36. Beatrix Potter Gallery – 14/5/2014

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Not far back down the B5285 from Hill Top is Hawkshead village and this was my next stop. It was here that Beatrix Potter’s local solicitor and future husband, William Heelis, had his offices. He was Beatrix’s legal adviser for many of her farm purchases and they were married in 1913 when they were both in their forties. Interestingly, the couple never moved into Hill Top together but lived at a cottage on the neighbouring Castle Farm. This was said to be because Beatrix wanted Hill Top to remain hers and hers alone, full of her own belongings and a place she could still go to write and paint away from everyday life.

Anyway, today, Heelis’ old law office in Hawkshead has become the Beatrix Potter Gallery where some of her original artwork is displayed in changing exhibitions. Unfortunately, the fragility and light sensitivity of the illustrations means that relatively few are out on display at any one time and I was a little disappointed about the quantity on view. A few years ago, I stumbled across a display of the whole story of Peter Rabbit in the Victoria & Albert museum, with each picture paired with the relevant text from the book. It was a lovely way to read the book again, while looking at the original watercolours that Potter had painted. Again, lack of space probably prevents the Trust from doing something similar at the Hawkshead Gallery and it has done its best to marry the art and the story by including both copies of the books and audio readings in the gallery. About six different stories were featured, however, with just one or two paintings from each so you couldn’t really get into the flow of the story while examining the artwork.

One thing the Trust tries to do at the Gallery is to present themed exhibitions and the current one concentrates on holidays, which were very important to Beatrix and her family and which first introduced her to the Lake District with the 1882 trip to Wray Castle. There are some display boards about the Potter family’s holiday habits and a few choice quotes from Beatrix’s own diaries. My own favourite was about her rabbit Benjamin ‘Bounce’ Bunny who accompanied them on their various holidays. She talked about how he travelled in a covered basket but when she ‘took him out of the basket near Dunbar… [he] proved scared and bit the family’. I know some people who carry their own Benjamin Bunny backwards and forwards from their house to their holiday home and I’m sure he’s better behaved than that!

Although there is no guidebook for the Gallery, a souvenir guide is available and this has some interesting information about Beatrix’s life and painting so it was a good post-visit read. Included in there is a quote from Potter saying about her painting that ‘I cannot invent, I only copy’. While she certainly copied familiar locations into her illustrations and modelled her animal drawings on life, the combination of place and character and the stories that she created to go with her pictures are beautifully inventive so I think she clearly undersold herself there.

Anyway, once again, my second visit of the day was a brief one so I was soon wending my way across the hills to Coniston for my next stop (and perhaps the oddest of the entire challenge… read on!)

Highlights: Original Beatrix Potter artwork

Refreshments: None

Purchase(s): Souvenir guide

Companion(s): None

NT Connections: Through Beatrix Potter, the gallery is connected to Hill Top, Wray Castle and Melford Hall

NB: I wondered if Heelis, the National Trust’s headquarters at Swindon, was named after William Heelis so did a bit of digging and the good old internet reports that it is in fact named after Mrs William Heelis, i.e. Beatrix Potter herself.

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