Beatrix Potter – A National Treasure In The Heart Of Lakeland
by kind permission of The World of Beatrix Potter.
Beatrix Potter, born in London in 1866, is a national treasure - but for the Lake District she’s the eternal windfall, the gift that keeps on giving, bringing even more tourists to the UK’s most visited National Park, an area of outstanding beauty that certainly needs no promotional gilding of the lily. Even the robustly outdoor types have reason to thank her when the heavy rains come as come they must wherever lakes and mountains meet.
The World of Beatrix Potter, a Lakeland institution for thirty years, right in the heart of Bowness-on-Windermere, is a wonderful place to take the kids at any time but on a wet afternoon it’s a priceless asset. The exhibition, which attracts a quarter of a million visitors a year, features favourite characters from the famous books, an award-winning outdoor Peter Rabbit Garden, a character-themed café and a gift shop, and has something for all Beatrix Potter fans.
Here the whole gallery of richly imaginative characters from the 23 tales are brought to soft pastel-shade reality in a series of tableaux, softly lit and in 3-D, featuring sculptured models and rotating scenery, digitally enhanced with leafy collages, flowery clusters and farmyard implements.
Where else outside the pages of her books can you come face to face with the formidable author in tweeds (actually it’s a life-sized waxwork model), join Tabitha Twitchit’s teaparty, find Peter Rabbit at his naughtiest, catch Jemima Puddle-Duck in full flight, or be amused by Jeremy Fisher angling on his lily pad. It’s quite magical and utterly beautiful.
by kind permission of The World of Beatrix Potter.
The whole enterprise was the brainchild of Roger Glossop, a theatrical set-designer, and his wife, Charlotte Scott, a stage manager. When they bought the building in 1990, it was an old boat store and it took many months of toil to renovate. Roger has worked in the West End, for both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre and on Broadway and his flair and eye for detail is very evident throughout. Sarah Melhuish, the marketing manager, showing me around, explains: “The detail is exquisite, crafted in a theatrical way to create the impression you’re actually walking through the pages of the books.” She pauses to let me take it all in. “It couldn’t be more lifelike.”
The exhibition features the work of Elaine Garrard, the acclaimed costumier and prop designer who sadly passed away in 2018. She used a highly experienced creative team of scenic sculptors, joiners and artists to create the effects she wanted. “Elaine’s work is exquisite,” Sarah enthuses, “combining artistic flair with an eye for meticulous detail.” In her quest for absolute authenticity apparently Elaine initially made all the models in white because Beatrix Potter painted in watercolour on white paper, before layering the paint and adding fur effect.
... she’s the eternal windfall, the gift that keeps on giving, bringing even more tourists to the UK’s most visited National Park
(If you want to see the original drawings and watercolours which inform Elaine’s models, they are on display in the Beatrix Potter Gallery, housed in seventeenth-century offices of her solicitor husband, William Heelis, in Hawkeshead and now run by the National Trust.)
The exhibition is frequently refreshed and from time to time new technologies are embraced. Recently all the foliage was replaced and a newly-composed soundtrack added. “Thousands of pieces of trees, bushes, leaves and branches were hand-painted and installed by expert craftsmen,” Sarah adds. “The new digital displays are beautiful works of art in themselves and navigate visitors through the self-guided tour of the exhibition.”
Here too in a short but highly informative video and from an interactive timeline we learn about this most extraordinary woman and her background. In so many ways, she was a woman ahead of her time, not just as a writer and illustrator but as passionate and knowledgeable working farmer and conservationist when the plunder of nature was more popular than its preservation. It is true to say her charming tales did - and still do - much to promote the outdoors in the British imagination. She also had a shrewd business head and in 1903 – when Walt Disney was still in diapers - she designed and patented a Peter Rabbit doll, making him the world’s oldest licenced character.
Peter recently celebrated his 130th birthday, by the way, and in celebration a special Happy Birthday Peter Rabbit show, written by Roger Glossop, can be seen throughout the summer in the Old Laundry Theatre, a 270-seat venue which enjoys the support of playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn, who still brings an annual touring production of one of his plays.
“The detail is exquisite, crafted in a theatrical way to create the impression you’re actually walking through the pages of the books.”
It’s true to say Beatrix’s career owes much to rabbits and one in particular. She had painted them for many years for her own amusement but in 1890 she had her first commercial success when she sold them as Christmas card designs. She was particularly fond of the young children of her former governess, writing them amusing letters about the many pets she kept. Some years later Beatrix turned one of the tales into a picture book. The Tale of Peter Rabbit, though initially rejected, was a great success in 1902, when Frederick Warne & Co published it. It sold out immediately and Beatrix’s career as a storyteller was launched.
The tour ends in the birthday boy’s very own garden which the Chelsea Flower Show awarded its coveted Gold Medal. The Peter Rabbit Garden is a traditional cottage garden, growing organically vegetables, flowers and fruits popular in Beatrix Potter’s day. They are served fresh in the café.
Long before espousing green issues was popular and fashionable, Beatrix left more than 4,000 acres to the National Trust, upon her death in 1943, including Hill Top farm, near the village of Sawrey, which her royalties allowed her to buy in 1905. Overlooking Windermere, about three miles from Bowness, it’s a delightful well-signposted walk to the farm, taking the ten-minute crossing on Mallard, the chain ferry, across to the western shore. You get stupendous view of the boat-busy lake from the Claife Viewing Station, a relic of the Picturesque Movement of Wordsworth’s day, when visitors would gaze through the building’s windows to take in framed views through coloured glass.
The farm, virtually as she left it, is the place to see the reality of her life beyond writing, a typically unpretentious Lakeland farm with rubble walls, slate roof and cottage garden. From her study window, you will see the grazing Herdwick sheep, very probably descendants of the thousand-strong herd she maintained. She worked tirelessly to maintain the ecology and distinct farming culture of the district, buying up parcels of farmland to save them from development, helping to preserve the tradition of using the highlands for common grazing. Some of her best-loved works, the tales of Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddle-Duck, for example, clearly show the farmhouse and sense from the village.
The new digital displays are beautiful works of art in themselves
But the farmhouse is a visit for another day. “You can happily lose yourself here,” Sarah says, “ for half a day or more.”
There is, indeed, more than enough to delight and delay here in the World of Beatrix Potter, where we reacquaint ourselves with the magic of childhood, remember fondly those charming tales of fluffy animals with very human personalities, dressed in cute bonnets, blouses and breeches.
We are back in the imaginative world of childhood which will endure so long as there are children.
For more information on The WOrld of Beatrix Potter click here