Apart from its collection of historic properties, the National Trust cares for a number of watercolours and pen and ink illustrations drawn by Beatrix Potter. A selection of these is displayed each year at the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Cumbria. As well as the familiar characters from her famous Tales, the collection includes unpublished drawings, manuscripts and letters.
One group of letters is particularly interesting. These are copies, made by Potter for her own reference, of some of the picture letters she sent to the many children she corresponded with between 1892 and 1912. These vividly record favourite scenes, often from annual holidays to the South Coast, Scotland and the Lake District. It is often in the letters that her original impressions of these places are recorded and where the ideas for her stories first take shape.
On display is a manuscript copy made by Potter of a letter she wrote in 1898 to Noel Moore, the son of her former governess. Complete with charming ink illustrations, it tells the story of a dog called Stumpy. Stumpy's master died, leaving in his will "10 shillings a week for the rest of Stumpy's life". As a result, Stumpy was able to live in Sidmouth cottage with his companions: Miss Hayward the housekeeper, Black Friday the dog and Percy the cat.
Contained in the letter is a sketch of a Sidmouth street scene in which Stumpy passes Potter in the street. She writes to Noel: "I meet him out shopping in the morning, he looks at me sideways, but never speaks!" This episode resurfaces over 30 years later as one of the threads woven into of The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. In this version, instead of Beatrix Potter, he passes a cat called Susan in the street while out shopping.
The street scene of the picture letter is developed from a pencil drawing in a sketchbook, as seen in the exhibition. These settings, as much as the characters, give the illustrations their vitality.
Hazel Gatford and Alison Platt Hazel Gatford is collectionsmanager at the Beatrix Potter Gallery, Main Street, Hawkshead, Cumbria . Tel: 015394 36355. Alison Platt is education officer for the north west region of the National Trust