Letters as Laboratory

The art librarians sure know how to tour.  Today, we got a curator-led, very witty tour of the Beatrix Potter Picture-Letters exhibition at the Morgan Library.  I loved Beatrix Potter when I was a child and (in storage) have the book that I read over and over again, Tales of Benjamin Bunny.  So if you love her as much as I do, then get over to the Morgan before the end of the month.

The picture-letters were the source of her books.  The curator said, “letters as laboratory.”  She wrote illustrated letters to the children in her life (she had no children, nieces or nephews).  Famously, she was writing a letter to the son of her governess.  She told him she couldn’t think what to write, so she made up a story for him in an 8 page letter, which, yes, is in the exhibit. Peter Rabbit was born.

You can read the letter and see her labeled drawings of Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.  Much later, she borrowed the letter back, copied it, added some scenes, and Peter, the book version, was launched.

But no publisher would have it, and since Beatrix was wealthy, she self-published 200 copies in black and white (since the letters were in b/w) for friends and relatives–yes, one is in the exhibit.  It really caught on because she knew how to capture the essence of the actual animals and then put them in human situations–a charming combination.

The exhibit also has wonderful photographs, adult letters, a scrapbook, her nature drawings, and original paintings for the books.  Here are some of my favorite things:

– a photograph of Beatrix with a rabbit named Benjamin Bouncer on a thin, string leash

– the 1907 patent application for the toy of Jemima Puddle-Duck, which has ‘mug’ shots, as if for a criminal, labeled front, side, and back–hilarious

– a drawing of the Cinderella story she made for her fiance and publisher Norman Warne, in which the pumpkin carriage is pulled by rabbits; he died before they could marry, but she must have looked at him as her Prince Charming, who would take her away from an overly restrictive Victorian home

– the miniature letters she wrote to children from characters in the books.  For example, one letter was signed Your Friend, Peter Rabbit.  There also are a couple of 2″ high mailboxes.  Apparently, she gave the mailboxes to the children, then when she would visit the parents, she would drop a letter in the mailbox for the child.  Sweet!

The whole exhibit is too sweet for my words.  In a world that can be so sour all too often, give yourself a 30 minute inner child respite with Beatrix.  It’s juuuuust right.