Exhibit Review - Beatrix Potter: The Picture Letters
- 11/24/2012 by Angela Church (WBAI)

WBAI’s Angela Church and Francia Smith were fortunate to be given a guided tour of this delightful exhibit by Morgan Library and Museum curator John Bidwell.   

Angela:  As a great fan of children’s literature, I think perhaps the most exciting part for me in anticipating this exhibit was seeing the sketches and renderings first hand!  Peter and Jemima and Jeremy are all “playmates” from my childhood.  Looking at their beginnings and observing their evolution is like spending a nostalgic evening with an old friend. 

The Morgan is meticulous in their display - with the same eye for detail as the previous Renaissance Venice exhibit - from the little boy blue room color, to the altered height of their displays for Potter’s “youngest” audience, to the isolated nuggets of fascinating intimacy which makes one feel as though granted an exciting, secret privilege.  A visual and intellectual transport in time is how the exhibit presents itself and is a testament to the Morgan’s strength as a museum.  

We began our tour by looking at three examples (not written by Potter) of Victorian “picture letters” juxtaposed with their subsequent publications.  The process of creation is as important and celebrated as the product itself.  Bidwell remarks on the importance being “the progression from the very personal and private to the diametric opposite - to this giant commercial juggernaut that continues today.”  The exhibit quickly moved into Potter’s own beginnings as an artist. 

As a Victorian woman, she was granted little access to the world beyond her home, so as one would imagine, made friends with animals (both wild and domestic) and became quite a gifted nature artist.  In adulthood alongside her brother, she exerted independence as a freelance artist for greeting cards and publications.  Make sure you look at the hauntingly beautiful “Cinderella’s Coach with Rabbits” she drew as a gift to her fiance on the day of their engagement (three months prior to his tragic death).  It best exemplifies her gift of humble idealism - a quality many adults lose or ignore.  

We then move to her own illustrated letters written to the children of a former governess.  She took special interest in little Noel Moore and created on a whim (with nothing significant to report that day) the story of Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.  I was in awe. 

This letter, the birth of our beloved Peter Rabbit, is quietly displayed with equal significance as her tarantula drawing and the family photographs.  The Morgan’s aim is, as Bidwell reminds, about putting “Beatrix Potter in context.”  The celebration is the whole story of Potter’s journey: as a prolific writer who had an uncanny ability to write directly to the age of her reader, to her work as an accomplished anthropomorphic artist, and then to her entrepreneurial spirit as a forerunner for branding and intellectual property rights. Her ability to reinvent herself within a limited set of circumstances is a fascinating and empowering part of this exhibition.

Other things to look for: the lily pad-like painted doilies, the tiny letters from the animals to the children, the original (and adorable) Jemima Puddle Duck stuffed animal and Potter’s astute patent nearby on display.

Parents, it is an opportunity to share a charming winter afternoon with your children.  See the exhibit on the second floor then go down to level B to a quiet reading table for the children to experience all of Potter’s stories first hand.  For me, I was given a few moments of childhood playfulness in retreat from the chaos and tragedy of the past few Hurricane Sandy weeks.

Beatrix Potter: The Picture Letters
November 2, 2012 through January 27, 2013

The Morgan Library and Museum
225 Madison Avenue  New York, NY 10016
(212) 685-0008

See visitors information at the READ MORE link below

headline photo
Beatrix Potter (1866–1943) "My rabbit Peter is so lazy." Autograph letter signed to Noël Moore, 4 February 1895 Gift of Colonel David McC. McKell, 1959; MA 2009.2


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