Bunny tales bountiful for Beatrix Potter

March 06, 1994|By Los Angeles Daily News

The story of Peter Rabbit is well-known to many, but the life of English author Beatrix Potter may not be as familiar a tale.

Potter, who died in 1943 at age 77, was a naturalist, businesswoman, farmer and conservationist as well as the creator of beloved children's books.

Her varied life is the subject of the exhibit "Through the Garden Gate: The World of Beatrix Potter," through May 15 at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

"I think, in the back of her mind, children's stories were the last thing she wanted to be known for," says Laura Lee Martin, traveling exhibits coordinator with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which organized the exhibit. "I think she would have rather been known in botanical illustration or science."

Visitors to the exhibit, originally scheduled for the museum's Burbank branch but relocated because of earthquake damage, will enter a Victorian setting to see large storyboards from Potter's account of the mischievous rabbit who ventured into Mr. McGregor's garden. Also on display are first editions of Potter's "little books," family photographs and a computer game for children.

The exhibit includes original illustrations from Potter's 1929 book, "The Fairy Caravan," more than 40 of Potter's watercolors of fungi and mushrooms, a pen-and-ink watercolor of Jeremy Fisher in the lily pond, original watercolor illustrations of gardens from 00 the first edition of "The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies" and reproductions of Potter's watercolor landscape paintings.

Potter wrote 23 of her "little books" over 28 years. The first and dTC most famous, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," has sold 18 million copies.

There is no question that Potter's stories of Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddle-Duck and other charming characters remain popular.

"I think because they are morality plays," Ms. Martin says. "Even now, in the '90s, with our kids we tend to gravitate to something that will teach a lesson. [The stories] are very simplistic, very black-and-white. The end is very clear. There is a cause and effect that little kids can understand."

Potter was shy, quiet and reclusive, yet had quite a stubborn streak and was incredibly self-absorbed, Ms. Martin says.

The money earned from her books provided Potter a token of independence from the restricted life she spent in London as the daughter of wealthy parents in Victorian England. She bought a farm, called Hill Top, in the Lake Country, but she didn't really escape from under the thumb of her parents until she married William Heelis, a local solicitor, in 1913 at age 47. She wrote less, spending her time as a farmer and becoming known as a respected sheep breeder.

When Potter died, she left more than 4,000 acres of land and 15 farms to her country's National Trust.

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