London: Beatrix Potter @ the V&A

Though I definitely owned a paperback set of Beatrix Potter’s books as a child, I don’t remember them being amongst my favourites. Yet, for some reason, when we had to do a year-long project on an author in 3rd or 4th grade, I picked Beatrix Potter. Not, you know, Laura Ingalls Wilder, who I’m still obsessed with, or John Bellairs or Roald Dahl or Judy Blume or any of the other children’s authors I still enjoy as an adult, but Beatrix bloody Potter. I have to imagine my mother somehow talked me into it because she liked the books, because it doesn’t feel like a choice I would have made myself. Still, because of that project, I always feel like I have to show an interest when something involving Beatrix Potter is happening (like that TV documentary with Patricia Routledge a few years back, though admittedly I watched that more because of my love for Keeping up Appearances than Beatrix Potter), and this exhibition was no exception.

This exhibition books up pretty quickly, so I struck out the first few times I wanted to see it on short notice, but I eventually got my act together and managed to book a ticket a couple weeks in advance. Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature runs at the V&A until January 2023, and costs £14 (£7 with Art Pass). It’s located in the gallery at the front of the museum that I think is normally used for free temporary exhibitions, so it’s not super large, which is perhaps reflected in the relatively inexpensive (for the V&A) ticket price.

As you might expect from something devoted to Beatrix Potter, this is a “family friendly” exhibition, which translates to some simplified signage aimed at children and a few, not terribly fun interactives, like some microscopes to look through and a few little doors to open. There was not a single child in sight during my visit, though that was perhaps because I deliberately waited until half-term had ended so as to avoid as many of them as possible.

The exhibition provided a fairly basic synopsis of Beatrix Potter’s life and career, with a few insights that might have been disturbing to those that didn’t know much about her. Beatrix had a fairly idyllic childhood growing up in a wealthy family in London. They frequently vacationed in the Lake District, which is when she developed her passion for the countryside. She was very close to her brother, and seemed to spend much of her youth absolutely terrorising her poor governesses (including pushing one down the stairs!). She also exhibited serial killer tendencies in the way she would stuff her dead pets, in some cases “helping them along” if they appeared to be sickly. I’m all for taxidermy if something is dead anyway, but I would never kill something just for the fun of dissecting it! Puts all those cute little animal illustrations in a different perspective.

Beatrix remained single until relatively late in life (she was engaged to her publisher, but he died before they could marry), possibly due to the unhealthy weight of her snobby parents’ expectations, who disapproved of all her suitors for being “in trade”, so she was able to hang on to the proceeds from her books and sink the money into her own property in the Lake District (I personally would have gotten as far away from those parents as possible too, so I don’t blame her), which was her true passion. She was really more of a hobby farmer, but played the part a la Marie Antoinette at the Petit Trianon, with ugly practical shoes and a farming outfit including a walking stick carved with the names of her dogs that she would pose in for newspaper articles.

The exhibition was mainly notable for the extensive range of her drawings, including many from her childhood that I hadn’t seen before (love the turtle a few paragraphs up, though knowing her she probably killed the poor thing!), some early drafts of her books, and items of her personal property, including an array of knickknacks from her Lake District home. I particularly loved her childhood drawings and the range of Edwardian to mid-century merchandise inspired by her works (much of which canny Beatrix designed herself, and thus kept all the profits) that was located in a case in the last room of the exhibition.

Because it was a smaller exhibition space, it didn’t take us too much time to make our way through, but at least it wasn’t overly crowded. I think the V&A deliberately took a light, child-friendly approach here (except for the pet killing) and thus there was no mention of some of the controversies associated with her in later life (she and her husband bought some of their land in the Lake District in a slightly underhanded way, and the local farmers weren’t terribly happy about her work with the National Trust), making this feel very much felt like an overview rather than an in-depth analysis, but I guessed that going in based on the description on the website. I did really enjoy looking at her illustrations, many of which were absolutely charming (if you look past the taxidermied pets angle of course), so if you don’t mind a rather superficial look at her life, it’s worth a visit to see her work and childhood mementos. 3/5.

4 comments

  1. Never really read her books, but I love her drawings. The Free Library here in Philly has a big collection of her stuff, so they usually have something on view. However, I didn’t know about the taxidermy… puts things in a whole new light!

  2. I don’t recall reading but maybe one of her books. I guess some scientifically oriented children don’t really look at life and death the way we do as adults.

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