Beatrix Potter’s work on fungi demonstrated her skill, attention to detail and analytical artistic ability. She began painting them in 1888, and in 1892 met a self-taught and highly respected Perthshire naturalist, Charlie McIntosh, who taught her their proper names while she holidayed in Dunkeld. He also sent her specimens to her London home.
She used the illustrations in reference books, studied specimens at the Natural History Museum, and looked for and painted rare examples in the wild.
She discovered how to germinate the spore from over thirty mushrooms in advance of professionals at Kew Gardens, and in 1897 she wrote a paper arising from her scientific observation and investigation of fungi. Her ideas were not accepted at the time, but they are now, and fifty nine of her water colours were used in a 1967 book on the identification of fungi.
Flower painting was a conventional subject for a girl of Beatrix’s class. From a young age she drew inspiration from books such as John E. Sowerby’s British Wild Flowers, a lavish present from her grandmother, and Vere Foster’s popular drawing manuals.
Mostly, however, Beatrix shared the Pre-Raphaelites’ passion for the ‘meticulous copying of flowers & plants’ from life. Her drawings blend characteristics of botanical illustration, concerned with the accurate depiction and identification of plants, with those of flower painting, a genteel art celebrating the beauty of nature.
Whether drawing for serious study or for enjoyment, Beatrix Potter combines scientific detachment with a keen sense of wonder and an expert appreciation of composition and design.
Beatrix Potter later remarked that the ‘careful botanical studies of my youth’ informed the ‘reality’ of her fantasy drawings. Precisely drawn flowers illustrate her prettiest and best known books: geraniums in The Tale of Peter Rabbit; carnations and fuchsias in The Tale of Benjamin Bunny; water lilies in The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher; foxgloves in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck, and an abundance of lilies, pansies, roses and snapdragons in The Tale of Tom Kitten.’
Botanical artwork courtesy of the Armitt Museum, Ambleside