This piece was originally an exploratory paper determining the viability of a more substantial 3-chapter project. Excerpts of this research were presented at the Biannual Beatrix Potter Conference held in the Lake District, United Kingdom and published in the organization’s quarterly academic journal.
For over a century, the tales and ‘picture books’ of Beatrix Potter, with their charming pinafored porcupines and mischievous adventures, have captivated children and adults alike. While historians and enthusiasts have written countless volumes on her stories and life, mapping out a childhood in London, extensive summer vacations across England with family, and eventual move to the Lake District, a lesser degree of work on the stories of her much-loved possessions exists. However, it will be argued that to understand Beatrix Potter is to understand the objects she kept closest and chose to display, both for herself and future admirers of her work. She was inspired by what she saw, and nearly all of her art has an actual counterpart that she used for sketching. While no full-scale material culture analyses have been conducted on Beatrix’s beloved Hill Top Farm, a paper of this length will not attempt to do so. Instead, it will focus on one particular corner the home, enlisting existing historiographical materials and Beatrix’s personal writings to understand how the authoress consciously mirrored the intricate layers of her own life’s history in the items she intentionally displayed in the small space of the kitchen. To this end, the first section will focus on artifacts reminding Beatrix of her own life’s journey, while the second half will explore heirlooms which memorialized Potter family history. This will extend into a brief discussion on her various dimensions of history and how myriad experiences shaped a sense of place both at Hill Top Farm and in her beloved Lake District.
Constructing a Material History
Hill Top Farm is a seventeenth-century farmhouse located in the Lake District, which Beatrix purchased in 1906 with the royalties from her numerous best-selling children’s books. Though London born and raised, she never felt at place in her parents’ constricting Victorian brownstone in Kensington, often lamenting she was not reared in the North country, the land of her forefathers. While Beatrix hated her London life, as an unmarried woman (until the age of thirty-nine) in that era, it was nearly impossible to escape the grasp of her constricting mother, and it was not until she was self-sufficient from her success as an author that freedom, however partial, could be achieved. Hill Top in particular held special meaning for Beatrix because it was the one place in the world where she ever felt truly at peace. Giving her cousin a tour of the home at the end of her life, she remarked, ‘it is here I go to be quiet and still with myself.” After purchasing the small farmhouse, corresponding ancillary buildings, and a few acres of farmland in the summer, Beatrix set feverishly to work preparing the house for herself and the farm manager and his wife who would share the same roof. Though anxious to embark on the necessary repairs and enlargement of the space, Beatrix still found it difficult to escape for more than a few days each month before being reeled back to London.
After completing renovations on the library, the next room Beatrix chose to assemble to her liking was the kitchen, or ‘firehouse’ as these rooms are often called in Lake District farmhouses. Upon walking through the front door, a ‘pretty dresser with crooked legs’ stands on the stone-flagged floor, displaying a number of blue-and-white trays, platters and bowls. The dresser, taking up the majority of the wall opposing the door, was built in traditional Lake District style, oak used for the main body with accompanying mahogany shell inlays.
This dresser, likely purchased by Beatrix soon after moving to Hill Top, is significant for many reasons. She identified greatly with the sensibilities of design informing Lake District furniture craft; known for its durability, these pieces were well equipped to handle the farming life. However, they were dynamic in that they were also revered for the ornamentalism in design. Carving is a hallmark, an element that did not go unnoticed by her creative and exacting eyes. In 1946, Beatrix’s first biographer observed her “North-country blend of the practical and poetic” in the way she lived and worked at Hill Top. Beatrix loved these Lake District pieces for their mirroring of the same mentalities she found in herself: straight-forward and able to withstand hard work, yet ever-possessing of an unpretentious, creative identity.
