Judy Taylor writes about a remarkable artist whose work really came alive for forty children in Gloucestershire this spring.
The story of that remarkable artist, Beatrix Potter, and of her books for children is much more widely known now as a result of the world-wide screenings of John Hawkesworth’s recent television programme, a portrayal that was controversial to some eyes but which caused the tears to flow from others. The incontrovertable facts are that Beatrix Potter was a draughts-woman and water-colour artist of extraordinary ability and she created a series of books for children that, over eighty years after the publication of the first, are listened to, read and loved by children and adults all over the world. They are translated into thirteen languages, the latest of which is Icelandic.
It was in 1901 that Miss Potter despaired of finding a publisher for The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mr McGregor’s Garden by H. B. Potter, and decided to publish it herself. She had sent her story, with forty-two pen and ink drawings and a coloured frontispiece, to at least six publishers without success, though Frederick Warne had shown considerable interest and had gone so far as to prepare a layout and to discuss with Miss Potter their preference for colour illustrations throughout – a preference with which she took issue, on the one hand because so many of her subjects were `rabbit brown and green’, and on the other because the high cost of colour printing would put the published price of the book above one that children could afford, `she thinks little rabbits cannot afford to spend six shillings on one book’. So she took her book to Strangeways & Sons in Cambridge Circus and had 250 copies printed, many of which she gave away to friends and relatives, the rest she sold at ½d a copy. Within two weeks Beatrix Potter had ordered a reprint of 200 copies. But even before the first printing was ready, Frederick Warne had had second thoughts about publication and it appears that Beatrix Potter had capitulated on the matter of colour illustrations and agreed to reduce the number from forty-two to thirty, plus the frontispiece. And so The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published by Warne in October 1902 in an edition of 8000 copies, in paper boards at 1/- and in a cloth binding at 1/6d. It was the first of the twenty-three little books so familiar today in their distinctive white bindings. They were published over a span of nearly thirty years, The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, the last in the series, in 1930. Other Beatrix Potter stories have found their way in to print, The Fairy Caravan with her own illustrations, but it is those twenty-three books that form the main core of her work and are what have become popularly known as The Peter Rabbit Books.
The proliferation of Potter material in the form of toys, china, stationery, etc. as well as the publication by Frederick Warne of The Peter Rabbit Pop-up Book and the large format The Complete Adventures of Peter Rabbit have caused a raising of the eyebrows in some circles and some critics have gone so far as to protest about the exploitation on Miss Potter’s behalf; but Beatrix Potter herself was by no means unaware of the commercial possibilities of the exploitation of her work or of using the material contained in her books in a variety of ways.
Soon after the publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, she made a Peter Rabbit doll as a gift and so pleased she was with it that she asked Norman Warne to help her find a manufacturer, `there is a run on toys copied from pictures’. Unfortunately the toy trade was flooded at that time with cheap German imports and no British firm could be found to take on the Peter Rabbit doll so her plan came to nothing. Then in October 1911 Frederick Warne published, at Beatrix Potter’s request, Peter Rabbit’s Painting Book, the first of three painting books, each containing eight to twelve pairs of pictures drawn specially by Miss Potter, with a one-line text for each and some hints about colour mixing and not sucking your paint brush, `if you do, you will be ill, like Peter’, printed inside the front cover. Single sheets of the black outlines (with the text) were printed separately and sold as colouring sheets in packets of twelve. Peter Rabbit’s Almanac for 1929 was published by Warne in 1928, and seven years later Beatrix Potter provided new sketches and an introduction for the two Peter Rabbit Music Books.
The Story of the Fierce Bad Rabbit, The Story of Miss Moppet and The Sly Old Cat all started life in panoramic form, mounted on linen and, when folded, contained in a wallet with a tuck-in flap, and some years before she wrote The Tale of Peter Rabbit Beatrix Potter had designed some pop-up greeting cards.
On the dust jacket of Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes published in October 1917 there is an advertisement for Peter Rabbit’s Slippers, `The greatest novelty in Indoor Shoes obtainable!… Prettily pictured with coloured designs from Peter Rabbit, they form THE JOY FOOTWEAR FOR TINY FEET.’ The merchandisers have been at work for a surprisingly long time.
