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Beatrix Potter

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Randolph Caldecott's illustrations influenced 
Beatrix Potter

Click here for larger version (7.8kB)Beatrix Potter (1866 - 1943) is famous for her illustrated children's story books, starting with The Tale of Peter Rabbit.  But the idea of depicting animals dressed, and behaving, like humans, may have come from Randolph Caldecott's earlier illustrated books of nursery rhymes.  (This is not to say that Caldecott was the first to do this: see for example "The Dogs' Grand Dinner Party", published in New York, USA, in 1869.  Our thanks to www.marchhousebooks.com for the picture of this, below.)

Front cover and sample page, showing two dogs in evening dress, from The Dogs' Grand Dinner Party (1869, not by Caldecott). Beatrix Potter's father was active in the art world (the painter Millais was a family friend), and bought the whole set of original pictures by Randolph Caldecott which had been used to produce The Three Jovial Huntsmen, and, in 1884, two of the original pictures for A Frog he Would A'Wooing Go. 

An original oil painting by Randolph (with two pictures: one on the front, and another on the back), together with two other prints from his Picture Books, still hang in Beatrix Potter's house, Hill Top, in Near Sawrey, Lake District, England.  We are very grateful to the National Trust for permission to reproduce both sides of the original oil painting here (click on them for larger versions):

Swiss cattle, by Randolph Caldecott (shows 3 cows with Swiss lady, mountains in background) House in Surrey (unfinished): probably Broomfield. Shows the house, with pleasant flower garden in front and path leading diagonally across picture.
Front picture: Swiss Cattle Back picture (unfinished):
House in Surrey, the Coach House of "Broomfield", Frensham.
Note: these pictures are National Trust and may not be reproduced except with their specific permission.
For more about the National Trust, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk
For more about Beatrix Potter's house, Hill Top (including its restricted opening hours - to preserve the pictures, it should only be open to the public for 1000 hours per year - ), visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/scripts/nthandbook.dll?ACTION=PROPERTY&PROPERTYID=152

Beatrix wrote about this painting in a letter to her friend Jacqueline Overton dated 7th April 1942.  In this letter, she recalls that it was bought at Christie's after Randolph Caldecott's death.

Another letter written by Beatrix Potter indicates that there was a second original Caldecott oil painting in her house: a hunting scene.  There is (at 2004) a Hunting Scene in her house to this day, but the artist's initials, "R.M.A., 1865", are clearly not Caldecott's.  (It seems to be this work which is attributed to Caldecott in the otherwise excellent book "At Home With Beatrix Potter", by Susan Denyer, publ. in New York, USA, 2000.)  Either Beatrix mistakenly thought, in writing her letter, that it was by Caldecott, or if there was such a painting by Caldecott, then it has since gone elsewhere, most probably bequeathed by Beatrix with other works to Manchester Art Gallery.
 

Extracts from Beatrix Potter's Journal, 1884

London, Friday, February 8th

"Papa went to the Fine Arts Gallery and bought two small pen-and-ink sketches from Caldecott's Frog.  He wanted to buy the last coloured sketch from The Fox but they would not sell it separately.  They want 10 more now than when Papa bought other set of The Three Huntsmen for 80.  The young man said that The Fox was a hunting song which Mr. Caldecott had heard in the country somewhere..."

Saturday, February 9th

"Papa has become very extravagant.  He went on the sly the other day and bought two little drawings of The Frog..."

(Source: The Journal of Beatrix Potter, 1881 - 1897, transcribed from her code writings by Leslie Linder, publ. by Frederick Warne, 1966 and completely revised 1989.)
  

Beatrix Potter and the Warnes

When Beatrix sought a Publisher for her work, she was turned down by several but accepted by Frederick Warne & Co.  Frederick himself had handed the business over to three of his sons (he had 6 children in all), and it was the youngest of his children, Norman, who dealt with Beatrix.  Norman encouraged her efforts, and their publication was an immediate success.  As she discussed other works with Norman, their friendship grew (they were both single and in their 30's), and eventually (and despite her parents' disapproval), he proposed marriage to her and she accepted.  Tragically, however, before their marriage could be arranged, he became ill and suddenly died.  It was 1905 and he was only 37 years old.

Another of the two remaining brothers in the business, Harold Warne, took over the dealings with Beatrix, and her work continued to be very successful and profitable for the Company.

Then came the First World War, and Beatrix began to notice that the royalty payments which were due to her seemed to decrease and become more sporadic.  She thought this was somehow due to the War - but in fact Harold was embezzling the company and its authors!  Eventually he was found out, and on 27 April 1917 he was convicted of forgeries worth 20,000 and sentenced to 18 months in prison.  (20,000 in those days was a huge sum, equivalent to over 1 million in 2003's money.)  The 3rd brother, Fruing Warne, had to save the business and he appealed to Beatrix to write another book.  The result was "Appley Dappley's Nursery Rhymes".

As a result of Harold's criminal conviction, "Frederick Warne & Co." was changed to "Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd."  This change, which appeared on otherwise undated books of theirs, is still useful to us today in determining whether old copies were produced before or after 1917 (see our Editions page).

(Source: "The Story of Beatrix Potter" by Judy Taylor, in "Beatrix Potter 1866-1943: the Artist and her World", published jointly by F. Warne & Co. Ltd. and the National Trust, UK, 1987.)
  

Exhibitions and relevant Websites

An excellent Exhibition, "Copying Caldecott", was held at the V&A, Jan-April 2003, showing how Beatrix Potter copied Randolph: for online version with both Randolph's and Beatrix's pictures see
www.nal.vam.ac.uk/exhibits/caldecott/index.html

For more about Beatrix Potter, visit the Peter Rabbit website:
http://www.peterrabbit.com/beatrixpotter/index.cfm

There is also an excellent "Peter Rabbit Trail", with interesting info about Beatrix Potter, at
http://www.24hourmuseum.org.uk/trlout_gfx_en/TRA14360.html

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