Newly Discovered Beatrix Potter Drawings Go On Display

Newly Discovered Beatrix Potter Drawings Go On Display

When the news is dark, there is only so much of it that you can read. So here is a joyful surprise, for those who love the work of English writer and illustrator Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). Four previously unknown drawings by the “Peter Rabbit” author were recently discovered in Melford Hall, an English country house built in the 16th century. The discovery and resulting exhibition coincides with celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth.

Beatrix Potter was a regular visitor to the Melford estate, which was owned by her cousin’s husband, and she often brought pets and toys as gifts for their children. The family still lives in the house today, and among other treasures possess the original prototype “Jemima Puddleduck” stuffed animal, which the author gave to her cousin’s children. However no one suspected that there were hidden treasures in the house, as Josephine Waters, the manager of the property, described in a press release from the National Trust:

“I was moving a bookcase together with a colleague, and whilst we were going through some of the books we discovered a drawing tucked inside, it was classic Potter style and we immediately knew it was one of hers,” said Josephine. ” It was an absolutely spine-tingling moment, I remember all the hairs on the back on my neck stood up as we realised what we’d found. Working with a collection like this, it was a dream come true.”

For those who think of Beatrix Potter exclusively as a writer and illustrator of children’s stories, these drawings will be something of a revelation. Potter was a highly skilled draughtswoman and watercolorist, who in addition to her careful observation of animals and plants, had a keen understanding of and appreciation for architecture and interior design. Perhaps the best example of this from her published work are the magnificent illustrations that accompany “The Tailor of Gloucester” (1902), where she carefully studied both the exteriors and interiors of buildings that served as the backgrounds for scenes in her stories, and then populated those scenes with the genteel creatures of her imagination.

In these newly discovered drawings, we see a series of images that reflect interior and exterior spaces on the Melford estate. One shows a bedroom or perhaps an attic at the Hall, filled with some old steamer trunks, a canopy bed, an armchair, and a painting or mirror that appears that could be hanging askew. Another drawing is a rendering of the handsome fireplace in the sitting room, with a folding screen and what is probably a Georgian workbox-on-stand off to one side. There is also a simpler drawing of the opening to a staircase that is hidden behind some oak paneling, as well as a drawing of part of the roof and one of the Tudor turrets of the house.

The exhibition “Beatrix Potter’s Melford”, which will include not only these newly-discovered drawings but others that Beatrix Potter made while visiting the estate, as well as objects associated with her and her art, opens on July 13th at Melford Hall, located about an hour SW of Cambridge, and runs until the last weekend in October.  

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Fireplace At Melford Hall, by Beatrix Potter

Independence Day Giveaway: Books for Little Patriots

In honor of Independence Day – and courtesy of my friend, the lovely and talented Amelia Hamilton – this Friday, July 4th, we’re giving away a free copy of each of her two fantastic children’s books: “One Nation Under God: A Book for Little Patriots”, and “10 Steps to Freedom: A Growing Patriot’s Guide to the American Revolution”.

One Nation Under God is a wonderful teaching tool, which uses counting and poetry to explain concepts which can sometimes be tough for young readers to grasp.  Beginning, appropriately enough, with the number 1 for God, Hamilton takes each number from 1-10 in turn, and explains different aspects of the American republic and its history, from the Bill of Rights to the branches of the military services.  For example, for the number 4, Hamilton explains who each of the four U.S. Presidents carved on Mount Rushmore were, while for the number 9, the nine Justices of the Supreme Court are engaged, appropriately enough, in a tug-of-war.

In 10 Steps to Freedom, Hamilton again uses numbers to great effect, only this time by tracing ten key moments in the path to Independence, from the Boston Tea Party to the election of George Washington as the first President of the United States.  Along the way, we get to meet important figures from our country’s history, including Paul Revere, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin.  It’s not easy to explain concepts like the Declaration of Independence or the ratification of the Constitution to children, but Hamilton’s poetry and the colorful accompanying images draw readers in, encouraging them to learn more about the people, situations, and concepts presented.

Anyone who has read to a child knows that oftentimes these books can be a chore for adults.  So often these days, children’s books seem to talk down to their audience, using babyish or relativist terms.  This is not the case here, and those who have children to teach or entertain will enjoy reading these books as much as their charges will.  In her poem about what the Statue of Liberty symbolizes, for example, Hamilton explains the seven rays which emanate from the crown atop Lady Liberty’s head in a way children can understand, and adults will ponder over, giving both an opportunity for further reflection and discussion:

On her crown, those seven rays

Remind Americans every day

That on seven lands and seven seas

Many still are not yet free.

