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How Beatrix Potter was fascinated by FUNGI but gave up the interest to write Peter Rabbit

Beatrix Potter’s little-known interest in fungi and insects is set to be explored in a new exhibition delving into the life of the Peter Rabbit author.

Drawn to Nature, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, will feature more than 240 personal objects, including rarely seen letters, manuscripts, sketches, coded diaries and family photographs drawn from the two collections.

Potter, who lived between 1866 and 1943, remains well known for her children’s books featuring animals, such as The Tale Of Peter Rabbit, but was also a prominent natural scientist and conservationist.

Among the sketches on display will be Potter’s vivid depictions of fungi, as well as stunning magnified drawings of a ground beetle.

Speaking as the exhibition was announced today, Libby Joy, the former chairman of the Beatrix Potter society said the author was drawn to fungi because they were ‘something beautiful’.

She told Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘She was really self-taught actually and became a very good amateur mycologist with all sorts of interesting discoveries under her belt.’

However, the author ultimately gave up the interest to focus on her children’s books as she looked for ways to make a living. 

Drawn to Nature, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, will feature more than 240 personal objects, including rarely seen letters, manuscripts, sketches, coded diaries and family photographs drawn from the two collections. Above: Potter's stunning magnified depiction of a ground beetle (Carabus nemoralis), dating from 1887

Beatrix Potter’s little-known interest in fungi and insects is set to be explored in a new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum delving into the life of the Peter Rabbit author. Drawn to Nature, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, will feature more than 240 personal objects, including rarely seen letters, manuscripts, sketches, coded diaries and family photographs drawn from the two collections Pictured: Potter’s 1896 drawing of a parasol mushroom (left); her stunning magnified depiction of a ground beetle (Carabus nemoralis), dating from 1887

Potter, who lived between 1866 and 1943, remains well known for her children's books featuring animals, such as The Tale Of Peter Rabbit, but was also a prominent natural scientist and conservationist. Above: This image of the then 15-year-old Potter with her dog, Spot, in 1880, also features in the upcoming exhibition

Potter, who lived between 1866 and 1943, remains well known for her children’s books featuring animals, such as The Tale Of Peter Rabbit, but was also a prominent natural scientist and conservationist. Above: This image of the then 15-year-old Potter with her dog, Spot, in 1880, also features in the upcoming exhibition

Across four sections, the V&A’s exhibition – which is being run in partnership with the National Trust – will follow Potter’s journey from the capital to the Lake District, where she eventually settled.

The first section, Town and Country, will offer a backdrop to her childhood in South Kensington in London and feature key objects from Potter’s early years, including an album of family photographs taken by her father as well as artwork and furniture from the family home.

Under the Microscope, meanwhile, will highlight her interest in natural science.

Also featured in the section will be a reimagining of the schoolroom she shared with her brother Bertram at Bolton Gardens in London, featuring some of their earliest observational sketches, from the schoolroom menagerie to a cabinet used to store their collection of butterflies, beetles, bird eggs, shells, rocks and fossils.

Potter had more than 92 pets during her lifetime and took inspiration from some of them for her stories, most notably her domesticated rabbits Benjamin Bouncer and Peter Piper.

Drawn to Nature curator Annemarie Bilclough said Potter’s skill as an illustrator was evident in her fungi drawings, which made from the age of 20. 

Ms Bilclough said: ‘She soon began exchanging samples and drawings with an amateur naturalist in Scotland called Charles McIntosh, who suggested she draw the fungi more scientifically with cross sections showing their gills to help identification. 

‘Her watercolour drawings are so well-observed that the species can be identified. Within ten years Beatrix was wondering how fungi reproduced and she collected spores to watch them germinate through a microscope, making hundreds of accurate drawings of what she observed. 

‘She was one of the earliest to speculate on the subject and her watercolour drawings are a valuable record of her work, without which we would not know about it.’

The author even wrote an essay on the subject and sent it to natural history group the Linnean Society, but they told her it ‘needed more work’.   

Ms Joy said it is not clear why Potter stopped pursuing her scientific interest because the diary that she kept came to a sudden end when she was in her 30s.