Perhaps Beatrix had another reason for identifying so well with her Cumbrian dresser. Over the years, the oak pieces had fallen out of vogue in the area, disconnected from their original homes and found abandoned at country sales. This saddened Beatrix greatly; she took great interest in buying and reuniting them with farmhouses she purchased over the years, and continued these pursuits until her death. This sense of displacement likely resonated with her; she often lamented that her Southern breeding was ‘a mistake,’ and that, though born in London, “[her] descent, joy, and interest [was] in the North Country.” In her farms, she was not only reuniting the vernacular furniture with their rightful space, she was reuniting her heart with homeland.
Given its special place in Beatrix’s affections, it is no wonder that her Hill Top dresser appears in the first story she wrote after moving into the farmhouse. Written in 1906, The Roly-Poly Pudding features the famous scene of the character Anna Maria running away from the kitchen with her stolen dough in preparation for baking a fresh “Tom Kitten pie.” Within this scene, Beatrix’s dresser can be plainly seen in the background.
Like so many decisions made by Beatrix, the choice of this particular antique dresser is worth exploring. While extolling the style of Lake District furniture, the amateur enthusiast was decidedly opposed to replicas of such pieces. Yet she was a proponent of the emerging arts and crafts design of the era, and took no issue with new pieces or buildings constructed within the area. This mindset, while at first seemingly contradictory, fits into Beatrix’s overarching ideology. She was easily charmed by the past, and was a strong advocate of conservation for future generations. Yet she also valued and embraced forward-thinking movements. In this way, the idea of imitating the past would have been offsetting for Beatrix for it was neither authentic nor modern.
It is not enough to simply state that Beatrix chose to display eleven blue-and-white pieces on her dresser – three platters, four plates, and four bowls – every preliminary study of Beatrix has uncovered her attention to details. It is even short-changing her to only say one plate featured King George III and Queen Charlotte while another displayed Lord Nelson. When preparing her notes for how Hill Top should be conserved after her death, she was very explicit it should remain unlived in, with every
trinket and ornament displayed in her exacting style. In this way, Beatrix already understood that someday others might want to explore where she had once worked and lived. Thus, to understand Beatrix is to dig deeper. The woman who developed a secret language to write her childhood diaries (later decoded by Potter historian Leslie Linder) put reason and purpose behind everything she did. Thus, whether gifted or purchased, Beatrix likely had specific reasons for immortalizing these figures in such a prominent place in the house.
In examining King George III and Queen Charlotte, reasons immediately arise. Though the King is best known for reigning during America’s War of Independence – or perhaps for becoming mentally unstable in later years – Beatrix identified with him for other reasons. Known to be shy and reserved, the young George preferred to spend much time alone; to make matters worse, his mother was also overbearing and restricted his access to the outside world, something Beatrix understood far too well from her own domineering mother. Known as “Farmer George,” it was during his reign that the Agricultural Revolution reached its peak, along with significant scientific advances. In her later years, overseeing Hill Top was Beatrix’s greatest pride; her Herdwick sheep received constant attention from their owner, who served as the President of the local association. Even into her late seventies, Beatrix could be seen striding across the countryside attending to her herds.
In Charlotte, too, we see Beatrix. Well known for her love of intellectual pursuits, Charlotte possessed a library of over four thousand volumes, many devoted to science. The Queen was especially interested in botany, and became a powerful figure in the development of Kew Gardens. She was also an amateur botanist herself, busied with sketches of local flora and fauna. In 1785, John Stuart dedicated his Botanical Tables to the Queen, who continued her patronage of the natural sciences throughout her life. She and George were also well known for their agricultural pursuits, easily recognized in the local markets for their interest in farming. Beatrix herself was an extremely accomplished amateur botanist, having spent many years drawing fungal matter for publication. She was also well-connected to the leading botanists at Charlotte’s legacy, Kew Gardens, which she visited regularly for source inspiration.
