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Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum
Photograph: Shaye Weaver for Time Out New York

A first look at the darling new Beatrix Potter exhibit in NYC

The work of the author and illustrator of the beloved Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny tales shines at this new Morgan Library & Museum show.

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver

The author and illustrator who ignited our childhood imaginations with tales of cuddly bunnies, mischievous squirrels and daring ducks is getting a well-deserved spotlight in NYC.

The wholesome and beautiful works of beloved children’s author and land conservationist Beatrix Potter are now on view at The Morgan Library & Museum through June 9.

RECOMMENDED: The Morgan is celebrating 100 years with a free party and a Beatrix Potter exhibit

Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature,” opens Friday, February 23, as one of the museum and library’s centennial year exhibitions, and it is the most darling show in the city right now.

For adults who grew up reading her storybooks about cute but mischievous anthropomorphized animals—Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Tom Kitten and Jeremy Fisher—and for children who are currently reading them, the exhibition is both a nostalgic and celebratory look inside her sketchbook so to speak.

“I do not remember a time when I did not try to invent pictures and make fairy-tales—amongst the wild flowers, the animals, trees and mosses and fungi—all the thousand common objects of the country side; that pleasant unchanging world of realism and romance,” Potter wrote in a 1940 letter.

You can see her devotion to storytelling and nature across 175 objects in two galleries and four sections, one of which includes a delightful recreation of Potter’s home that you can actually sit and read in.

Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum
Photograph: Shaye Weaver for Time Out New York

Town & Country

Potter, who was born in 1866, grew up in some of the most picturesque places in Victorian England. She spent a lot of her early childhood sketching animals (she had about 90 pets in her lifetime); artifacts (Roman objects and fossils); and plants (since she and her family had regular access to the zoo and the Victoria & Albert Museum and had residences throughout the English countryside). Her family was creative—her lawyer father was a photographer and her mother was a watercolorist.

In this first gallery, you get a sense of how immersed in nature Potter was and what her imagination was like from an early age. There’s even a page of her diary that she wrote in code, which has since been deciphered. 

Beatrix Potter drawing of a ground beetle
Photograph: Linder Bequest. Museum no. BP.257. Victoria and Albert Museum/London, courtesy of Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.

Under the Microscope

You quickly see how the natural sciences captured her attention through her incredibly detailed, almost photo-like drawings of fungi, insects and other natural items. It turns out this brilliant illustrator and writer was also an amateur mycologist (someone who studies fungi), who got to be surrounded by nature during her stays in the country in Scotland and northwest England’s Lake District.

Natural Storyteller

The last section celebrates and explores Potter’s pretty much accidental foray into becoming a best-selling author. If you didn’t know, her stories about Peter Rabbit and the like stemmed from private letters to Noel Moore, the ailing five-year-old son of her friend and former governess. In these “picture letters,” she sketched out a story about bunnies based on her real-life pet Peter Piper. Over time, she came up with other characters like Squirrel Nutkin and Twinkleberry Squirrel.

While this exhibition has traveled the world, the Morgan’s iteration has something the others didn’t—these picture letters. The Library and Museum has had this collection of letters for a long time and first displayed them in 2012. 

At the prodding of her friend and former governess to publish her stories, Potter went to bat with her publisher to keep the books small enough to fit in the hands of children and to be affordable for “little rabbits,” according to Morgan Library & Museum curator Philip Palmer.

You can see her preparatory sketches of Peter Rabbit and her paintings of actual places that inspired Mr. McGregor’s garden in The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, thelittle books” she published, and her childhood paintbox. Also on view: official Beatrix Potter toys that came out in the height of her popularity (when The Tale of Peter Rabbit debuted, it sold 50,000 copies in a year), from a stuffed Jemima Puddle-Duck doll to a Peter Rabbit racing board game. She once said her books were successful because they were “written to a child and not made to order,” according to Palmer. 

Mrs Rabbit pouring out the tea for Peter while her children look on by Beatrix Potter
Photograph: Linder Bequest. Museum no. BP.468, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy of Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.

Living Nature

The highlight of the exhibit is the recreation of her country home in the final section. Later in her life, Potter moved to the Lake District to a farm she called Hill Top and would eventually become a fell farmer and champion sheep breeder (she raised a prize-winning sheep named Water Lily). Her life here was similar to her nature-filled childhood—you can see her devotion to nature through letters, photographs and paintings and finally, her dedication to farming and conservation. You can see her actual clogs and walking stick, which she lovingly etched with the names of her two dogs. 

When she died in 1943, Potter left 4,000 acres to the U.K.’s National Trust, allowing it to own and care for over 20% of the Lake District, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Potter’s love for nature, her incredibly dainty and detailed artwork and her imaginative stories have left an indelible mark, especially on New Yorkers. 

“It was like seeing an old friend again,” Palmer said about Potter’s work. “It taps into what we do—we get sick of the city and need to get out and see nature. New York is also a book-loving city, so for many, these books were a formative experience for a lot of us.”

Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature,” opens at the Morgan Library & Museum on Friday, February 23 and is on through June 9, 2024.

“Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature” exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum
Photograph: Shaye Weaver for Time Out New York

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