Beatrix Potter's books are so ubiquitous that they were simply part of growing up, alongside Dr. Seuss, at least for me. But there was something precious about my Potter books—their small size, textured dark blue covers, etching-like text imprinted on the covers. (That said, this is what I remember, not necessarily how they actually were. But it's the impression I'm talking about here!) They felt like little heirlooms, versus the cheap, glossy Seuss books with their bright colors, cheap paper, and bizarre characters.
Oh hai. The Tale of Benjamin Bunny
The Morgan's show, Beatrix Potter: The Picture Letters, on view through January 27, details how Potter developed her now-canonical tales in letters to the children of her former governess—she didn't know what to say to the kids, so she told stories. The show supports my recollections about the illustrations being finely detailed, accurate renditions of animal rather than cartoonish or anthropomorphic interpretations. Okay, so they wore little jackets and bonnets and stuff... but even those didn't look entirely comfortable, instead recalling toddlers dressed up for church in their stiff Sunday best. (There is one slightly disturbing divergence: the bunnies' leather shoe-shod feet are tiny.) But Potter was a bit of a pioneer, working primarily in the late 19th century and early 20th. She produced "merch," like greeting cards, early in her career, and pursued her uncompromising vision with focus that could not have been simple for a woman then.
She could paint plants, too. And kitties. Fawe Park
The Morgan show highlights her illustrated letters, beautiful artifacts that showed how integrated art and text were to Potter. The delicacy, and verismo, of her renditions of animals laced throughout missives to, in particular, children she knew. How lucky they were to be acquainted with Potter, and to receive such gem-like gifts that for her were merely her means of expression, like talking is for most. The Morgan revives such revered childhood companions as Peter Rabbit, Tom Kitten, and Jeremy Fisher. You might be surprised at how evocative these drawings and artifacts are, as was I.