Not that Potter, but the other one, the Beatrix Potter who introduced the world to Peter Rabbit, dour Mr McGregor, Jemima Puddle-Duck and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle. An exhibition running to the end of this year looks at both the life of Beatrix Potter and the works she created in her little books that still sell a copy every 15 seconds.

Although born in London, and she lived here until her late forties, Potter disliked the city and longed for the countryside, her repeated visits to which inspired much of her art and stories.

Not that her love of the countryside was as sentimental as her stories, being quite aware of the reality of the harshness of animal life and how animals prey on each other, or how farms work. She was someone who didn’t shy away from dissection in science lessons, although she was to master in the study of fungi instead.

Many of her stories were inspired by what she saw around her, such as the mystery of how red squirrels ended up on a Lake District island, which she solved by suggesting they sailed there using their tails as sails. An early photo taken in about 1891 is of Potter with her pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, a rabbit that seemed to have an unusual taste for buttered toast and would come bouncing along at the sound of the tea bell being rung.

Originally starting as a family illustrator who doodled for fun or made cards for families, it was a small gift of money that encouraged her to self-publish her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and a literary legend was born.

A section looks at how the books were translated into foreign languages, although the first didn’t come out until 1912 – and it turns out that Jemima Puddle-Duck is called Kwakkel Waggel-Eend in the Netherlands.

The exhibition looks beyond the books, to what she did with the money she earned, not just from the books but also from the many related toys that were created. She moved out of her loathed London to the Lake District, where, after some time she won over the locals who were suspicious of this town-farmer turning up in their area.

Her legacy is not just the books and the stories, when she died in 1943, she had built up an estate of 4,000 acres of land and 14 working farms in the Lake District, which she left to the National Trust.

One of the charming things about the exhibition is how it has been put together, from the mock-up room in one corner, the huge vista of her Lake District home at the end, and best of all, the little mice scurrying around behind the backlit display screens — a problem that bedevilled Potter in her countryside home as well. There’s a sense of playfulness that fits perfectly with the books.

Where the exhibition falls down though is also the display. I appreciate the sheer difficulty of having lots of people wanting to look at the same, often very small, drawing or page of writing, so it irks that so few museum exhibitions think to reproduce them as enlarged copies above the display cases.

The exhibition, Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature, is at the V&A Museum until 8th January 2023.

Adult: £16 | Concessions: £11| Children (<12): Free | Members: Free

Tickets need to be booked in advance, and are selling out fairly quickly for many dates, from here.

Exhibition Rating

★★★★☆

Victoria and Albert Museum
Cromwell Road, London
SW7 2RL

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