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Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature, V&A

My eldest daughter, aged six, won a presentation set of Beatrix Potter’s stories. I’m not sure if it was the fact of the fancy boxed set on the bookshelf but we read them, over and over. They weren’t all instant winners but some – Jeremy Fisher in particular – became part of the fabric of their childhoods. I say this only because while visiting the V&A’s new show, Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature, Anya ‘fessed up that her children didn’t actually like the stories very much. I get this. You remember the pictures more than the words. But, regardless of whether or not you persevered with the books, this exhibition beautifully tells the story of their creator: artist, writer, farmer, conservationist.

Forever associated with the Lake District, Beatrix Potter spent over half her life in middle class comfort in London, just round the corner from the V&A. With a passion for animals and natural history, her home in Bolton Gardens became a menagerie of pets – dogs, rabbits (Benjamin Bouncer, Peter Piper) hedgehogs, a lizard. She and and her brother Bertram regularly visited the museums that were opening on their doorstep and her artistic skill is striking, with intricate early studies of animals, insects, skeletons and bones. (The above sketch was painted when Beatrix was nine!) The Potters had a large extended family and they would travel around the country visiting relatives. Sketches of gardens and views fill her notebooks and there are charming illustrated letters sent to cousins and friends. Through them you catch glimpses of the characters and places that would one day fill her books.

She comes across as practical, funny and matter of fact. One of those people who just ‘get on with it’. This is borne out by her clear sighted vision for the publication and promotion of her books which she controlled at every stage and latterly her life in her beloved Lake District where

she fully immersed herself into farming life (see her well-worn clogs).

She bought up acres of farmland as well as Hill Top farm all of which was left to the National Trust on her death. The final room leaves you with a sweeping video of the Cumbrian hills projected across two walls.

The show is a fascinating insight into a formidable woman. But, necessarily, a lot of the exhibits are letters, drawings and manuscripts that are behind glass. They repay careful reading but younger children are unlikely to engage with them. The museum (together with the National Trust with whom this is a joint exhibition) have dealt with this by adding a series of hands-on activities.

Some work better than others. There is a table of microscopes you can look through to demonstrate the forensic work Beatrix and Bertram undertook but we were not sure how interesting the actual specimens are.

More successful is the dressing up and oversized flower pot to hide

in which will occupy very little ones while you enjoy the detail. But if you visited the Winnie the Pooh show here, don’t go expecting it to be ‘child focussed’ in the same way. Best for older children with an interest in drawing. And for a grown up, it is a quietly magical.

Beatrix Potter: Drawn from Nature is at the V&A until Jan 2023

Currently fully booked until the end of March.

Tickets: £14 adults, U12s free.

Emily Turner, 12 February 2022


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