Another item worth further investigation is a plate bearing the likeness of celebrated Naval hero Lord Nelson. While Nelson and Potter display no known similarities, a closer examination provides an obvious connection. Among the large circle Beatrix counted as relatives were her cousins, the Hyde-Parkers, who resided at Melton Hall in Suffolk. Throughout her life, Beatrix sought refuge and inspiration in this home, and many of her early garden sketches are directly taken from the grounds of Melford. Specifically, scenes from The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tale of Jeremy Fisher have their origins in the back garden. While the space itself was of great importance to Beatrix’s artistic pursuits, family connections account for her fascination with Lord Nelson. In addition to being some of Beatrix’s favorite extended family members, the Hyde-Parker clan was also a high-ranking Naval family. While generations of Parker gentlemen served their country on the high seas, most notably Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, 6th Baronet served alongside (and at one point commanded) Lord Nelson. It is from this turbulent relationship that the commonly used phrase of “turning a blind eye” originated, as Lord Nelson famously ‘failed’ to see Admiral Parker’s signal to disengage with the enemy at the Battle of Copenhagen with his one blind eye. It is therefore likely this plate could have been a gift from the Hyde-Parker family to Beatrix.
As an added layer of significance, the inclusion of this figure could also highlight the juxtaposition of Beatrix’s life as both a high-society Londoner and North country farmer. Beatrix grew up in the Victorian era, a time when great importance was placed on the cultural arts; her family, too, would have been observant of the popular artists, such as Tennyson, who served as Poet Laureate during the time, and wrote pieces on the legacy of Lord Nelson It is therefore possible this piece dually served as a memory of early artistic interests for her.
Beatrix Potter was not only aware of her personal history and the artifacts that spoke to that story; she was also keen to surround herself with pieces denoting family memories. Though it is true she experienced difficulties finding her voice within the strict confines of immediate relatives, particularly her mother, other members of the family tree exhibited tremendous influence on the author’s life and work; that two such inspirations would be memorialized in the room Beatrix spent the majority of her days is no surprise. In the case of the long-clock housed on the right-hand side of the dresser, memories of a childhood and young adulthood spent at her uncle Frederick Burton’s Gwaenynog Hall in Denbigh contributed significantly to Beatrix’s development as an artist, particularly in her sketches of interior spaces and furniture. It is here the author began her education in antique furniture under the tutelage of her beloved uncle. Having made his fortune in the cotton industry, Frederick Burton’s “perfect taste” in antique pieces did not go unnoticed by Beatrix; she greatly admired the existing collection of oak furnishings, along with the expanding set of mahogany fittings added to the home.
Upon moving to Hill Top, Potter enlisted the help of her uncle to select the first few pieces, in fitting with the Lake District style. Long before the purchase of Hill Top, Beatrix had already materialized her love for the style of clock in question; in a drawing near the turn of the century, Beatrix sketched the piece stationed beside a cupboard (a curiously similar cupboard would later appear in the parlor of Hill Top) at Gwaenynog.
Once the renovations of Hill Top were complete, Beatrix located a clock of the same style to live beside her dresser. Her version, created in 1785 by Thomas Barrow of Stockport with hand-painted face by James Wilson of Birmingham, features the same oak finish found in her other pieces, along with walnut inlays to complement the ornamental designs of the Lake District. Continuing the trend of using personal possessions and models for her stories, the piece was immortalized in The Tailor of Gloucester along with The Tale of Samuel Whiskers.
In addition to the long-clock, another family heirloom also appears, flanking the opposing wall of the dresser. This object, a warming pan belonging to her grandmother Jessy Crompton Potter, speaks volumes on the importance of heritage to Beatrix. Writing to an American friend, Potter discusses her views of lineage, stating, “I am a believer in ‘breed;’ I hold that a strongly marked personality can influence descendants for generations.” As Beatrix’s paternal grandmother, her own Crompton family was known as being the source of any ‘independent, outspoken, eccentric and worth emulating’ behavior present in the family. In her early years, Jessy was known as ‘the pretty Radical,’ while later in life she was still seen as a spirited lady, whose life stories Beatrix delighted in. That she was exceedingly closer to her father’s free-spirited relatives only further highlights the lifelong disconnect she suffered in contending with her mother’s conservative viewpoints.
