Seattle writer Emily Zach’s book “The Art of Beatrix Potter” shows the beloved children’s author was far more than a tweedy Victorian, wandering the meadows. She was an artist of astonishing range.
Generations of readers have loved Beatrix Potter’s books without giving much thought to the woman who wrote and illustrated them. Who was Beatrix Potter? Perhaps a proper young Victorian who rambled the English countryside in her country tweeds with her watercolor kit, waiting for inspiration to strike.
Seattle writer Emily Zach’s new book, “The Art of Beatrix Potter,”(Chronicle, $40) a collection of Potter’s life’s work, shows she was far more than a 19th-century weekend painter. She was an artist of astonishing range. She composed accurate illustrations of the natural world and its creatures, from lizards to mushrooms to her beloved bunnies. She painted beautiful landscapes. Her architectural drawings had grace, proportion and scale.
She used all her talents in the service of her creations — Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Mrs. Tiggy-winkle the Hedgehog and Jeremy Fisher the Frog, to name a few of the cast of creatures in her 30 books. Just one Potter book — “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” — has sold an estimated 45 million copies worldwide.
Zach, a 26-year-old graduate of Western Washington University, went to work for local books packager Becker & Mayer right out of college. She spent years doing photo research and negotiating rights for the use of images.
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She thought she had a great job. Then she got a better one.
When San Francisco publisher Chronicle Books decided to put out a book to mark the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth, they put Zach to work researching images. That involved some satisfying detective work — contacting museums, mostly in England, in search of Beatrix Potter’s art. Eventually, she was asked to write the book; with the exception of some essays by Potter experts, she wrote all the text.
Zach, who now works as a production editor and photo researcher for Seattle-based Girl Friday Productions, answered some questions about her subject and inspiration:
Q: You organized the book according to the different parts of the U.K. that provided Potter with inspiration — Scotland, the Lake District, Wales. How did that come about?
A: I was contacting museums that have collections of her art, looking for exciting things that people hadn’t seen before. I realized that her family went on holiday, sometimes for as long as nine months out of the year, and that it was at those locations that she did a lot of her art. I thought that would be a really interesting way to organize it.
Q: She came from a privileged background, but she was no dilettante — she showed enormous talent and drive early on. What did her parents do to encourage her?
A: Her father definitely encouraged her. Both her parents did, but he was a photographer in his spare time. He would take her with him on his photography expeditions. I think she picked up a sense of composition and observation from those trips.
They also brought art instructors into her home. You can see that, from her earliest work, she is recording her observations and noting differences.
Q: She was an animal lover. She rescued and tamed two mice; she had her own hedgehog. She even kept frogs, the inspiration for her Jeremy Fisher character.
A: When she was a child, they (Potter and her brother) kept cages for their animals in their schoolroom, tucked away in the nooks and crannies. The parents and the rest of her household might not have been aware of how many there were.
There was a lizard named Judy. There was her own Benjamin Bunny — she had him for a week before people noticed. She spent most of her time in this room, a nursery that became her schoolroom that eventually became her scientific laboratory.
Q: She did love bunnies.
A: She enjoyed their personalities. They could be naughty, or they could be lazy, they were always her companions. She was fascinated with how they were put together.
Q: She was an early self-publisher — she paid to have “Peter Rabbit” printed before a publisher picked it up. And then it sold 56,000 copies within a year of its publication.
A: She had been sending sketches and ideas to a few different publishers; she had shopped “Peter Rabbit” around. She had very specific ideas about what she wanted … she didn’t want them to be too expensive for kids. The original run (200-300 copies) was in black and white because of the expense (of printing color). She gave them away for Christmas presents. Warne (Frederick Warne, her eventual publisher) pointed out to her that they could do color more inexpensively because of advances in technology.
Q: She really knew animals, and some of the books are pretty scary because they reflect real animal behavior. I’m thinking about “The Tale of Mr. Tod,” in which a fox captures some young bunnies. He’s ready to have them for lunch — until an obstreperous badger intervenes.
A: She told her editor on that book, “I’m tired of writing about goody-goody creatures.” The fight scene (between the fox and the badger) shows realism when it comes to the animal world. As interested as she was in animals, she was not sentimental. That’s just the cycle of life — they fight, sometimes you have to slaughter them.
Q: You’ve put a lot of time and effort into studying Beatrix Potter’s life. If you could meet her today, what would you ask her?
A: She had scientific aspirations, but a paper she gave to the Linnaean Society of London (on mushroom reproduction) was dismissed.
If it hadn’t been dismissed, would she have pursued science? She was really interested in science and natural processes. I think she would have done really well.