Beatrix Potter's Hill Top Farm in the Lake District of England
The Morgan Library and Museum is one of my favorite spots in New York City. It is truly one of the city's treasures. Whenever I am in NYC, I make a point to visit it and I am never disappointed. There is always something special to see. Quiet and serene, it is filled with illuminated, historical and literary manuscripts, early printed books, and old master paintings and prints. The Morgan began as the private library of financier Pierpont Morgan and was built between 1902 and 1906 adjacent to his New York residence at Madison Avenue and 36th Street. After his death, his son J.P. Morgan transformed the library into a pubic institution, making its treasures available to the public. It is a place to celebrate imagination and creativity. Once you enter the doors, you are immersed in the words of great writers throughout the centuries. It is almost as if they are speaking to us.
The Morgan is well-known for its fantastic exhibitions. A couple of years ago I saw an excellent one on Jane Austen which I wrote about here. The exhibitions are often of letters and hand-written manuscripts by famous authors. Looking at these original creations in the author's own handwriting gives the viewer a physical sense of the writer. If I were there this month, I would make a point of seeing the exhibition, "Beatrix Potter: The Picture Letters." It looks fabulous.
Letter written by Beatrix Potter to five-year-old Noel Moore, 1895This exhibition shows how Beatrix Potter, the Edwardian artist and children's book writer, used a series of private letters to develop some of the most famous animal characters in all of children's literature. Her former governess Annie Moore was one of her best friends and for years Potter wrote charming picture letters to Annie's children about the many pets that she kept. This exhibition brings together for the first time twenty-two of her picture letters to children of family and friends which contain the beginnings of her celebrated books. The most famous example is "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," which began as an eight-page letter (see above) to Noel Moore, the five-year-old son of Annie Moore. Annie Moore persuaded Potter to take back the letter, copy it out, and revise it for publication. At least six publishers rejected the book, but Frederick Warne & Company finally took it on. And it was a huge success when the first trade edition finally appeared in 1902. More than 40 million copies of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" have been sold since it was published 110 years ago.
Renee Zellweger in the film "Miss Potter" of 2007
You probably remember the movie Miss Potter of a few years ago. It showed Beatrix Potter as a young woman who loved nature and the English countryside. I remember being inspired by the story of how she developed as an artist and her skill at capturing and memorializing so many creatures in nature. It was her playful imagination that gave them a fictional identity. After earning enough money from her books to buy Hill Top Farm in the English Lake District, she went on to purchase acres of unspoiled land and estates. She became a conservationist and was dedicated to preserving the natural world. When she died in 1943, she left 4,000 acres to the National Trust in Britain.
By the way, do you remember the television mini-series The Tale of Beatrix Potter that aired on Masterpiece Theatre in 1984? It starred a young Penelope Wilton (she plays Matthew Crawley's mother on Downton Abbey) as Beatrix Potter.
This exhibition will make you think about the golden age of letter writing when writers took the time each day to write leisurely letters to family and friends. Beatrix Potter's letters to her young friends were playful and charming. They were unique because they included art work to illustrate whatever tale she was writing about. It was as if she were sitting down and telling her young friends a story. As it turns out, the stories and their illustrations were the genesis of the famous Peter Rabbit books which include the tales of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Benjamin Bunny and others. Her books retained the simple joy and playful tone of her impromptu letters and this was the secret of her success. She was also a talented artist of the natural world and this exhibition highlights her art work and her career as a naturalist. Aren't we lucky to be able to see the beginning of her amazing career?
If you miss the exhibition, you can view it online.