Monday, 8 January 2007

Beatrix Potter: read the book, see the film, buy the Beswick figure

by Christopher Proudlove©

Lovers and collectors of antiques, I urge you to see Miss Potter, the movie starring Renee Zellwegger detailing the life of Beatrix Potter. Go ... now ... I’ll pay! It’s a beautiful film, not least for the stunning Lake District countryside in which much of it is set and, of course the touching story of the woman who brought us Peter Rabbit and his chums.

But it’s the fabulous room settings and her wonderful drawings that come to life on the screen which make the film so compelling for collectors. See it and be inspired, just don’t get any ideas about buying Beatrix Potter watercolours – unless your pockets are deep. These two illustrated sold for a staggering £40,630.

If nothing else, the sale proved there is no upper limit to the prices collectors are prepared to pay for objects related to the great children's book illustrator. Fortunately, however, you don't have to spend a fortune to collect objects related to Beatrix and her menagerie of creations.

The market in Beatrix Potter characters (one carefully managed by publishers Frederick Warne and Company) is a worldwide business with an established and extensive range of licensed merchandise, worth it is said, more than $500m (dollars) a year.

More than 100 companies in the UK alone are licencees of the products and they include major manufacturers such as Wedgwood; Royal Doulton; Beswick and Royal Albert.

While today their products might be termed as collectables, one day they will be antiques in their own right and, given the rarity that inevitably comes with the passage of time, worth considerably more than they cost.

Readers starting the search for Easter presents for youngsters could do worse than give Beatrix Potter-inspired ceramic figures made by the John Beswick Studios. The company was established in 1894 at Longton, in Stoke-on-Trent, initially producing tableware and ornaments.

Only later, in the 1930s, did it turn to animal modelling, notably the series of shire and famous racehorses and champion dogs. The studio subsequently became renowned as the finest for animal figures and also produced a range of whimsical figures of animals with human expressions and in human poses.

Beswick began producing Beatrix Potter story book characters in 1948. The first piece, created by chief modeller Arthur Gredington, was Jemima Puddle-Duck, which was released along with nine other characters. They were an immediate success and are extremely sought after today. The Royal Doulton Group acquired Beswick in 1969.

To know more about Helen Beatrix Potter (1864-1943) helps to understand this wave of nostalgia for likenesses of the characters she "invented". She was born in Kensington, South London, where she endured a lonely and repressed childhood, her pets, among them a mouse, a rabbit and a hedgehog, being her only friends.

These and the exhibits she saw on visits to the National History Museum in South Kensington, were carefully sketched in page after page of notebooks, which she took everywhere with her.

Holidays in Scotland and the Lake District instilled in her a love of the countryside and gave her a visual memory from which she drew readily when, years later, she began to paint for a living.

She once said: "I do not remember a time when I did not try to invent pictures and make for myself a fairyland amongst the wild flowers, the animals, the fungi, mosses, woods and streams, all the thousand objects of the countryside."

Lucy Beswick was a great fan of Beatrix Potter's nursery stories and took the characters, particularly Jemima Puddle-Duck, to her heart. By coincidence, her husband, Ewart, just happened to be the chairman and managing director of pottery manufacturers John Beswick Ltd., in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent.

They were holidaying in the Lake District and while they were there, they visited the farmhouse near Hawkshead where Beatrix Potter spent the last 30 years of her life and wrote the books that have enchanted children for four generations.On their return to the Potteries, Lucy Beswick had an idea. Why not bring Jemima to life ... in clay?

Suitably inspired by the suggestion, Beswick's chief modeller Arthur Gredington set to and produced the first in what subsequently proved to be a run of Beatrix Potter figures that continues today. So delighted were the Beswick directors with Jemima Puddle-Duck in her blue poke bonnet and purple shawl that permission was obtained from the publishers of the tales to reproduce her and the other favourite characters for the general public.

By 1947, Jemima had been joined by Peter Rabbit, Tom Kitten, Timmy Tiptoes, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs Tittlemouse, Little Pig Robinson, Benjamin Bunny, Samuel Whiskers, and Mrs Tiggy Winkle. All were modelled by Arthur Gredington.

Beswick were already producing a small range of pottery figures including humorous animal studies and characters from literature, but in 1947, they formed only a minor part of the firm's production.

Jemima and her friends changed all that and the rest is collecting history!

She was in her mid 30s when she published her first book, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit", the inspiration for which was a letter illustrated with sketches which she wrote to a boy named Noel Moore, the son of her former governess, in 1893.

