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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

The Science of Imagination: A Review of ‘Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature’ at the Morgan Library

The authenticity and intellectuality of the world’s beloved children’s books have carried Beatrix Potter’s stories through the centuries.
Here are Peter Rabbit and his family, created by Beatrix Potter and the subjects of many of her little books. (Image Credit: M.L.Wits, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

A woman’s role in the world, as defined in the early 20th century, is to maintain a lovely household and to marry well. Beatrix Potter couldn’t have wanted anything more different. 

Entranced by the natural world from a young age, Beatrix defied societal expectations by publishing her findings in scientific papers. Furthermore, she founded a business in storytelling and became renowned worldwide for her books. The Morgan Library exhibit ‘Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature,’ on view through June 9th, 2024, takes viewers through Beatrix’s life from childhood to adulthood, and brings light to the life of the brilliant author of our beloved book series, ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

The London townhouse where Beatrix Potter spent her childhood never truly felt like a home.  Young Beatrix longed for the vacations her family would take to their countryside cottage in Lancashire, a county in Northern England. The rolling hills and lush forest sparked her early fascination with art. Beatrix later wrote, “Everything was romantic in my imagination. The woods were peopled with the mysterious good folk.” The fossils, shells, and flowers that she collected from those woods were her treasures, to be cherished and kept forever in drawings and paintings.

The landscape of Lancashire, England is quaint and picturesque, the perfect place for a young Beatrix Potter to roam and explore nature.
(Photo Credit: Clitheroe by Peter McDermott, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Beatrix remained profoundly in love with the places she visited for her entire life. All of her “little books” are set in real locations across Europe. Many scenes can be recognized as areas of the Lake District in Northern England: the shores of Derwentwater, the Cat Bells mountainside, and the traditional cozy lakeside cottage.

Ever since they were little, Beatrix and her brother Bertram were curious about the world. Though Bertram went to school and Beatrix was taught by governesses in their childhood, they both had a strong interest in nature. Together they found frogs, fungi, and insects to examine and draw. While in London, the two kept specimens and pets in their nursery, often disturbing their family and servants who lived with them. They pinned insects, organized animal skeletons, and drew specimens under a microscope. As they grew up, the siblings began visiting zoos and art exhibitions in London. 

Beatrix and her mother began to have frequent arguments over the course of her teenage years. Beatrix wanted to pursue a career in science, but her mother wanted her to follow the beaten path of a housewife. Still, Beatrix snuck out to museums, wrote papers at night, and, of course, continued to paint.

A young Beatrix began correspondence with scientists such as George Matsee and Charles McIntosh. She wrote to them about her findings, and in return, they encouraged her to pursue ambitious studies. McIntosh was a mycologist, a specialist in the research of fungi, and he recognized Beatrix’s talent early on. As a budding mycologist and geologist herself, Beatrix was impressed by McIntosh’s work, and he was said to have later inspired the character of Mr. McGregor in ‘Peter Rabbit.’

By 1890, Beatrix was an accomplished scholar. In Scotland and North England, she studied spores and fungi, making detailed illustrations and theories about them. Biographer Linda Lear wrote that Beatrix’s watercolors “are considered so accurate that modern mycologists refer to them still to identify fungi.” Because of her work in microscopic illustrations and her curiosity about spore germination, Beatrix was invited to study at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, London. There she developed theories through experimentation and wrote a paper on germination, the study of seeds and spores. 

Here are some fungi painted by Beatrix, each mushroom biologically accurate and meticulously detailed. (Photo Credit: Beatrix Potter, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Beatrix submitted her paper, ‘On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae,’ to The Linnean Society in 1897. The Society rejected her work, and Beatrix never resubmitted it. Beatrix wrote to McIntosh, “My paper was read at the Linnean Society and ‘well received’, but they say it requires more work in it before it is printed.” The real reason, however, as later admitted by the Society, was that “women were not admitted as Fellows (or members) of the Society until 1905.” 

Throughout Beatrix’s life, while she studied fungi and learned about the intellectual and natural world around her, she kept in touch with the governesses she studied under in her childhood, especially Annie Moore. She particularly enjoyed sending letters to Noel, Moore’s son. Within these letters were lighthearted updates on Beatrix’s life, describing her studies, travels, and imaginations.

