The tale of Beatrix Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, makes a charming movie. Renee Zellweger is brown-haired, frumpy, sensible and British-accented in her characterization. Beatrix is spunky and determined to face life on her own terms in spite of pretentious, upwardly mobile Victorian parents who are hardly aware of her growing fame. Nothing much happens in the life of young Beatrix. Her fiancé dies before they have a chance to marry. Then she finds herself quite well off from her book royalties and goes around buying up rural properties to hold the developers at bay.
Hers is a story of going to her room and getting into her imagination. Beatrix takes her everyday knowledge of hedgerow animals and household pets and turns it into fantasy. In the movie, her paintings become animated under her caress and jump around on the page, causing Beatrix to scold and cajole them. Seemingly intrusive at first, this device makes real their humanity, and perhaps makes life more bearable for Beatrix. It’s just what artists must do to get into their processes and enter the lives of their characters.
Then there’s the miracle of seeing one’s dreams transform into a book — the glow that comes when calculated efforts arrive between covers. Early editions, hot off the press, are lovingly handled by her intended, who just happens to be her publisher. Beatrix shares his bookish excitement and is in bed with him if only in spirit — a sensitive touch by director Chris Noonan.
Beatrix Potter (1866-1945) was intelligent, headstrong and uncompromising. She was entrepreneurial without being strident, at the same time innocent and diffident. On many occasions she was able to get her way. She’s a model for anyone who might explore the possibilities of a chosen direction. Hers is a curious mind — curious as to what her animals will do, how her stories will end, how things will work out.
One can learn from Beatrix Potter. Through our imaginations we are able to make ourselves and others happy. Through our imaginations we are able to escape our repressions and misfortunes. Through our imaginations we grow our souls.
PS: “Naughty Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, don’t do that again! Hedge-hogs mustn’t do that sort of thing!” (Beatrix Potter)
Esoterica: A first for me, I’m writing this letter on my Blackberry. I’m flying to Indianapolis to jury a show for the Central Indiana Land Trust — having just watched Miss Potter on the aircraft screen. Then there comes a live news-feed on the death of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. A Hoosier boy who never forgot his Indiana roots, Vonnegut also lived in his imagination. “The arts are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow.” (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., 1923-2007)
Legacy of a botanical illustrator
by Lois Jackson, Corinth, VT, USA
Beatrix Potter was a fabulous scientific and botanical illustrator. Her book on mushrooms was published only in French. While her little animals were given human characteristics and dressed in human clothes, her backgrounds and surrounding paintings of plants and flowers were scientifically accurate. Had it not been for her imaginative renderings of little creatures, Beatrix would have been just one more in a long line of, mostly nameless, women botanical artists. Originals of her scientific work, as well as some of the illustrations for her books, are at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
A progressive woman
by Anne Hudec, Victoria, BC, Canada
Beatrix Potter was not just an artist. She was a strong woman with vision and purpose, and because of this we can all be thankful that we can visit the bucolic Lake District — largely undeveloped due to her purchase and gifting of some 4,000 acres of land, cottages and farms to the National Trust. To be inspired by her paintings inside the gallery on a rainy afternoon is comparable in enjoyment to wandering outside and seeing the beauty of the Lake District protected from development by this progressive, forward thinking, and active woman. We owe more to her than most people realize. How lucky we are, that Peter Rabbit made his way into so many bedtime rituals — for her ability to afford such a luxury that we now enjoy.
Charming, understated film
by Phoebe Stone, Middlebury, VT, USA
I just adored the film. I had been waiting to see it. I hope people appreciate what a charming, understated, lovely film it is. I am a children’s book author and illustrator and I had tears in my eyes throughout the movie. A friend set me up to receive your letters. It is always nice to have someone say out loud the things you already know and feel. I write a lot of my books in the middle of the night flat on my back staring at the dark ceiling above me.
The art of capturing nature
by Mary Erickson, Marshville, NC, USA
This morning I stood and watched in awe as the sun rose brilliantly above, reflecting the hues of red, orange, lavender and blue in the pond before me. I was trying to paint the miracle of it. What craziness makes me think that I could ever capture the colors as they rapidly faded to the crystal clearness of spring? The viridian shadows changed to lemon yellow and lime green as the light washed the morning, and I tried in vain to save a piece of this moment on canvas.
Last week, one evening I painted a quaint barn on the outskirts of Germanton, North Carolina. Quite satisfied with my portrayal of this rapidly vanishing landscape, I turned to see the sun glowing through the stand of trees behind me. Thinking, I should paint that too. But opted instead to clean my brushes and get out of the cooling breeze. The barn was my third painting of the day, having started at sunrise. After closing my easel, and getting ready to leave, I turned to look over the valley as the sun touched the distant horizon. It glowed like a deep orange ball, and filled the valley with an amber light, against the backdrop of purple mountains. How could I possibly catch that, too? Instead, I simply stood and savored the beauty of it. What madness makes us think we can replicate the majesty that is? What more frustrating life’s work could we possibly have taken on? What glimmer of hope is there in our work that keeps us keepin’ on, amid the constant frustration of seeing just one more, more beautiful scene?
