How Beatrix Potter Hopped Into Our Hearts

Mrs. Rabbit pours tea for Peter Rabbit while her other children watch. (1902–1907) (© Victoria and Albert Museum; image courtesy Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.)

The famed children’s author and illustrator Beatrix Potter lived exactly as one might expect. She reached an international audience from her home in the fairytale landscape of the English Lake District, where she traversed her sheep farm in clogs, penned heartfelt letters to children, and investigated the miniature worlds beneath her feet through a magnifying glass attached to a wooden walking stick. But her oeuvre isn’t limited to books such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901) or Benjamin Bunny (1903), as the Morgan Library’s Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature exhibition makes exceedingly clear, inviting visitors to gain new appreciation for her enduring stories, steadfast dedication, and endless curiosity.

Beatrix Potter was born in 1866 to a well-off family in London, where the author lived for most of her young life. She had few friends as she navigated the stifling social constraints of upper-class British life and instead found solace in the natural world. Potter owned at least 92 pets over the course of her lifetime, including a pair of salamanders (Sally and Mander), a bat, a frog, at least three lizards, a snake, a duck, mice, a family of snails, and, of course, bunnies (Benjamin and Peter were real rabbits). She intently studied their behavior and sketched them.

Without the pressure to earn a living or marry into wealth, Potters was free to dedicate herself entirely to her passions. She drew relentlessly as a child and adolescent. In her 20s and 30s, Potter emerged as a mycologist and naturalist. Detailed depictions of fungi such as “Anainta crocea, ‘Organe Grisette’, and Amanita muscaria. ‘Fly Agaric’” (1897) exemplify her scientific prowess. 

Morgan Library curator Philip Palmer didn’t know about Potter’s expertise in mushrooms when he began working on the show, which started at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and traveled to Nashville’s Frisk Museum and Atlanta’s High Museum before arriving in NYC. But he said his favorite book had always been The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906), the story of a dapper frog who embarks on a journey to prepare a gourmet dinner for his friends, loses his clothes, and evades the mouth of a large trout. 

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Potter crafted these drawings in 1876 at just 10 years old. (© Victoria and Albert Museum; image courtesy Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.)

“I asked for it to be read to me over and over again as a child,” Palmer told Hyperallergic. “There was something funny to me about Jeremy Fisher wearing these nice clothes — his waistcoat — but his house is full of mud and water and when he’s serving roasted grasshopper at the end to his friends, they’re a little turned off by the food. I love that combination of real animal instincts with polite human society.”

The second portion of the exhibition is dedicated to Potter’s 28 children’s books, the majority of which were published between 1902 and 1913. Many were based on her correspondences with children, which are displayed alongside finalized illustrations. The show features the eight-page letter to Noel Moore, the son of Potter’s former governess, that spawned The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901). Others include a series of miniature notes written in the voices of Potter characters such as the mischievous Squirrel Nutkin.

“She just wanted to delight kids,” Palmer said.

In 1905, Potter purchased Hilltop Farm in the Lake District, where she had vacationed since the age of 16. The animals she encountered in her new home — while staving off a pervasive rat problem — inspired new stories, including The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (1908), The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907), and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908). The Morgan reconstructed a room from her house in the center of its gallery, where children can read the Hilltop Tales on a cozy seat by a makeshift window. Potter insisted her books remain affordable and small enough to fit into kids’ hands.

One standout illustration is a small drawing of Little Pig Robinson, who is tricked into boarding a boat where he is scheduled to be served for dinner. He looks wistfully toward the open sea. Palmer noted that his fascination with Mr. Jeremy Fisher stemmed from the thrill of the frog’s near misses with death, the same type of excitement that drives stories such as The Tale of Little Pig Robinson (1930) and The Tale of Peter Rabbit, who plays chicken with the formidable Mr. McGregor.

“We might lump her in with other [artists whose] works are seen as kind of having cutesy animal characters. But I think that sells her work so short,” said Palmer, explaining that Potter’s characters are not only anatomically accurate, but follow their “true biological instincts” toward mischief, often with near-devastating consequences. Squirrel Nutkin, for example, loses half his tail and Tom Kitten is almost baked into a pastry. Palmer thinks these protagonists’ rebelliousness — a trait echoed in myths across centuries and cultures — is what makes their stories so appealing, even to children a hundred years on.

The latter part of Drawn to Nature delves into Potter’s final chapter. In 1913, she married local lawyer William Heelis and dedicated the rest of her life to farming Herdwick sheep, a thousand-year-old breed facing extinction. Potter became an active community member and bequeathed her land to the National Trust with the stipulation that her flocks be maintained, an attempt to keep both human farming traditions and the natural world alive. She published only a few more books but continued telling children stories through letters until her death in 1943.

In listing his favorite works, Palmer drew attention to an expertly crafted watercolor of a mushroom, which Potter painted just before penning the tale of Peter Rabbit in her letter to Noel Moore.

“In a two-day period, she painted this extremely rare mushroom in Scotland that her naturalist friend had never found himself,” Palmer said. “And then the next day she writes one of the most famous stories ever written for children. What an incredible two days, right?”

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