The most appealing parts of these letters, however, were the drawings Beatrix included. From random doodles of animals to intricate depictions of events she was describing, the drawings added a cheery element to the otherwise standard letters. In some of these letters, Beatrix began telling Noel the story of “four little rabbits whose names were — Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter,” and thus Beatrix’s career as a storybook author began. 

This is one of Beatrix’s letters to her governess’s children. They included hand-drawn pictures in the margins for the kids’ enjoyment. (Photo Credit: Beatrix Potter Journal entry, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1902, Beatrix signed on with Frederick Warne & Co., a publishing company known for publishing children’s books. With the company, she began developing her imaginative letters into real stories. They took the first copy of Peter Rabbit to the press, and the books sold immediately. Because of Beatrix’s extensive knowledge of animals and nature, her fantastical stories maintained an element of truth to the relationship between predator and prey, which appealed to adults as well as children.

Beatrix’s motto was “little books for little hands.” She, unlike many children’s book authors, didn’t try to make her stories too grown up. She never let go of her childish adoration for nature, love of little pets, and attention to cute details, therefore making her books the most authentic children’s books of her time. This authenticity carried her stories throughout generations, as children today still enjoy reading about the characters Beatrix created, from Peter Rabbit to Tom Kitten.

The Morgan Library exhibit perfectly represents this balance between natural truthfulness and childish authenticity. There is a table set up outside the doors of the gallery with fifteen copies of different Beatrix Potter books. Visitors with young children gather around this table. While adults wander around, taking note of the scientific accomplishments in Beatrix’s life, children read her picture books aloud to each other. This duality encapsulates the beauty of Beatrix’s life and stories.

Eventually, Beatrix moved to the Lake District for good. She had finally decided to pursue the dream that she developed when she was a child, and lead a quiet countryside lifestyle. In 1905, she purchased her first property, a farm called ‘Hill Top.’ To her, it was “as nearly perfect a little place as I ever lived in,” and she kept her house there as a place to paint, write, and garden. 

This Hill Top home is represented in ‘Drawn to Nature’ by a walled-off area in the center of one of the gallery rooms. The wallpaper has a homey floral pattern, and there is a window to look out of. This area adds a sense of connection to the artist that couldn’t have been represented any other way. 

Visitors at the Morgan Library enjoy the artwork while standing in a replica of Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top home.

In the Lake District, Beatrix became a farmer and conservationist. As she wandered the muddy lakeside, she would sketch wildflowers and creatures she found there, later publishing the drawings and advocating for the land to be conserved. The love that Beatrix felt for nature carried through her career, also spurring her to act on the issues that meant something to her.

The life of Beatrix Potter is inspirational for many reasons. Not only did she have great talent in art and botany, but she pursued goals that seemed unattainable to everyone around her. From living in the countryside to owning a business, Beatrix achieved it all. She broke boundaries for women in her field while staying true to herself and her beliefs.

‘Drawn to Nature’ presents Beatrix’s journey as an artist and scientist accurately and uniquely. Her truthfulness and relatability make her books relevant over a century later, and her scientific precision adds an educational aspect to these lovable stories. Her books will stay popular for decades, and I can only hope her life story lives on as well.

The life of Beatrix Potter is inspirational for many reasons. Not only did she have great talent in art and botany, but she pursued goals that seemed unattainable to everyone around her. From living in the countryside to owning a business, Beatrix achieved it all. She broke boundaries for women in her field while staying true to herself and her beliefs.

About the Contributor
Frances Auth, Staff Reporter
Frances Auth is a Features Editor for The Science Survey. She loves editing Features articles because of the ways in which they represent many different parts of Bronx Science and the city. She is interested in seeing the world from different angles, and Features articles do just that. She loves journalistic writing because it can provide a reader an introduction to a topic that they might otherwise never have found. Additionally, she sees in journalism the distinctive potential to shed light on obscure topics and interesting people. She enjoys journalistic photography because it provides, literally and figuratively, a unique lens into the lives of others. Moreover, journalistic photos are taken from the angle that the journalist chooses, which allows them to be very creative. Outside of Journalism, Frances has a passion for research and learning about the world, which has helped her thrive in debate. She is also on the Girls' Varsity Cross Country team at Bronx Science. Frances loves reading, and her favorite book is George Orwell's 1984. Another book that she highly recommends is Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.'