Beatrix Potter sites unchanged
by Bernard Victor, London, UK
This delightful film is a rather shortened dramatized version of Beatrix Potter’s life, and really does not give a full picture of her prowess as an artist. We had an exhibition of her work at our local gallery last year, and her botanical drawings are exquisite. Strangely in later life, when she only painted as a member of her local Art society, her work never seemed of the same standard. There is a very good book of her work called The Art of Beatrix Potter by Anne Carroll Moore, published by Warne wich covers all her art work from the beginning. She did have proper training in drawing and oil painting, and her father was a friend of Millais who no doubt gave her some help. Her mother was also a keen watercolourist and her father a keen photographer. A visit to the Lake District to see where she got a lot of her inspiration is well worthwhile if you are in the U.K. A lot of the sites are still unchanged from when she painted and drew there.
Painting around Hawkshead
by Marcia Dark, Regina, SK, Canada
About ten years ago I joined painter Jack Reid and some 25 other artists to paint in the north of England’s Lake District. Our bus driver was a tall skinny spectacled fellow who resembled a character out of Pickwick Papers. He had grown up in the area and had nothing good to say about Beatrix Potter as she had given him a swat with her cane when he was a boy. I convinced him to drive us into the village to see her home. There was already a big lineup so we settled for a trip into the village of Hawkshead where we toured a little B & B where it is said that she drew the story of Jemima Puddle-Duck. We were scattered around Hawkshead painting plein air. It’s a quaint place with lovely people. At lunch time I took off and visited a cottage in the centre of town where for 5 pounds I got to look at her pencil sketches. A hand made sign as you entered this tiny cottage read “Duck or Bump” (people must have been shorter in those days). The drawings were taped to the walls — not framed — and there was nobody but me to enjoy the experience.
Miss Potter raised Herdwicks
by Margaret Elliot, Abbotsford, BC, Canada
As a child I met Miss Potter. I was raised in Eskdale in the English Lake District. What was our family farm is now joined to a property of Potter’s, and so owned by the National Trust and open to the public. We knew her as Mrs. Heelis, her husband was a local solicitor. She was a sheep farmer promoting the indigenous breed — Herdwicks — very tough and quite small sheep that existed on ‘marginal’ farms with fell grazing. The wool was wiry and used in carpets. Even in her day they were being bypassed in favour of Yorkshire sheep — bigger and better quality wool. There was an annual show of Herdwicks and Herdwick crosses that Mrs. Heelis attended, and that was where I met her — a wild figure dressed in a dirty Mac and either clogs or boots, with straggly grey hair sprouting from her farmer’s hat, and carrying a farmer’s staff. A bit of a shock to those of us who were raised on her children’s books. I met her about the beginning of WW 2. She did a lot for the National Trust. I believe her properties were the first large donation.
Getting into the process
by Elizabeth Stewart, Kittery, ME, USA
I know what you mean about getting into the process and entering the lives of one’s characters. When I paint pet portraits, I often base my composition on a heartwarming story told to me by the pet owner. This ensures a sense of life and movement in my painting, which might be absent if I focused on simply a seated pose. I find that my chosen style of Celtic design interpretation is perfectly suited to this approach. In Cecil’s Locusts, I portray Cecil, a blue-black Springer spaniel, who was taken on his first pheasant hunting trip and, for some reason, had no idea what was expected of him! This left the ring necked pheasant feeling very left out!
Beatrix Potter the botanist
by Roberta Faulhaber, Paris, France
Beatrix Potter was also a remarkable botanist who documented her findings with superb drawings. She began her interest in science as an observer of nature, and actually did pioneering study on the dual nature of lichens. Beatrix wrote her observations and research in a report to the Linnaean Society in 1897. Unfortunately, Potter was not able to read her report before the society. “She could neither deliver the paper herself nor attend the meeting at which it was discussed because women were unwelcome” (Sapp, 1994). Potter’s paper was presented to the Linnaean Society of London by her uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe, a distinguished chemist at the time. Only to make matters worse for Beatrix, “Her presence as a researcher in the British Museum was also unwelcome, as was the support for the dual nature of lichens she offered to the assistant director of the Royal Botanical Gardens” (Sapp, 1994). She was never given credit for her contributions to the dual nature of lichens.’
Allow it to be
by Roger Buston, Vancouver, BC, Canada
As a writer, I subscribe to the idea that pieces are ‘given’ to us; we are conduits, and the work is turned on the lathe of our minds during the creation.
Peter Beagle, that altogether remarkable author, once posited something to the effect that stories had a life, a will of their own and it is our responsibility to allow it to make its way onto the page. Which can have rather unsettling results. When I was writing my book, characters would appear unbidden, strange names and no apparent purpose vis-à-vis the story-line. “Who is this?” I would ask myself (muse, multiple personality, ghost in the room, what-ever), and the reply would be, “Let him run. The story knows what it’s doing.” So I did, and, though the twist and turns made the road to the last page rather harrowing, the results were always delightful. Far more importantly, the story would unfold with yet another facet, all the richer and more potent. The work expressed far more than I intended. A simple love story colored into a tale of spiritual awakening, urging the reader to believe that love and destiny are entities unto themselves and, in order to reap their full benefits, we must practice faith, forgiveness, and restraint. The story was complete because I allowed it to be.