The piece itself – a brass warming pan with long handle – was likely a product of the eighteenth-century and would have been given to Jessy Potter as a wedding gift. In much the same way that Beatrix’s grandmother was something of a rare breed during the era, so also is the warming pan. While the vast majority of those produced during this time were created for use with coals producing the desired warming effect, the elder Potter’s utilized hot water. Lastly, much like her dresser, the warming pan fit well with the Lake District aesthetics Beatrix so loved: while the metal was heavily carved and meant to be ornate, it was also utilitarian at its core function.
Understandings of Space
The aim of this research has been to focus on how seemingly small details can produce significant illumination on intricate relationships of owner to object; it is valuable to take a longer view towards how these gleanings can further shape overarching understandings of space. Within existing historiography, some debate exists on how Hill Top is to be viewed in the context of the author’s life. Though identifying herself as a
Northerner, it is true Beatrix never truly lived at Hill Top. Before marrying in 1913, she was only able to visit a few days a month; upon betrothal, she and William relocated to Castle Cottage and the farm was used as her working studio. While the argument has been made that Hill Top should be viewed more as a space Beatrix set up for staging her stories rather than a true homestead, this explanation is both far too one-dimensional for such a dynamic figure and lacks a comprehensive understanding of Beatrix’s mode of living. Instead, the approach taken within these pages is to view the “assembling” of Hill Top as having two distinct phases, with both contributing to the overall embodiment of her character and life.
In setting up the property after her initial purchase, Beatrix meticulously filled the space with items and memories which served as engaging daily reminders of who she was as a family member, artist, author and independent woman. Within the small area of the kitchen alone, the former Londoner created a timeline of both her own existence and the lives of those who had gone before her, via material commentaries on lineage and adolescence, passions and triumphs. Given the personal history imbued into each of her tales, along with her penchant for using real life models for sketches, it seems only natural that Hill Top would grace the pages of her best works. Furthermore, that Beatrix rejected her London lifestyle for the Cumbrian farming life solidifies her decision to immortalize the home within her life’s work.
Though Beatrix vacated the farm after her marriage to William, the property remained much the same during this time; she chose to leave all of the trinkets collected throughout her years within their rightful space and instead outfit her new marriage home at Castle Cottage with items significant to both her and her beloved William. In this decision, Beatrix was careful not to disrupt the layers of history she had built during her time at Hill Top. Instead, she continued to use this space to craft her tales and gather source inspiration. When giving a tour of the home to her cousin near the end of her life, she remarked, “this is me, the deepest me. When Willie asked me to marry him I said yes, but I also said we cannot live at Hill Top, as I must leave everything here as it is.” As a space that housed the memories and artifacts of Beatrix’s hopes, frustrations, longings and delights, Hill Top for her stood as a time capsule of the life she had lived, surrounded – quite literally – by the life she had built.
Thus, the second phase of “assembling” at Hill Top can be seen as taking place once Beatrix knew she was nearing the end of her life. Upon completing her will, which outlined her wishes for the farm to be given to the National Trust to manage as a public site, Beatrix set to work on personally placing every item in the house as it should be displayed after her death. Viewed from such a perspective, this final arranging of Hill Top can be seen as a shift from personal stage to public museum as Beatrix was shrewdly aware of the continued impact her life and work would have on future generations. Still, her approach to displaying her treasures mirrors the same understated mentality echoed throughout life. Rather than showcasing a collection of her artwork or published books in prominent locations, these remained carefully labeled and tucked away in portfolios and copybooks. Instead, Beatrix spent her final months crafting a reflective space to give future admirers a glimpse into the life of the free-spirited woman behind their favorite childhood tales. Unable to suppress her signature humor, Beatrix also took time to place notes on the backs of her paintings and antiques, along with “pithy comments” and details of what she paid for them. William was faithful to oversee every detail of his wife’s wishes be carried out, ensuring that the National Trust would preserve the house as a ‘permanent memorial’ with all of her possessions maintaining their rightful place.