire sketchbook with studies of the wooded shores of Derwentwater. These became the backgrounds for the illustrations in the book which was published in August 1903.

Watercolour illustration for The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, 1903. This illustration appears on page 15 of the published book. / NT 243217
Watercolour illustration for The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin


The area around Derwentwater became the setting for additional books and her natural history studies would continue to make appearances in her illustrations. In The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, you can identify specimen illustrations of flowers, fungi, oak apples and robin's pincushions.

As nearly perfect a little place...


In 1905, with royalties from her books, Beatrix was able to buy Hill Top, a small farm in the village of Near Sawrey in the heart of the Lake District. After a holiday spent there in earlier years, Beatrix once described Near Sawrey 'as nearly perfect a little place as I ever lived in'. It was the area around Sawrey and nearby Hawkshead that would become home to so many of Beatrix’s best-loved characters and provide the setting for a total of nine of the little books.

Front view of Hill Top from the garden path. Photograph by Rupert Potter, Beatrix's father. / NT 242368.3
Photograph of Hill Top front door and porch

At Hill Top, Beatrix loved the view up the garden path to the porch and front door. This view is clearly identifiable in The Tale of Tom Kitten where the illustrations give the reader glimpses of the cottage garden. Indeed, Beatrix's work on Tom Kitten coincides with periods of busy preparations in the garden at Hill Top. It seems only natural that this very real patch of land with which she was so engrossed would make its way into the fictional world of her latest animal character. 

Beatrix Potter's illustration for the Tale of Tom Kitten featuring a view of Hill Top from the garden. / NT 243318
Watercolour, pen and ink / Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter’s observation of the world around her helped ensure her stories would be so captivating. Indeed, the physical world is as much a part of the fabric of the books as the cherished bipedal animals who inhabit it.