There is 1 comment for Allow it to be by Roger Buston
Audience moved to tears
by Sonya Bennett, Fairhope, AL, USA
Honestly, I thought that was a personal letter to me. I am so in love with Miss Potter and have always adored her small books. I give them to every newborn in my world. I saw Miss Potter at a small arts theatre in Gulf Breeze, Florida. Yes, the child in us must engage our creativity in bold ways, and if that means talking to the paint or the creatures, fine!
The Wings to the Spirit Baha’i Arts Conference was also held this past weekend in Pensacola, Florida. It was phenomenal. My talk went very well. I had asked your permission to use your letter Firing Pots. It is a perfect metaphor for our lives — we go into the fire and we think we know the outcome. Wow. What a letter. Wow, what a life. I made 60 copies for the artists in attendance and also showed Kathryn Abernathy’s lovely slides (she is one of your subscribing artists). Kathryn healed herself with her painting. I really addressed the hearts of the audience about healing through the arts. And I played a Cello piece by Gwendolyn Watson, from Rome, Georgia during the slide part showing Katherine’s Art. Somewhere between Firing Pots and Katherine’s lovely slides, or maybe the music, the audience was moved to tears. We honored the artists present (many of them subscribers) with so much beauty and depth, they were leaping with happiness.
Art prevented insanity
by Susan Kennedy Stafford, Memphis, TN, USA
I grew up with Beatrix Potter books, and the Potter bunny, waiting to be discovered, with no less delight each time, at the bottom of my breakfast bowl and milk cup. The wonderful pictures conveyed a palpable sweetness and dearness — a safe and innocent world.
I had a tormented and physically tortured childhood filled with unnecessary pain and surgeries. Withdrawn, I became lifeless and emotionally frozen, and communicated little. I was close to death on occasion and not expected to live past 10. I drew and drew, encouraged by an art teacher in first grade, it became an obsession, an escape. But it was a means to put my inner world outside, express some of what I experienced. By 13 my writing became essential to my survival. Writing and drawing portrayed a world nothing like the one others were living. Mine was filled with complex, terrible creatures, death and barrenness, and no recognizable or familiar objects. But there were also ethereal images of beauty and spirit. I am now 55. Life has been full of desperate drawing and writing to find my way through the darkness. When I am lost, as I still often am, I can reread what I have written from years ago, find a passage or poem that fits with the moment’s painful existentialism, and slowly find my way. Or I can write something new that may express a subtle difference from what I have before, thus helping to light my way to the pure true self or spirit once again. Words are not well made to describe things we know so little of as a society and seem to care so little for, as what our true essence is, words describe well things that are far less important. So I struggle through words and art to find the untarnished truth of “me.” Without creativity and imagination, and a pen in my hand, I would long ago have succumbed to insanity or death.
Accident aided drawing ability
by Kristin Ellstrom, Spain
At six years old I had an accident and got eyes with a quite different focus, even the colours appeared different. I could not see depth or three dimensional and I would suppress the image from either eye. It was hard to take bushwalks, but to compensate I figured out how perspective works because I needed to judge space and distance and to walk without falling over. My drawing skills became outstanding for my age and painting colour became easy. Try working with one eye only. As an art student I and some friends notice quite some of us struggle to find words when we have several hours of intense painting sessions where no chat was allowed — as if chat part of the brain is checked out for the moment (no, we have ventilation).
Puppies in the Grass
Acrylic painting on canvas by Michael Ives, Tucson, AZ, USA
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Frances Topping of Charlestown, RI, USA who wrote, “Beatrix Potter was also an exceptional natural history illustrator and especially fond of fungi. Her paintings are excellent. Unfortunately due to her sex she was unable to present to the Royal Society and had a male relative present her scientific findings. Recommended reading: A Victorian Naturalist: Beatrix Potter’s Drawings from the Armitt Collection, edited by Ann Stevenson Hobbs.”
And also Lynn Strough of Grand Rapids, MI, USA who wrote, “I’m leaving next week to walk across England on the coast to coast trail, and one of our stops will be the Beatrix Potter museum. I’ll be sketching, photographing, and painting in watercolor along the way. There’s an excellent new 500+ page biography Beatrix Potter – A Life in Nature by Linda Lear.”
And also Pamela Plotkin who wrote, “I saw ‘Miss Potter’ and during the first five minutes my fiancé leaned over and said, ‘I didn’t know they made a movie about your life.’ The movie told the story of my soul. It touched me deeply.”
And also Karen Meredith who wrote, “And then there is Tasha Tudor, a grand example of creating one’s own reality!”
(RG note) Thanks, Kathy. Tasha is 91 years old and has illustrated over a hundred books –her first in 1938. She lives in a reconstructed pioneer environment with her animals in Marlboro, Vermont.
Enjoy the past comments below for ‘Miss Potter’…