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A Fanciful Nature

By Bob Bolin | HUMANITIES, July/August 1998 | Volume 19, Number 4

“I have never cared tuppence for popularity or for the modern child,” declared Beatrix Potter to her publisher. But she did care deeply about her art and her business. Potter’s notebooks, letters, and illustrations now being preserved and cataloged at the Free Library of Philadelphia offer a window onto the children’s publishing world of the late nineteenth century. Two other children’s book illustrators’ collections are also being conserved -- her predecessor Kate Greenaway and her contemporary Arthur Rackham. Together, they represent three of the most important and influential British book illustrators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Free Library of Philadelphia holds the largest collection of Potter materials outside Great Britain, as well as significant collections of the works of Greenaway and Rackham. The library is currently completing an extensive preservation project that will make its collection far more accessible to the public. The index to the collections have been added to the Library's RLIN database, which allows national and international bibliographic access, and soon, according to project director William Lang, "anyone with a mouse and a modem will be able to access the collection." This project marks the first occasion on which any collection of these illustrators will be completely cataloged. In addition, the library has taken steps to conserve letters and original works of the illustrators and provide acid- free containers for manuscripts and presentation copies making them even more accessible within the library; papers which had been too fragile to circulate have been restored to a state in which they can be displayed to the public.

The three illustrators represent much more than popular middle class taste and values in Great Britain. The library’s collections reveal some fascinating facts about the publishing and merchandising of children’s literature, and offer a link to the high art and art criticism of Victorian Britain. Greenaway had maintained a correspondence with John Ruskin and received from him early advice to concentrate on figure drawing as a complement to her designs and to adhere to realism. Beatrix Potter’s father was a friend of artist John Everett Millais, who gave the young Beatrix advice on how to mix paint. Her interests as a naturalist intersected with her interest in contemporary British art; she regularly attended and evaluated exhibitions. Rackham worked within a later trend than Potter, a trend which relied upon stylized, attenuated figures and amassed detail as seen in artists such as Burne-Jones. It’s no wonder that the naturalist Beatrix Potter saw the imaginative style of Rackham’s work as “eccentric and unlovely.” Rackham and Greenaway’s choices also help to place them within the British cultural scene; Rackham illustrated an edition of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, and Greenaway produced the artwork for The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning, a hero of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

While the three illustrators may appear to have been stylistically disparate, they each created within their work a fully fleshed-out and complete world, which blends the realistic and fantastic. Rackham's work, in which the world of faerie bleeds out of the forests of Britain, offers the reader an array of ogres, trolls, and elves within the wild autumnal wood; his tangle of forest holds a menace that runs deeper than any threat in the gardens or parks of his contemporaries, while his preferred palette of yellows and browns imposes an undeniable gravity upon even his more whimsical scenes. Rackham's treatment of fairy tale themes develops the cruelty of the tales' monsters as thoroughly as it does the nobility of their heroes.

While Potter may have considered his work eccentric, Rackham shared with her an intense interest in naturalism. Although best known for his more fanciful work, he produced scrupulously detailed watercolors of land and seascapes. Several of his works of Australian flora, painted while in his teens, suggest that he developed early in his career his interest in the bizarre and fantastic elements of nature. His interest in naturalism informs even his most imaginative work; he continued until the end of his life to create studies of naturalistic trees, shrubs, and country life.

Greenaway's illustrations, though much more domestic, share a similar sense of awe in nature, which infuses her realistic scenes. "You can go into a beautiful new country," she writes in 1896, "if you stand under an apple tree and look up to the blue sky through the white flowers -- to go to this scented land is an experience. I suppose I went to it very young before I could really remember and that is why I had such a wild delight in cowslips and apple-blossoms. They always give me the same strange feeling of trying to remember, as if I had known them in a former world. It's such a beautiful world, especially in the spring." In another letter, she makes her case more plainly: "Children like something that excites their imagination -- a very real thing mixed up with a great unreality like Bluebeard." Her illustrations convey this understanding of children's desires, of her own childhood desire, to see a hidden beauty and excitement in even the smallest things. In her work, children demonstrate an enchanting familiarity with the natural world around them. She designed children’s frocks, which would allow them to appear as part of the natural landscape. Copies of these frocks soon became the fashion for children throughout the country.

