21 July 2016
Emma Laws, Frederick Warne Curator, Victoria and Albert Museum
I have been a curator at the V&A for 18 years. I specialise in children’s books and my post is sponsored by Frederick Warne & Co., publishers of Beatrix Potter’s books since 1902. For as long as I can remember I have loved literature and cultural heritage and I am fortunate to pursue a career that allows me to indulge both interests. I feel enormously privileged to work at the world’s leading museum of art and design, curating some of our most important literary heritage collections, including the world’s largest collection of Beatrix Potter’s drawings, literary manuscripts, correspondence, photographs and related materials.
It has never felt like work. After all these years I still feel a thrill when I unlock the drawer containing Potter’s celebrated letter to Noel Moore, dated 4 September 1893, in which she conceived her tale of Peter Rabbit, or hold in my hands Potter’s last known letter, written to her shepherd, Joseph Moscrop, shortly before her death in December 1943: ‘Very far through, but still some kick in me … I write a line to shake you by the hand, our friendship has been entirely pleasant.’
It is always a pleasure, too, to witness the delight of visitors to the V&A’s Beatrix Potter displays in Gallery 102. Potter was a frequent visitor to the V&A and drew inspiration from the costume collection for her illustrations to The Tailor of Gloucester: now her work inspires others. Among the drawings are intensely observed natural history studies and broad impressionistic landscapes; exquisite finished book illustrations and rough impetuous working drawings. All are an important part of Potter’s legacy and are testament to her extraordinary talent as a writer and illustrator.
Which is your favourite Beatrix Potter Tale?
When I was a child my family lived in a remote village in the Devon countryside and from the age of 8 I collected butterflies in a shoe box and recorded their characteristics in a little homemade book. I can still identify the Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Comma, Small Blue, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Clouded Yellow, Swallowtail, Wall Brown, Orange-tip, and so on. I think this is why I love The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse; Potter’s illustrations of her cast of tiny supporting characters, including her beautiful Red Admiral butterfly, are exquisitely and scientifically observed.
Which of Potter’s characters do you most identify with?
My favourite character is undoubtedly Benjamin Bunny because he is inventive and creative as well as naughty and rebellious – unlike Peter Rabbit, Benjamin knows that the ‘proper way’ to enter a garden ‘is to climb down a pear tree’. I suspect, however, that as a mum of three I have more in common with Mrs. Tittlemouse who wonders whether her house will ‘ever be tidy again’.
Did you grow up with Beatrix Potter?
I was born in Dunedin, New Zealand and have an American mother so my earliest childhood books are an eclectic mix. Early favourites were Babar, Edward Ardizzone’s thrilling Little Tim books and my mother’s 1950s American edition of Peter Pan. Beatrix Potter’s fame reached even the distant shores of New Zealand: she dedicated Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes (1922) to ‘little Peter in New Zealand’. I still possess a well-thumbed copy of The Tale of Tom Kitten, borrowed from the girl next door and never returned. It was one of my earliest books and I especially loved it because my grandmother had a cat called Mittens. Later I acquired other Peter Rabbit books, including The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck (though never The Tale of Peter Rabbit), as well as pencil tins and other merchandise.
Can you describe your favourite Beatrix Potter memory?
I remember reading The Tale of Tom Kitten as a young child and I can recall the appeal of its small size in my hands. But it was the illustrations that I loved, particularly of Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit scrubbing Moppet’s face and brushing Mittens’ fur. I pored over the wonderful detail in the pictures and in retrospect I think I must have been attracted to the delicate palette and the quaint old-fashioned flowers, costumes and setting.
My 5-year-old daughter loves reciting The Tale of Peter Rabbit (I have read it to her so often that she now knows it by heart), and when listening to her it strikes me that it is a story to be read aloud. She puts great emphasis on words like ‘gooseberry’ (which is a very funny word) and the onomatopoeic ‘scratch, scratch, scritch’ (best read with a low, gravelly voice).
Why do you think the appeal of her characters continues to endure over 100 years later?
Undoubtedly, the books have endured in part as a result of a hugely successful global merchandising programme which was in fact initiated by Potter herself as early as 1903. Potter’s early ideas included a Peter Rabbit doll and race game and she oversaw the design of all merchandise to ensure products remained faithful to her illustrations. Peter Rabbit is no longer a character in a book – he is found on everything from wallpaper and bedding sets to dinnerware and crisp packets. Today, children are more likely to be introduced to Peter Rabbit on TV rather than in the original Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Merchandising, of course, is only possible where there is strong characterisation and Potter created compelling characters – a naughty little rabbit, a mischievous tomcat, a foolish duck, a misfortunate frog, an industrious hedgehog and an impertinent squirrel. Children are not so different today as they were in 1902 – they still love animal stories and are still attracted to naughty, rebellious and disobedient characters who experience excitement, fear and anxiety and, of course, love, friendship and adventure. These are the themes of childhood.
What do you think is the most important aspect of the Beatrix Potter legacy?
In the 1840s Sir Henry Cole, the first Director of the V&A, deplored the ‘usual fashion of children’s books’ in which it was assumed ‘that the lowest kind of art is good enough to give the first impressions to a child’. He set about publishing his own Home Treasury series of children’s books, designing the covers himself and commissioning eminent contemporary artists for the illustrations. He hoped his books would instil ‘a taste for beauty in little children’.
Potter, too, offered very young children the opportunity to own beautiful objects of art and design. Her delicate watercolours are painstakingly drawn and carefully printed – Potter insisted on checking the printer’s proofs of all her illustrations. Her language is meticulous, elegant and sophisticated. Her phrases, like music, must be listened to as well as read. Potter paid great attention to the overall design of her books, advising on the appearance of title-pages, covers and endpapers. And yet, like Sir Henry Cole, she wanted her art to be affordable because ‘little rabbits cannot afford to spend 6 shillings on one book and would never buy it.’
For me, Potter’s greatest legacy as a children’s writer is her appreciation of the importance of writing up to the level of a child. She never underestimated her young audience. Her illustrations are acutely observed and her stories challenge children with difficult words and literary devices, including gentle irony and understatement. A genius at visual and verbal storytelling, Potter invited her readers into the creative process, creating compelling narratives through the subtle interplay of text and image. She believed, too, that children should not be lied to, sentimentalised or shielded from the harsh realities of life in the natural world: pigs become bacon, foxes eat ducks and rabbits are baked in pies.
To mark the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s birth the V&A’s display in Gallery 102 from 28 July 2016 (to 28 April 2017) is ‘Beatrix Potter’s London’ (drop-in, free of charge).
Born in Kensington, Potter regularly visited her local galleries and museums, including the V&A and the Natural History Museum, to foster her study of art and natural history. London was also home to almost all of Potter’s publishing ventures, including her most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Find out more here.