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Natural history: A scientist's eye
Beatrix Potter's meticulous artistry served mycology and entomology as well as children's fiction, reveals Linda Lear.
In January, the British press reported the discovery of a rare parasitic fungus
on the Mar Lodge Estate in Aberdeenshire. Liz Holden, an independent field mycologist,
spotted the small jelly fungus Tremella simplex growing on the pink blobs of another
rarity, Aleurodiscus amorphus. When she checked, she discovered that T. simplex
had first been drawn in the late 1890s, by Beatrix Potter (1866–1943).
Before Potter became a famous children's author and illustrator, she was a pioneering
naturalist and amateur mycologist, although later discouraged by professionals in
Britain's natural-history establishment. It was her habit to draw everything she
saw under the lens, so Potter included the Tremella in her study, although she could
not have recognized it then as an independent parasitic fungus. Potter was an extraordinary
observer whose many contributions to natural science are only now becoming more
widely recognized. Along with women such as Margaret Gatty, author of The History
of British Seaweeds (1863), Potter was part of a generation of female naturalists
whose work contributed to the advancement of professional science, whether acknowledged
Potter always prized the tribute paid to her by family friend John Everett Millais,
the Pre-Raphaelite society painter: “plenty of people can draw, but you ... have
observation”. All her life, she exhibited a meticulous concern for factual evidence.
Her recording of observable data, although deliberately never systematic because
she followed her artistic inclinations, marked her as a student of natural history
from a young age. At nine, she was executing watercolour sketches of caterpillars,
complete with physical descriptions and field observations. That she was interested
in geology, archaeology, entomology and especially mycology was not unusual for
someone raised in wealth and privately educated. What was rare was how Potter used
her gifts in diverse areas, from stories for children and animal husbandry to the
preservation of land, farms and watersheds in the English Lake District.
Potter's childhood offered unique opportunities for observing and recording nature.
She enjoyed summers exploring and drawing the flora and fauna of Perthshire near
the River Tay in central Scotland, tagging along with her artistic parents and absorbing
photographic techniques of perspective and detail from her father, a fine amateur
photographer. As a young woman, she explored the Tay Valley in her pony and trap,
noting in her journal geological formations, diversity of land use and the progress
of soil erosion, and despairing over practices such as the dehorning of Ayrshire
The boredom of the Victorian schoolroom enhanced Potter's skills almost by default.
After lessons, Beatrix and her younger brother Walter drew a menagerie of animals
secretly conveyed into the nursery — rabbits, mice, hedgehogs, bats, snails and
lizards — as well as more typical collections of insects and bird eggs. When a schoolroom
pet died, the Potter children often boiled the corpse and articulated the bones
to improve the anatomical accuracy of their drawings. Potter noticed that lettuce
contained a “soporific” that made her pet rabbit Benjamin sleepy; that field mice
were inordinately fastidious housekeepers; and that hedgehogs yawned “pathetically”
and might bite when propped up in one position to draw. Such discoveries later informed
the plots and characters of her children's tales.
Like the artist and critic John Ruskin, Potter understood that the only way to know
something was to draw it. First the hand-lens, then the camera, and finally the
microscope taught Potter how to 'see'. By her early 30s, Potter's enthusiasm was
focused on how fungal spores reproduced — an issue that few British mycologists
agreed on. During a holiday in Scotland in 1892, Potter had formed a botanical alliance
with noted naturalist Charles McIntosh, who provided instruction in the microscope
drawing of fungi in exchange for Potter's accurate watercolours of rare specimens.
By 1895 Potter had gathered young forms of the mushroom Boletus granulatus, now
known as Suillus granulatus, and drawn the spores and spore-producing structures,
or basidia. Potter successfully germinated spores of several species of fungi, and
made drawings of the mycelium at different stages.
She approached the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew with these findings, only to be
rebuffed by its director, William Thiselton-Dyer. She noted in her journal that
“he hadn't the time to look at my drawings”, even though he “indicated the subject
was profound”. Her uncle — the chemist Henry Enfield Roscoe — encouraged her to
continue her research, and in 1897 she offered to the Linnean Society in London
(which did not then admit women, or allow them to attend meetings) a paper: 'On
the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae', which was accompanied by several
of her microscope drawings. Although this paper has been lost, it seems from her
drawings and journal that Potter had become intrigued with the possibility of hybridization.
Around the mid-1890s, Caroline Martineau, the principal of London's Morley Memorial
College for Working Men and Women, commissioned Potter to produce a dozen lithographs
to accompany lectures on entomology. Two survive; one shows a sheetweb spider, Linyphia
triangularis. They are accurate, despite Potter's recorded frustration with the
errors in the Natural History Museum's entomology index, and the misidentified specimens
in the museum's insect cases.
Long after Potter had become the celebrated author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit,
The Tale of Two Bad Mice and more than 20 other classic books for the young, she
gave her prized mycological and botanical drawings to the Armitt Museum and Library
in Ambleside in the Lake District. Today, they are still consulted by professional
and amateur mycologists, and 59 of the drawings are reproduced in W. P. K. Findlay's
Wayside and Woodland Fungi (Warne, 1967).
When her eyesight diminished, Potter turned to breeding prizewinning native Herdwick
sheep, and to promoting the preservation of the unique ecology and farming character
of the Lake District. On her death in 1943, Potter, then Mrs William Heelis, bequeathed
to the National Trust more than 1,700 hectares of land, now enjoyed by thousands
of visitors each year.
In 1896, Potter summed up her delight in the natural world with a proclamation of
supreme Victorian self-confidence: “With opportunity the world is very interesting.”
The natural-history legacy of this shy but hugely curious and determined amateur
continues to enlighten, and even dazzle.
Copyright (c) Frederick Warne & Co., 2007
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