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Beatrix Potter - Fantasy and Fun in Art

Beatrix Potter - Fantasy and Fun in Art
The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter

In the Autumn of 2023 members of the Beatrix Potter Society came from all over the globe to meet together in Windermere in the Lake District. As a member myself and great admirer of the many facets of Beatrix Potter, I was asked to say a few words about her use of "Fantasy and Fun in Art" in her "little books". Below is the transcript of my talk, you may find it helpful to have a copy of "The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin" and of "The Tale of Two Bad Mice" to hand to enjoy the drawings I refer to.

"I’ve chosen some scenes from two of Beatrix’s little books where her love of nature, writing and art gives her imagination and sense of humour an outlet – she releases her inner child on to the pages of these tales, and fabulously illustrates the mischievous happenings in an imaginary miniature world.

Her strong sense of imagination is evident in her first book, the Tale of Peter Rabbit, but her sense of fun goes into over-drive in her second book, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin with the antics of the cheeky red squirrels.

I love the two illustrations where the squirrels are making rafts and then sailing them out to the island.  In the foreground a squirrel is deep in thought as he holds and intently studies a stick - will this make a good paddle? Or will I sink in the lake?!  In the next drawing, as they set off in a long line, one after the other on succession of home-made rafts made of twigs, they are each using a perfectly sized stick as an oar.   

With few leaves on the trees and the autumnal colours of the fells in the background, it’s clearly harvest time for the crafty little red squirrels.  Beatrix draws their upright bushy tails as wide as wide can be, so like a sail to catch the wind as they travel across the lake to the distant island which holds the promise of a grand gathering of nuts.  It proves anything can be overcome with a little imagination and she’s given them a leap from reality into the world of fantasy, it’s so much more imaginative than just having the squirrels sneak on board a tourist boat.   

In the Tale of Two Bad Mice, Beatrix’s own pet mice, Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca are lovingly working together as husband and wife, but creating havoc in the quest for something to eat.  They cause mass destruction amongst the dolls’ house furniture when no one is at home.  The joint of ham had looked so realistic, so perfect, so delicious -  cooked and ready to eat - ooh irresistible for the hungry mice - but it’s just too hard for them to cut!  

The particular image I love which is just so funny and impossible is the one of Tom Thumb being so angry and frustrated smashing the toy ham with a coal shovel with pieces of broken china all over the floor.  Hunca Munca stands on a chair next to him, trying a more delicate method to remove a fish from a plate. She patiently watches as she holds the plate at an angle hoping the fish will just slide off it.  The temptation to eat the food that is not theirs is so strong and you can really see their utter frustration, anger and disappointment coming through in their actions. 

But the story remains light-hearted and ends well with an apologetic Tom Thumb paying the dolls for everything he broke. "

Beatrix began life as an isolated child in South Kensington, London and enjoyed studying her many small pets and visiting museums. She became an entertaining children's author and talented artist (particularly of small creatures and fungi) who went on to be a lifelong learner - teaching herself gardening and sheep breeding in the Lake District. I find her to be an inspiring and strong independent woman, ahead of her time and leaving a legacy for all. She deliberately purchased numerous farms in order to bequeath them to the National Trust, an organisation whose motto is "for everyone, for ever".