Friday, 5 October 2018

In Search of Beatrix ..... and a mutual love of illustrating fungi

In recent weeks I have had the opportunity to visit the Lake District, one of the National Parks here in the UK that I have longed to visit.

I had previously been teaching in Edinburgh at RBGE, so on our way back home it was time for a few days to explore the Lakes and the surrounding countryside.
As always, there was another aspect to the trip, that for me personally, was one to tick off the bucket list !

That was to see some of the original natural history illustrations drawn and painted by Beatrix Potter.  But first I wanted to find out more about her, not necessarily about the famous children's books that she illustrated but other aspects of her life.

The first trip was to Hill Top, the first farm that she purchased in the Lake District.  The garden was relatively small, but then it was a working farm and still is, so the garden is likely to have been for growing fruit and vegetables as well as flowers.

She bought Hill Top from the proceeds of The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1905 and then went onto to buy many other farms and parcels of land, without her efforts some of the Lake District that we see today would not exist.

She was known to be a fair landlord and was considerate to her tenants in times of need, especially as they progressed into old age.  Another aspect of her life, was that she helped to fund the District Nurses, enabling them to travel to each of their patients in a car, making their lives easier and a lot safer, as well as benefiting those that were needing their care.

The pictures above show the garden at Hill Top with the house in the back ground.  Right you can see the range in the front parlour of the house.  Once Beatrix was settled in the house she had the range removed and replaced with an inglenook fireplace.  But before that she used the original range as a source of inspiration for her illustrations in the Tale of Samuel Whiskers published in 1908 (above left).  In the 1980's a range similar to the original was installed.

But what of fungi ??  Her passion of illustrating fungi happened in another phase of her life, whilst she lived in London in the late 1800's, from 1888 to 1901, but also when the family used to travel to the Lake District and Pethshire on holiday.
She got to know the postman that delivered to their holiday home and he was a keen naturalist.  Over time Beatrix and Charlie McIntosh got to know each other  and she would send him illustrations for him to check that they were correctly identified.  He also gave suggestions to her as to how to present the information in her illustrations, suggesting that she should show parts of the cap with the gills being visible.  It was discovered that some of the illustrations were completed in duplicate, so that she always had a record, whilst the other was sent to Charlie.

Upon her death in 1943, Beatrix's fungi and archaeological illustrations were bequeathed to the Armitt Library and Museum in Ambleside.  This library was set up in 1912 and she was a founding member and a major benefactor too.

In the museum's collection of Beatrix's illustrations, there are:

250 studies of fungi
40 natural history studies (that include mosses and lichens)
140 microscopic drawings
30 archaeological drawings

So several weeks prior to heading off on our travels, I had contacted the Armitt and had arranged to meet the Curator whilst we were in Ambleside.
The feeling as I was approaching the museum and library was actually quite a peaceful one, hard to explain really.  Yes, I was excited too, but I felt that I just wanted to soak in and remember every part of the experience.

Unfortunately, no photographs were allowed when I had my private viewing, a little disappointed initially, but now I really appreciate it, as it has made the experience so much more personal, although I would have course loved to have shared it with you !

There was only time to view about 30 of them, but they truly took my breath away.  It was as though they had been painted yesterday, the colours were so fresh.

The Armitt Museum

I took a magnifying glass with me as I wanted to see her brush strokes closely.  She also used several granulating colours, often in the background of the illustrations to portray the habitat.  The latter was not always illustrated in great detail but there is tremendous depth to the paintings.
The compositions are inspiring as they truly lead your eye into what you are seeing, encouraging you to want to know more.  The delicate application of washes means that there are hardly ever any overworked areas of painting.  The neutral washes, which we often now call 'botanical greys' are made up of several washes using the glazing technique with watercolour.  The fungi themselves are so accurately painted and detailed that the species are still easily identifiable today from Beatrix's paintings.
One fascinating aspect of holding and seeing her work so closely, was the opportunity to read her notes and measurements.
We also had the chance to see some of her archaeological illustrations and heard from the curator, that they were often illustrated from specimens either located at the British Museum or on loan to her.  One illustration that will stay in my mind for a long long time, was one of Roman leatherwork, showing the remains of a sole of a sandal with the studs visible in the painting, and another of Roman leather latticework.  The River Fleet was a major river in Roman times and it is likely that this was the origin of Beatrix's illustration subjects, when excavations were taking place at the time of it being incorporated into the Victorian sewage system.

Memories and memorabilia back in the studio at home.

So what now, after all of that inspiration ?  I was determined to return to illustrating fungi this year, after a break of a year or two.  A trip to the New Forest at the end of August yielded some specimens and now I feel motivated even more. 

This coming Saturday 6th October is UK Fungus Day, so why not have a look at the website and see if there are any fungi events near you.  If you are not up to sketching them why not take photographs, but remember to leave the fungi where they are.

Butter bolete Boletus appendiculatus © 2018 Sarah Morrish/NaturesDetails
From my A3 botanical sketchbook

Penny bun Boletus edulis © 2018 Sarah Morrish/NaturesDetails
From my A3 botanical sketchbook

For further examples of my fungi illustrations and those of a fellow artist and friend, Claire Ward, you can view the blog of the UK Fungus Day - British Mycological Society

If you would like to read more about the time that Beatrix Potter illustrated fungi, the following booklet gives a wonderful and informative overview, with a good range of her illustrations included.
It is available directly from the Armitt Musuem.