Speaking as the exhibition was announced today, Libby Joy, the former chairman of the Beatrix Potter society said the author was drawn to fungi because they were ‘something beautiful’. Above: Her 1888 depiction of the Helvella crispa fungi

However, she said it is possible she did keep writing but then threw it away.

She continued writing it into her 30s but then… it is possible that she went on writing it and that those pages have disappeared,’ Ms Joy said.

‘It is true to say that when the journal was first discovered nobody really knew what it was.

‘It was just a collection of papers in a coded handwriting and so it is entirely possible that some of it was thrown away before anybody knew was it was, or that she disposed of it herself.

She told Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘She was really self-taught actually and became a very good amateur mycologist with all sorts of interesting discoveries under her belt. Above: Microscopic ‘Lichen Dunkeld on fir’ by Beatrix Potter, 1896

‘But, as you say, frustratingly it ends just when she is making the transition from her interest in science to working out a way that she can earn some money for herself which led her to the little books.’

The expert added that the new exhibition ‘very cleverly’ takes visitors on a journey from the author’s early days all the way through to her later life in the Lake District.

The exhibition’s final part, Living Nature, will celebrate her immense impact on the natural landscape.

In later life Potter became an award-winning sheep farmer and respected member of the local rural community, and visitors will be transported to the Lake District through an immersive video depicting life in the hills.

Ms Joy added: ‘A lot of people are very unaware of this. They think of her as Peter Rabbit and the other little books.

Also on display will be many exhibits connected to her Peter Rabbit books. Above: Potter's 1904 watercolour and pencil illustration of Peter Rabbit with his handkerchief

Also on display will be many exhibits connected to her Peter Rabbit books. Above: Potter’s 1904 watercolour and pencil illustration of Peter Rabbit with his handkerchief

Potter's original illustration for her 1908 book The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, will be on display

Potter’s original illustration for her 1908 book The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, will be on display

Potter thought of her Peter Rabbit story in an illustrated letter to Noel Moore, the five-year-old son of her friend and former governess, Annie Moore. Moore was recovering from scarlet fever so the author amused him with a story based on her real pet rabbit, Peter Piper. The letter, dated August 21, 1892, will feature in the V&A's exhibition

Potter thought of her Peter Rabbit story in an illustrated letter to Noel Moore, the five-year-old son of her friend and former governess, Annie Moore. Moore was recovering from scarlet fever so the author amused him with a story based on her real pet rabbit, Peter Piper. The letter, dated August 21, 1892, will feature in the V&A’s exhibition

‘And they don’t realise that the that the last third of her life, she had left much of that behind. She had bought a lot of land… and became a passionate sheep farmer and conservationist.

‘She had always been interested in the National Trust, her father was one of the main members of the National Trust.

‘And that became the area into which she threw all her energies and her incredible determination and ability to learn new things to reinvent herself really.

‘From this sheltered Victorian child she became this highly respected Lake District farmer.’ 

In later life, Potter became a landowner and sheep farmer in the Lake District. Above: Potter with shepherd Tom Storey and their prize-winning ewe, Water Lily, at the Eskdale Show, September 26, 1930

In later life, Potter became a landowner and sheep farmer in the Lake District. Above: Potter with shepherd Tom Storey and their prize-winning ewe, Water Lily, at the Eskdale Show, September 26, 1930

Watercolour of the view across Esthwaite Water in the Lake District. Painted by Potter on November 21, 1909

Watercolour of the view across Esthwaite Water in the Lake District. Painted by Potter on November 21, 1909

Helen Antrobus, assistant national curator at the National Trust, said: ‘We’re delighted to be working in partnership with the V&A to shine a light on the full life and legacy of a remarkable, multifaceted woman.

‘The National Trust is proud to care for the items and places which were special to Beatrix.

‘From Hill Top, her traditional Lake District farmhouse filled with trinkets and furniture and still presented as it was in Beatrix’s lifetime, to the vast Monk Coniston estate and 14 traditional Lakeland farms with their flocks of Herdwick sheep.

‘Thanks to her pioneering conservation efforts and generous bequest of her homes, farms and land to the National Trust, we’re able to continue her legacy caring for the landscape, traditions and Lakeland way of life that inspired Beatrix so they can continue to inspire others.’

Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature runs from February 12 2022 to January 8 2023. 

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