Monday, July 20, 2020

Beatrix the Nature-Lover

We all know Beatrix Potter as the creator of Peter Rabbit--both the text and illustrations. Yet I think the impression today of her work is that it is pretty and cutesy. After all, her children's books are about bunnies and mice and hedgehogs and tea and gardens and flowers. Cutesy things, right? And all her pictures of animals are pretty, right?

While I'm not saying that this isn't true, it is also worth recalling that her work is also extremely detailed and accurate. She studied plants and animals in order to copy them down realistically. So the cuteness isn't because she made the bunnies' eyes huge and colored their fur in pink and purple; it's because they are cute animals and she captures the spirit of their movement and ways of being.

The Art of Beatrix Potter by Emily Zach has been sitting on my shelf without a complete, cover-to-cover read for a couple of years now. It came out in 2016 and that may very well be the year in which I acquired it. This book emphasizes Beatrix's interests in the natural world at different points in her life. She observed the landscapes in the country at the various places she visited. At one point, mushrooms were her primary interest. At another, she was able to delve more into fossils.

Animals, though, animals were always big for her. She kept pets from a child to an adult and observed them alongside animals out in the wild. I knew this. (Miss Potter, by the way, if you've yet to see it, is a lovely biopic that might not go into all the details of her life, but does paint a nice picture of a slice of her story.) Yet in reading this book, I was reminded of that sense of realism and accurate details in her illustrations.

Yes, Peter's blue jacket may be fantasy, but that's the point. She adds in the whimsical details to a rabbit who otherwise still looks like a rabbit. Her stories are charming and witty or simply entertaining. But the settings are meant to be familiar. I suppose I may also not have noticed that being that I did not grow up around English gardens. The plants and animals I grew up seeing were different--so Beatrix Potter's bunnies and ducks and cats went right along with the cutesy impression of tea parties and turn-of-the-century dresses. (That's another side note: the style of the clothing today adds to that impression, but when she did the illustrations she was mainly just drawing clothing of her time, with some exceptions like The Tailer of Gloucester, which was set in the 18th century, right? Oh, we really could talk all day about how the original intent of an artistic work changes almost drastically over a hundred years.)

So this book gives quite a different appreciation for her work. It would also be particularly interesting if you are also an artist/illustrator because you can see studies that she did for specific books or animals. You get more of an idea of all the work that took place in order to get to the final product that we have all seen.

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