Potter's juxtaposition of fanciful and natural may seem the strangest of the three: her anthromorphized animals inhabit an intensely realistic countryside. She possessed from an early age a keen interest in the natural world, and her drawings and watercolors reflect the close scrutiny to which she subjected the plants and fungi, which she had sought out. The animals that inhabit this world are also rendered with an attention to realism; her rabbits, hedgehogs, pigs, and squirrels are drawn from life models, most of which Potter kept as pets. It may seem odd at first, then, that she dresses these scrupulously realistic animals in waistcoats and aprons. Yet, the same powers of observation that allowed her to create such cleanly detailed studies of nature also showed her the personalities of these creatures. Potter from the beginning saw the expressive powers of her models; she chose as the model for an early endeavor at Christmas card design "that charming rascal Benjamin Bouncer, our tame jack hare." In the same journal entry from May 1890 she writes, "Then I retired to bed and lay awake chuckling till 2 in the morning, and afterwards had an impression that Bunny came to my bedside in a white cotton night cap and tickled me with his whiskers." Potter often amused children as well as herself with her pets' antics. In her journal for November 1895 she recalls a tea to which she had brought Peter Rabbit: "He caused shrieks of amusement by sitting up in the arm-chair and getting on to the tea-table. The children were satisfied, but it is tiresome that he will never show off. He really is good at tricks when hungry, in private, jumping (stick, hands, hoop, back and forward), ringing a little bell and drumming on a tambourine." Potter took pride in her ability to train her animals and admired them at least as much as their literary counterparts.

Potter and Greenaway both earned their living from their work, which was unusual for women of the time, and both demonstrated an understanding of the state of the publishing business. Twenty years after the initial success of her first book, Under the Window, Greenaway confided to John Ruskin in a letter, "There are not any very good children's books about just now that I have seen. The rage for copying mine seems over, so I suppose someone will step to the front with something new." This flood of imitators, assisted by booksellers who often passed off the work of others as Greenaway, were a professional annoyance for her, but, at the same time, affirmed her appeal. Her almanacs and nursery rhyme collections had become the standard for children’s books of the day.

Potter also knew what children's publishers were looking for, although she didn't always agree that they should get it. In 1920, when her publisher requested that she produce a book featuring pigeons as the main characters, she flatly refused with the declaration: "You have no lever to make use of with me; beyond sympathy with you and your firm, nothing else would induce me to go on at all. You see I am not short of money.” Her success had allowed her to purchase a piece of land in the Lake District on which she raised sheep; the real animals sometimes tended to take precedence over the headaches which accompanied publication.

While she had once written admiringly of Greenaway, upon repeated requests from Potter’s publisher for a birthday book in the style of the other illustrator, Potter was less flattering in her response. "It would be a large order to make specially 365 miscellaneous aimless drawings. I should imagine that Miss Greenaway was a prolific designer and had most of these little figures in her portfolio, and pieced out the number with some [that] can only be called rubbish. It isn't worth drawing anything as feeble as the turnip on Jan. 18th; the old woman Jan 20th is a contrast to it -- excellent. I suppose there is a public for birthday books; there is no accounting." It should be noted, of course, that Peter Rabbit's Almanack for 1929 appeared three years later.

Rackham, too, made artistic compromises for commercial success. Early he had displayed his watercolors and oil paintings at galleries to strong reviews, and the decision to become an exclusively commercial artist apparently tormented Rackham. In his notebooks from the 1930s he wrote, “I began life with two fixed purposes which for many years seemed impossible of achievement. Despairing of success in either, I compromised as middle age drew near and burnt my boats with respect to the more imperatively urgent of the two. Immediately that step was taken, success in the less aim followed and has been maintained, and all is vanity. Too late I know the urgency of the injunction, `know thyself.’” Rackham was actively involved in the productions of his books; he approved the paper and plates, and kept abreast of advances in printing. Although he appreciated the fame his commissioned work brought him, he believed that, inevitably, it came at a great cost.

The Free Library’s collection reflects the publishing vagaries of children’s literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The library possesses an extensive collection of pirated editions of Peter Rabbit -- Potter had filed incorrectly for a copyright. The books were put out by rival publishers with the Potter text and illustrations by others. The library also holds many of the limited editions Potter had published, numbering several hundred and intended for friends. Potter’s books had a great personal value to her: several had grown out of sketches and watercolors she had prepared for friends and admirers.

The Free Library of Philadelphia’s project should allow that audience to broaden even further. The addition of these catalogs of the collections to the library’s RLIN database will provide scholarly access that before now was unavailable, and the preservation, restoration, and exhibition of letters, manuscripts, and artwork will allow these three artists to be more fully appreciated by their intended audience, the general public.

About the Author

Bob Bolin is a writer in Minneapolis.

Funding Information

The Free Library of Philadelphia received $150,000 from the Endowment to preserve and catalog their collections of Kate Greenaway, Beatrix Potter, and Arthur Rackham.