But what about the books themselves? There are not many authors whose books for children have survived such a test of time – Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Helen Bannerman, Kenneth Grahame would be on my list, with Beatrix Potter at its head. Her stories are strong, her characters are faithfully representative of their species in spite of being clothed, the illustrations are full of meticulous natural detail. There is a recurring element of danger in many of the stories and sometimes of tragedy but never accompanied by bloodthirsty detail. There is a close relationship between text and picture, and the introduction of intriguing words and phrases. That the books and their spin-offs can be a source of inspiration and pleasure was shown here in this Gloucestershire village of Chedworth earlier this year.
St Andrew’s Primary School is a two teacher village school, with forty pupils between the ages of four and eleven. The middle week of March was given over entirely to Book Week with visits by Pat Hutchins, Sarah Garland, Mary Steele from Cirencester Library, the showing of Weston Woods films, a talk about colour separation and how a book is made, and so on, but the underlying theme for the week was the books of Beatrix Potter, culminating in Peter Rabbit Day on the final Friday.
In the weeks leading up to Book Week all the Potter books were gathered together, children and parents were asked to bring in their copies, some were bought for the school library, some borrowed from the public library. The teachers read their favourites to their classes, (Squirrel Nutkin for the Head, Mrs. Barnes, and The Fierce Bad Rabbit for Miss Griffiths, the infant teacher) and the children were each given a complete list of the books in order to keep a record of the ones they had read or had had read to them. Sadly there is, as yet, no Potter computer software or that would have been on the much-used school computer.
Book Week began on the Saturday when the children and their families visited The Tailor of Gloucester shop in Gloucester, an Aladdin’s cave of Potter products including colouring sheets to be coloured on the spot and the intriguing mechanised models of the mice at their stitching. On Sunday the morning service in St Andrew’s had a book theme and throughout the week preparations were going ahead for the Peter Rabbit Fancy Dress Parade and Tea Party.
Peter Rabbit Day was Friday and it started with the school divided into groups, each at work on a particular Beatrix Potter activity. One group were cutting out and making up the Peter Rabbit Theatre, another was putting together the mobile sent by Warne, others were working out a play of The Tale of Peter Rabbit to be performed that afternoon. Some were doing a Beatrix Potter quiz compiled by Mrs Barnes, others colouring the outline sheets, the infants discovering the Peter Rabbit Pop-up Book and having the other books read to them, while a continually changing group were planting mint, and beans, sowing grass seed and mustard and cress under the careful instruction of Sarah Garland, whose Peter Rabbit Gardening Book was much in evidence.
School lunch that day was salad, and bread and milk and blackberries – what else? Then it was time to start the dressing up. Parents arrived with safety pins and sewing kits, face paints and old fur hats. There were at least three Mr McGregors among the older boys (one with a lethal rake), a great many rabbits and mice, and even a Peter Rabbit inside a cardboard watering can. One boy opted out of dressing up altogether but wore a T-shirt proudly proclaiming `Peter Rabbit Rules OK’. There were no prizes but there was a parade round the school in conga-fashion, followed by games and the performance of the Peter Rabbit play.
At the start of the week recipes from The Peter Rabbit Cookery Book had been circulated so the table for the Peter Rabbit Tea was loaded with Jeremy Fisher’s Butterfly Sandwiches, Appley Dapply’s. Jam Tarts and Pig-Wig’s Conversation Peppermints. There was blackberry cordial and lemonade to drink and even camomile tea, though the latter did not find much favour. But the piece de resistance of the tea was a magnificent Mrs Tiggywinkle iced cake. Book Week ended that evening with a wine and cheese party for the adults of the village and it was there that was displayed one of the most interesting results of the week. Using the recently published edition of Beatrix Potter’s miniature letters, Yours Affectionately, Peter Rabbit, as inspiration, the children had written their own miniature letters inventing correspondence between pairs of Potter characters of their choice. The letters showed without doubt that the readers of the books had certainly absorbed the nuances and inflections of the stories, and in addition one child had even copied Beatrix Potter’s doll-sized mail-bag illustrated in Yours Affectionately, sewing it in sacking and marking it with GPO.