Amazingly (or so it seems now) at least six publishers rejected the idea, including Frederick Warne and Co., who was eventually to change its mind and Beatrix decided to have the book printed privately.

The first 250 copies containing 41 black and white illustrations were ready on December 16, 1901, to be given as Christmas presents to her friends and relations, the remainder to be sold at a halfpenny a copy.

In February of the following year a second impression of 200 copies were issued with slight textual changes and inserted in a more robust binding with a round back.

Warne and Co., had by this time realised the commercial potential of the idea and in October issued the storybook with the illustrations in full colour throughout.

Its success was universal. The combination of small books with pages of simple text opposite meticulously painted and sharply observed vignettes of real animals but with human attributes established Peter Rabbit and his friends in nursery folklore.

Beatrix also became secretly engaged to the publisher, Norman Warne, who died tragically before the wedding. In 1905, using the proceeds from her first books, she was able to leave her parents and move to her beloved Lake District, where she bought Hill Top Farm at Sawrey, above Lake Windermere.

More than 20 other books followed, introducing such characters as Tom Kitten; Jemima Puddle-Duck; Little Pig Robinson; the Tailor of Gloucester and his mice; Miss Moppet; the Flopsy Bunnies; Mrs Tittlemouse; Timmy Tiptoes; Squirrel Nutkin; Benjamin Bunny; Mrs Tiggy-Winkle; Jeremy Fisher and many more ... ah yes, I remember them well!

A strong-willed character, Beatrix was determined that the printed reproductions of her watercolours in her books was as accurate as possible and this quality control ensured their further success, as much with parents as with their children.

Strong, vibrant colours and precise detail was combined with an immense knowledge of the animal world and botany made her books compelling enough.

Add to this her hugely fertile imagination with creatures wearing frock coats and frilly bonnets engaged in all manner of amusing incidents and it is easy to see why they have been so enduring to each successive generation.

In 1913, Beatrix married William Heelis, a local solicitor who shared her farming interests and, despite the huge popularity of her books, devoted herself to sheep farming.

This she tackled with the same strong-willed determination, eventually becoming president of the Herdwick Sheepbreeders' Association.

She used her wealth to buy no fewer than 15 farms as they became vacant and 4,000 acres subsequently bequeathed to the National Trust, which preserves many of her original drawings at Hill Top Farm. The legacy helped secure the Lake District from the developers and continue the tradition of hill-farming.

The Tate Gallery has a collection of 22 of the original watercolour drawings for The Tailor of Gloucester, published in 1902, which some people consider are the most outstanding examples of her artistry.

Of course, modern day collectors need not restrict themselves to Beatrix Potter characters. Bunnykins collectors' pieces have already achieved great success and earlier pieces are sought after, while Disney characters are another potential for tomorrow's collectors.

However, the one to look out for is the now rare Duchess, the little black dog from Beatrix Potter’s 1905 book Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan. The little Beswick figure was produced in two versions, the earlier of which today is worth £800-1,200. It was produced from 1955-67 and is identifiable from a later version because it has a gold backstamp on the base and the figure holds a bunch of flowers rather than a pie. The second version, produced between 1979 and 1982 is worth £100-150.

Beswick pigPeter Rabbit

numly esn 38223-070108-299370-80

© 2007 All Rights Reserved.

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Anonymous Marilyn said...

Excellent article - a very good read indeed.

13 July 2009 at 03:15  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

You are most kind. Regards

13 July 2009 at 03:23  
Anonymous Janet said...

So glad to read this posting today as i bought ''hunco munco sweeping' fron a car boot sale for 5 dollars.
On the botton it says f warne&coltd 1977 beswick england. She is really cute ,think i will be on the lookout for more.
I have seen the movie,loved the background but did not enjoy Renee as Beatrix

22 August 2010 at 01:00  
Anonymous Judith said...

My sister-in-law has the Royal Doulton Hill Top design dinner set.
I suspect the name Hill Top relates to Beatrix Potter's farm in the Lake District. Can you shed some light on this for me, please?
I loved the Miss Potter movie and enjoyed Renee Zellweger as Beatrix.
I subsequently read two biographies about Beatrix: one was written, I think, in 1945, and another very recently which goes into much more fascinating detail.

15 November 2010 at 20:14  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

I hadn't really made the connection myself, or is it coincidence? Can anyone help?

16 November 2010 at 02:56  

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