Monday, June 13, 2022

Day 5 – Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature

Today we returned to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see a special exhibit, Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature, and to hear from two experts, the curator of the exhibit and a gentleman who has written about a collector of Potter ephemera. The exhibit, which had been delayed by the pandemic until this year, was intended to show how Potter’s love of nature informed her work and that although she had grown up in London, she had a strong interest in and knowledge of science developed through family influence, holidays in the country, and the Natural History Museum across the street from the V&A.
For those who might have feared that the exhibit would be cutesy or twee, that was not the case; instead, it reveals a woman of many interests and skills. One very human aspect of her personality was that she kept a journal in code so she could vent. The exhibit portrayed a thoughtful young woman who was educated at home by governesses while her brother went away to boarding school but seems to have had more freedom to pursue her interests than Vera Brittain, for example. Peter Rabbit began as a newsy letter to a former governess’s son. One thing I found particularly interesting was Potter’s preference for watercolors and a paint box that had belonged to her mother was in the exhibition (it looks more like a sewing box). I think my mother would most like the photo of Beatrix with her Springer Spaniel. The exhibit interested me but I did not feel it was successful in its efforts to reach children. There were questions aimed at them in the displays but these seemed very lame. The exhibit is at the V&A from Feb 12 – Sep 25, 2022.
Beatrix's paintbox and
watercolor sample
As we were about to enter the exhibit, we met up with Andrew Wiltshire who Dr. Welsh had encountered on some previous British Studies trip and stayed in touch with. He was a businessman whose mother grew up in Essex near Leslie Linder, a man who developed an interest in Beatrix Potter as adult. Linder obtained copies of pages of Potter’s journals and worked for several years to decipher the code. After breaking the code, Linder had the journal published. He also collected a vast amount of Potter memorabilia and left what he had collected to the Potter Society.
Andrew described his parents’ backgrounds to me over tea. His father was an English orphan brought up by the Salvation Army who went overseas to earn a living. He met Andrew’s mother by chance when asked to bring mail back to England and although she was just a girl at the time, they began to correspond. After the father traveled to Australia to marry someone else, who turned out to have married before he arrived, he eventually looked up the girl (now a woman) back in Essex and they married.
In the afternoon, Andrew and the curator of the exhibit, Annemarie Bilclough, spoke to our group. Andrew explained that his interest in Leslie Linder’s Potter obsession resulted from material Linder had given to Andrew’s mother. He wrote a biography of Linder and became an active member of the Beatrix Potter Society. After the exhibit leaves the V&A, it is traveling to the Morgan Library in NYC, then to Nashville where the North America Potter Society is having its annual meeting, and then to Atlanta. Andrew is planning to travel to Nashville in August 2023 and visit Hattiesburg to see the de Grummond Collection and spend time with Dr. Welsh and Ellen Ruffin.
Unsurprisingly, this title was prominently
displayed in Gloucester when we visited
Annemarie Bilclough is the curator who worked for four years to organize this exhibit in conjunction with the National Trust. She described how they were looking for a unique hook for the exhibit’s theme and decided on nature. From the beginning, there was a strong design focus, both in terms of layout and size but also how the story would be told. She wanted items that would convey the importance of each of Beatrix’s family members and also to show how essential London was to her development. She also empathized how much Beatrix admired and was influenced by Randolph Caldecott. Her biggest regret was that because of the Covid delay the original picture letter of Peter Rabbit had been lent to an exhibit in Japan (I thought it was very gracious of the V&A not to renege on its agreement; I am sure that would be bad form, but I bet some do it and when I mentioned this to one of our subsequent hosts, she agreed). She also made it clear how difficult it was to narrow down the items to something like 165. I was very curious about the mechanics of curatorship: how one knows what items are out there (imagine trying to do this before email and the Internet; obviously, I know it was done but must have taken years longer), how one asks to borrow them, what if they arrive and aren’t suitable, how are they shipped and insured. She said she already knew what was out there and had visited America (there are Potter items at the de Grummond, at Houghton Library at Harvard, at the Morgan Library, at Princeton, and elsewhere) although she got no items for the exhibit from the US (it wasn’t clear if this was Covid related or if these institutions simply did not want their materials going overseas).
After doing some damage at the V&A gift shop, I went to see My Fair Lady at the London Coliseum. I remember seeing the movie with my mother and Aunt Justine when I was little but I had never seen a live performance and it was delightful, with great costumes and sets. Harry Hadden-Paton, who played Edith’s husband on Downton Abbey was a very convincing Professor Higgins. The actress playing Eliza seemed a little too strident at times but I admired her voice and enunciation. Vanessa Redgrave played Mrs. Higgins and although I know all the songs by heart, I did not remember that she was in on the plan to turn the flower girl into someone who could pass for a duchess. I thought the show was more than worth the £23 I spent. I always forget that British theatres do not provide programs although you can buy fancy ones.

Miles walked: 5.2
Books – ordered two I have not been able to find in any shop

1 comment:

JaneGS said...

I have always admired Potter's work and so really enjoyed hearing about your visit to this exhibit. The paint box is an interesting artifact, and the photo with the dog is priceless. I have long wanted to read a bio of Potter, and I find it so interesting that she kept a journal in code!

I would have loved seeing My Fair Lady on the stage. It was one of my dad's favorite musicals, and I listened to the LP countless times growing up, and I've seen the movie at least a dozen times, but never on the stage. Seeing Vanessa Redgrave on stage would be incredible. I am also been a fan. I like the original Pygmalion as well.