Not only does Peter Rabbit Rule OK but Beatrix Potter Lives On!
Judy Taylor worked for The Bodley Head for over thirty years and for fifteen of them she was their Children’s Book Editor. In 1971 she was awarded the MBE. Now married to author Richard Hough, Judy works mainly from their home in Gloucestershire on a number of projects, among them as consultant to Frederick Warne on `matters pertaining to Beatrix Potter’ and author of the texts for the three Sophie and Jack Hippo books, illustrated by Susan Gantner (Sophie and Jack in the Snow is coming in September from Bodley Head).
All Beatrix Potter’s books are now published by Penguin Books under the `Frederick Warne’ imprint.
Last year Penguin Books bought Frederick Warne and acquired among other things the copyright on Beatrix Potter.
What, everyone wondered, would the international publishing giant do with these twenty-three miniature classics?
Barry Cunningham, Head of Promotions at Penguin, reveals his plans for marketing
When we took on the job of marketing Beatrix Potter we were very conscious of the unique place she has in the heritage of children’s books. Equally we were absolutely convinced we would sell a lot more copies and we’ve been proved right even before we launch our new campaign this autumn. In the first three months of 1983, with Warne, sales of Beatrix Potter were .76,000; this year, with Penguin, they were 338,000 – nearly 100% increase. That’s happened simply because we’ve been getting more books into the shops – we have forty reps, Warne had seven. It’s only a beginning.
Planning how to market Beatrix Potter, we tried to pin down exactly what the appeal of the books is. I think they have a lot in common with Grimm and Andersen before them and perhaps with Dahl and C.S. Lewis, in that they contain an integrated world which is a perfect blend of make-believe and reality. And there is an element of the real dangers and fears of childhood in there – getting lost, getting caught in the dark and perhaps worst of all being gobbled up. Naughtiness brings just and sometimes extremely violent results, and, equally, good behaviour is rewarded. The appeal essentially is universal and enduring, especially for children. They know that there is danger out there, that the world can be a nasty place – and Beatrix Potter agrees with them. It pays to be careful and listen to your mum.
But the books have become, I think wrongly, fixed at the nursery end of the market – lovely books to give a baby and they sometimes never get read. These are not just books for very young children, they are great story books for 7-8 year olds. We are going to try to promote the books across a much broader age-range – in bookshops and, very importantly for us, through schools. We are preparing a special schools mailing to show what we think the books have to offer. They are absolutely ideal, for example, as first story books – for reading or listening; a lovely beginning to learning about story and character as so many of the characters appear in more than one book.
For the wider public we are focusing on the Potter characters: Squirrel Nutkin, Jemima Puddleduck, Mrs Tiggywinkle, Tom Kitten and the rest are going to get their share of the limelight that is usually reserved for Peter Rabbit. We are joining forces with the merchandisers – the people who produce the china, the notepaper, the badges – in an integrated promotion: The World of Beatrix Potter. We’ve employed a new copyrights agency to ensure that all the products fit with our overall standards and with the Potter image. They have to be of sufficient quality to complement the image of the books. In bookshops we want to create a ‘Beatrix Potter environment’ and we’ve developed lots of different materials – posters, friezes, show cards, window stickers – all saying ‘Collect the World of Beatrix Potter’. In the larger bookstores there will even be shops within shops. You’ll see all this before Christmas. And Beatrix Potter will also be in the big multiples like W. H. Smith.
For the books themselves there are new forms of packaging – there’s a Jemima Puddleduck pop-up planned and we’ll continue putting related stories together in collections. The quality will be improved too – we’re going back to the original film for better reproduction and making the typography and presentation consistent in all editions. But the essence will remain the same; no one is going to ‘modernise’ Beatrix Potter.
It’s that essence we are going to ‘exploit’ – in the best possible sense – so that many more people see the books not just as a gift but as stories to be shared and enjoyed with a wide age-range of children. I like the idea that we can do that for books of such quality.