How vile to suddenly be made aware that the way you remember something important is significantly different to the customary way. It brings many other things into question. This is the thought that preoccupied me when walking through the Beatrix Potter show, Drawn to Nature, at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Either I’ve got the thrust of Potter’s work completely wrong, or everyone else has. The V&A’s show is reverent, sweet, and focuses on the joy and cleverness of Potter’s creations. The Beatrix Potter stories I remember are small amphitheatres of unease and shame. I remember finding her frog, Mr. Jeremy Fisher, embarrassing: with his horrible long fingers perpetually worrying his mouth, his feminine muscular legs with their pointed toes, his skulking balletic movements. It bothered me a great deal that he was always putting his socked and galoshed feet in the water. His damp pond world, so evocatively illustrated by Potter, made me feel asphyxiated, lost and powerless. Mr. Fisher seemed a rude and sensuous being in a way that made me wonder why my mother allowed him to rest beside my bed. My first murky memories of sexual feeling come from reading Potter’s The Roly-Poly Pudding story (renamed The Tale of Samuel Whiskers), in which another grotesque and oddly graceful, paunchy male character – a rat – captures a brave and headstrong Tom Kitten during his adventure up a chimney. Mr Whiskers gets his rat wife, Anna-Maria, to tie Tom up in string, slather him in stolen butter, and roll him in stolen dough in order to eat him. After all this, Samuel Whiskers announces, “I do not think it will be a good pudding. It smells sooty.” It still makes my face burn now.
I am not entirely alone in my thinking this way about her work. Graham Greene was an ardent admirer of Beatrix Potter’s stories and cited them as vital to the development of his dark and clinging literary style. I would go as far as saying that the characters of Javitt and Maria in Greene’s short story, ‘Under the Garden’ are based almost whole cloth on Potter’s Samuel Whiskers and Anna-Maria. Greene wrote an essay in his collected essays, called ‘Beatrix Potter’ in which he charted Potter’s psychological development through the themes in her stories for children, naming The Tale of Samuel Whiskers as an example of the ‘great near-tragedies’ she wrote at a time he suspected she might have suffered some great emotional ordeal. Potter, in a very rare written response, said she had only been suffering the after effects of flu at that time, and that she deplored the ‘Freudian school’ of criticism.
Potter’s version of events seems to have prevailed. The show at the V&A is largely a biographical one, rather than an artistic one, but avoids discussion of the strangeness of her biography almost entirely. It instead focuses on the aspects of her life she promoted herself: her botanical drawing skill, her passion and knowledge as a farmer, her conservation efforts, and her marketing savvy. She is presented as sensible, talented, and ambitious, and not at all strange.
The exhibition is very small and even in the small space, the items are spread thin. Much of the presence of the exhibition comes from the sculptural display cases made of some cheap-looking material, maybe MDF, which appear to now be a trademark of temporary exhibitions at the V&A. One room is made up like a green wooden cottage, the other like a play-pretend archive room and so on. The children seem to like the MDF, and there are places for them to crawl into, and steps for them to climb on. While I dislike this style of exhibition strongly, at least the chunky false rooms make a little more sense here, than in more adult exhibitions.
A selection of Potter’s early work in other media, such as tapestry, are on display, as are some of her juvenile drawings, which are first-rate. Drawings of the characters from her books are limited. Perhaps this is because most of her famous stories recently celebrated their centenary editions to sufficient fanfare, and thus this exhibition seeks to show something other than the book illustrations. Regardless, almost everything Potter created, and is remembered for, was intended to be viewed in a book. Consequently, the most successful part of the exhibition is a little nook with a bench, above which, on a shelf, are small copies of all her most famous children’s books, unusually and mercifully, not attached to a chain to prevent theft.
I sat down and reread The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher. I discovered Mr. Fisher is not very rude and that his fingers were in his mouth because he was eating a butterfly sandwich (hardly a good reason): perhaps I misremembered the fear and the unsafety? But, if one does what most children do when ‘reading’ and look only at the pictures, allowing one’s mind to fill in the narrative, all the old associations are still there; I had to close the book. Potter’s stories contain the picturesque and ruddy beauty of Great Britain’s wilderness, spirit and animals – but also its murky, dark, and disquieting aspects. Potter joins a long line of artists who chose a stringent obtuseness of attitude in public regarding interpretation of their work, and perhaps all for the better. This show does little to perforate the image she constructed, and for that, I think she would be grateful.
Victoria & Albert Museum
London SW7 2RL
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Image: Beatrix Potter, illustration from The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher, 1906