It’s also a delicate balance, presenting stories of warfare to children without intentionally and unnecessarily frightening them.  Hamilton admirably handles the task, by pointing out that brains and brawn had to work together in order to gain the freedoms which Americans enjoy today.  In asking children to remember why we celebrate Independence Day every year, she notes how freedom came at a cost, and was achieved by two different types of fighters: “Some with guns, and some with pens.” Realizing that both were necessary to form and preserve the United States is a crucial step for children to reach, in their civic understanding.

Both books are beautifully illustrated, with bright, dynamic pictures by illustrator Anthony Resto.  Using a mixture of imagined historical scenes and elements from everyday life to accompany Hamilton’s poems, there are many charming details.  In the illustration of the three branches of the federal government for example, we are shown a large tree, with a boy in a tire swing.  And while Betsy Ross sews the American flag, two colonial children play alongside her with a hoop and a drum.  The pictures give adults the opportunity to go into greater detail with children, about the history and ideas being brought to life through these images.

Interested in seeing more for yourself, or as a gift for some little ones in your life? Visit the entry form by following this link; you may enter to win between now and midnight tomorrow.  One entry per reader, please.  The winner will be announced Friday morning here on the blog.

My special thanks to Amelia Hamilton for allowing me to share these terrific books with all of you, and of course to all of my readers for their support.  Good luck!

Growing Patriots

Digging Deep into the Peanut Butter

Last night I was going to eat peanut butter out of the jar – what? I’m a guy – and found myself rifling through the cutlery drawer in search of a particular spoon that I wanted.  The jumble of mismatched silverware at the Fortress of Solitude reflects the fact that I don’t entertain much, and when I do, it’s usually with finger foods and an emphasis on drinks.  So the spoon I was looking for, and eventually found, was one that I’ve used many times in the past for this purpose, and have become accustomed to.

Aside from my (questionable) bachelor eating habits however, the search for the spoon at the end of my day was strangely mirrored by a search I had gone through that very morning, through the silk and wool jungle undergrowth I call a tie rack.  I was looking for a tie in a particular shade of blue, to contrast with the gingham shirt I intended to wear to the office, and ended up having to take every tie off the rack until I found it.  Yet there was never any question, to my mind, that the tie in question was the one I had to wear that particular day, any more than my protein overload later that night was going to take place using one particular spoon, or not at all.

Why do we give inanimate objects this kind of power over us? Would the peanut butter have tasted any different had it been eaten with another spoon? Or would my shirt have been spoiled by wearing a different, but perfectly acceptable tie from the one I had intended?

Psychologists tell us that children with Asperger’s Syndrome can develop rigid fixations on particular objects, which help them to find a sense of order in the universe.  When the object which they feel is critical to the completion of some task or activity is unavailable, they may become inconsolable or withdrawn.  This is behavior which can be observed even among children who do not suffer from Asperger’s: one thinks of the character Linus from the “Peanuts” comics, for example, and his security blanket.

As adults, despite all of our supposed sophistication and wisdom gained from leaving childhood behind, we can all point to certain objects we possess which we associate with a feeling of continuity in our lives.  It may be a shirt we consider “lucky”, because we wore it on the day we met that certain someone for the first time.  Or it might be a certain box, where we keep ephemera like concert tickets or birthday cards.

However the real power of these otherwise ordinary objects is not intrinsic to the objects themselves.  Destroy them, and you do not destroy the self, any more than you destroy what such objects represent, unperceived though that meaning may be to the untrained eye.  Rather, their power lies in their ability to transform us, something which, maybe without even realizing it, we are the ones granting them the ability to do.  You won’t love your grandmother the less if you accidentally smash the dish she left you in her will, or ruin your marriage when you burn a hole in that favorite chair you bought on your honeymoon – although there may be other consequences, in that instance.

What matters in such cases is the good that these objects lead us to do, whether it is enjoying a simple pleasure, recalling someone dear to us, or serving as a reminder of what matters in our lives, and the goals we are striving toward.  So yes, the peanut butter would taste just as good with a different spoon, and the shirt would have looked just as well with a different tie.  As long as I recognize the fact that I’m the one who gives them their significance, then I will be sure to keep things in perspective.

Now where are my Superman socks…

Clearly this kid didn't need a spoon...

Clearly this kid didn’t need a spoon…