Beatrix Potter craze continues as sale raises pounds 186,049: Mary Braid reports on the huge prices being paid for the soothing work of the Lakeland writer

A PEN-and-ink watercolour of guinea-pigs by Beatrix Potter fetched a record pounds 24,200 yesterday in the first auction devoted to the author's books and illustrations.

The current clamour for Potter's work showed no sign of abating as antiquarian book dealers and Beatrix Potter Society members competed for more than 60 first editions and watercolours at Christie's in London.

After securing the 3in by 7in Guinea Pig Gardeners, Justin Schiller, a New York collector of children's books, described Potter as 'the essence of escape from the harshness of reality back to an age of innocence'.

Mr Schiller also bought six table mats, with lace borders, depicting scenes from The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher, the frog who liked to exaggerate. They were bought for a Wall Street banking client for pounds 16,000. He said the buyer was a true fan.

'He buys Beatrix Potter to heal the wounds that he suffers in the course of his daily business,' Mr Schiller, who himself owns two Potter drawings, said. 'I'm just sad that she has become so expensive. So many people who really love her simply cannot afford her now.'

Mr Schiller, who has dealt in children's books for more than 30 years, traces Potter's present popularity to the early Eighties when children's literature became a respectable collectable. He said the 1893 guinea-pig watercolour was from her 'golden period' but said that people were paying too much for later inferior work.

Christie's mounted yesterday's sale after selling a privately printed 1902 copy of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, estimated at pounds 3,000, for pounds 28,600 in December.

Yesterday a watercolour of Peter Rabbit entering Mr McGregor's vegetable garden on his way to the 'soporific' lettuces - Ms Potter was demanding of her youthful readers - fetched pounds 20,900. The total sale fetched pounds 186,049.

Potter was in her mid-thirties when she privately published her first work, Peter Rabbit, after being turned down by six publishing houses. She had a materially rich but lonely childhood and first showed her talent for drawing in the nursery. At 47 she married a Lake District solicitor, against the wishes of her authoritarian parents, and then devoted her time to married life and sheep farming.

(Photographs omitted)