A tale of Beatrix Potter

She may be best known as the creator of story-book rabbits, but a revealing exhibition shows her hidden life as a naturalist
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The Independent Travel

But how many people are familiar with Beatrix Potter the scientific observer or witty self-caricaturist? How many know that she was once a painter of greetings cards or tried her hand at illustrations of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland?

Now, a new exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, south London, entitled Beatrix Potter, Artist and Illustrator, reveals the unseen Beatrix Potter, the "whole woman" outside the "little white books" that made her a household name. It seems that everyone is suddenly fascinated by the modest farmer, who was known locally in Sawrey, Cumbria simply as Mrs Heelis. Filming for a Hollywood biopic, with Renée Zellweger touted as the lead, begins in March.

Anne Stevenson Hobbs, formerly Frederick Warne Curator of Children's Literature at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and great-niece of the illustrator Arthur Rackham, has put together an epic exhibition of nearly 250 works, from Potter's adolescent nature sketches through to the genesis of her little books and her later landscapes as well as photographs and tributes both to Potter and by Potter to other artists.

Hobbs hopes that she has created a portrait of a life in paintings: "From the very beginning, you've got her enjoying the scientific approach as well as doing drawings for fun. The other thing is her meticulousness and industriousness. She was endlessly redoing and perfecting."

Potter's approach to drawing, mixing pleasure with scholarship, is evident in the young artist's work. Alongside a charming childhood sketch of "hares at play", drawn for her younger brother, Bertram, is the teenage artist's wooden paintbox, complete with meticulous notes on which colours to use for flower paintings. Similarly, time spent with her childhood pets was not merely idle play, but used for valuable anatomical research. Adjacent to a photograph of a convalescing Beatrix, cradling her pet dormouse, Xarifa, are her pen and ink sketches of the animal from various angles.

As well as painting her domestic menagerie, Potter applied herself to cataloguing the natural world, particularly on holidays to Scotland and the Lake District. Watercolours of birds, bats, insects and amphibians and several fungi paintings are included, allowing visitors to add another dimension to the "whole woman" - Potter as natural historian and mycologist.

"She must have produced about 500 fungus and lichen drawings, including microscopic studies that are very interesting scientifically," says Hobbs, who believes Potter came close to discovering the antibiotic properties of penicillium mould in the course of her research.

The second half of the exhibition will deal with Beatrix Potter as illustrator, a side more familiar to the public, but here too there are surprises. As well her unpublished illustrations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Hobbs has discovered that Potter paid tribute to John Tenniel. Her wool-shop scene in Little Pig Robinson echoes a scene from his illustrations to Alice Through the Looking Glass. Hobbs is particularly proud of the narrative sequence, "The Rabbits' Christmas Party", with its Renoir-esque umbrella scene, which Hobbs hopes to display in "cartoon-strip" form, "at full stretch" across the walls, to highlight Potter's prowess as a narrative artist.

The little books inevitably feature, with some rare gems among the familiar images, including pencil sketches of the original Peter Rabbit from 1899.

The exhibition will highlight Potter's keen involvement in all aspects of her books, including not infrequent spats with her publisher. On one watercolour of Mrs McGregor, her publisher, Norman Warne, writes: "We still do not like the old woman's face. Will you please have another try at this." Hobbs elaborates, "Her people weren't very good."

In another incident, Hobbs recounts how the author's original cover design had Peter Rabbit running on all fours. The publishers chose instead the now iconic image, dismissed grumpily by Potter as "that idiotic prancing rabbit on the cover".

Her dry sense of humour is evident elsewhere, in particular in a letter from 1924, where she vents her annoyance at being mistaken for the socialist Beatrice Webb in the Sunday Herald. "I think the best contradiction would be to get photographed along with a favourite cow or pig and get it inserted in some more genteel newspaper! I had lately a pig that continually stood on its hindlegs leaning over the pig sty, but it's hanging up, unphotographed and cured now," she writes, including a cartoon of the pig and a rather unflattering self-caricature.

In 1920, Potter wrote wistfully, "it seems a pity ... that some of my old miscellaneous drawings cannot be published". This exhibition would surely have delighted her.

Beatrix Potter, 'Artist and Illustrator', Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 (020-8693 5254; www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk), to 22 January

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