This is an excerpt from a 3-chapter piece commissioned as a material culture analysis of children’s author Beatrix Potter’s farm house located in the Cumbrian hills of the United Kingdom. Portions of the piece were presented at the biennial Beatrix Potter Society International Study Conference and later printed in the Society’s quarterly academic journal.
After completing renovations on the upstairs library as her first project, Beatrix set to work assembling the kitchen – or firehouse as these rooms are often called in Lake District farmhouses – to her liking. Upon walking through the front door of Hill Top, the room is immediately identifiable by the distinctive vernacular style exhibited throughout the region. The stone-flagged floors, covered in traditional rag-rugs, are inviting while still ultimately utilitarian. Writing to Norman’s sister Millie Warne in the autumn of 1906, she noted that another room had been ‘got straight.’ This room was the firehouse, and Beatrix took special note that she had not ‘meddled with the fireplace,’ not disliking it, and indeed it was ‘wanted for the next book.’
Beatrix enthusiastically used the space as source inspiration during this time of her life. The Roly-Poly Pudding would be the second book by Beatrix featuring the interiors of Hill Top As imagined, the fireplace in the kitchen takes center stage as Tom wriggles up the chimney at the beginning of his mischievous adventures.
Though Beatrix would later decide to replace the fireplace with a more modernized and practical range, the National Trust installed a replica of the original fire-crane and iron basket grate in later years in an effort to recreate the space as it was in the story.
The space itself was new to Beatrix, but she had dreamed of how she would outfit the room for many years. Long before purchasing the farmhouse, Beatrix had fallen in love with the traditional styles filling her Uncle Fred Burton’s home, Gwaynynog, in Denbigh, Wales. In addition to receiving inspiration for her stories, it was here the author began her education in antique furniture under the tutelage of her beloved relative. Having made his fortune in the cotton industry, Frederick Burton’s ‘perfect taste’56 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 in later years.
Visitors of Hill Top are familiar with the seventeenth-century court cupboard and eighteenth-century grandfather clock, both anchoring the kitchen. Years earlier, Beatrix had sketched near-replicas of the pieces at Gwaynynog.58 Indeed, the firehouse could be viewed in some ways as paying homage to her uncle, who greatly inspired her furniture aesthetics. In one instance she praises the rooms at Gwaynynog for being ‘faultless in scheme of colour [and] elegant without being flimsy,’ the latter being a significant feature of the Lake District oak she was coming to love so dearly.
In addition to sharing his knowledge of antiques (Gwaynynog interiors appear frequently within her sketchbook), Uncle Fred also assisted Beatrix when it came time to buy her first pieces for Hill Top. Though the pieces in the firehouse held specific familial connections for Beatrix, she also soon made her own cultural associations with them, specifically her beloved court cupboard. Taking up a sizeable portion of the wall shared by the front door, the piece was rescued from a ‘dark little kitchen, among broken debris and lumber, having belonged to an aged wife.’ Paying a then-exorbitant sum of twenty-one pounds, she noted the farmwife had turned down many ‘good offers’ for the piece in her lifetime.