Peter - da urban rabbit

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Exhibition brings Beatrix Potter's idyllic Lake District to inner-city children Adi Bloom reports

Stealing radishes is not one of the more popular pastimes for visitors to London's East End. Nor is observing woodland wildlife a common pursuit among the council blocks of Bethnal Green.

But an exhibition at the Museum of Childhood in east London aims to introduce the pastoral idyll of the Lake District into the concrete jungle.

Titled "Beatrix Potter's Garden", the show recreates the children's author's Cumbrian home, highlighting the elements of the countryside that inspired her to write and draw.

An interactive display guides visitors through the Lake District, introducing the scenery and wildlife that appear in the books, alongside original illustrations.

These include recreated elements of Mr McGregor's vegetable garden, from which Peter dug up and stole lettuces and radishes, in The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

Steve Nichols, the exhibition's manager, said: "Urban farms bring animals into cities for children to see. Beatrix Potter's books do the same, through literature and the imagination.

"The books give human characteristics to animals. But they still have animal traits. This exhibition offers children an understanding of the natural world."

The show, which opens tomorrow, includes first-edition copies of Miss Potter's books. Her original manuscript for Mrs Tiggy-winkle, a tale of a hedgehog with a penchant for laundry, published 100 years ago, is also displayed.

Beatrix Potter's 23 tales, depicting the adventures of various woodland animals, were published between 1902 and 1930.

Peter Rabbit, the first, and most famous, began life as an illustrated letter to the child of a friend. "My dear Noel," Miss Potter wrote, "I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits."

Nicholas Tucker, senior lecturer in culture at Sussex university, believes the stories can appeal to even the toughest 21st-century inner-city child.

"There is death in her books," he said. "There are elements of realism, where animals are prey and predators. Beatrix Potter's books are about trying to survive in a dangerous world, about vulnerable people who stay alive by their wits."

But Steph Neale, headteacher of Beatrix Potter primary school in south London, will not be taking his pupils to the museum's exhibition.

"Stories about rabbits do not captivate children any more," said Mr Neale.

"They are something that mums and dads buy for their children. Children do not buy them for themselves.

"Modern stories, like the Harry Potter books, are much more exciting.

Children have moved on."

"Beatrix Potter's Garden" runs from January 22 to May 5 at the Museum of Childhood. For details ring 020 8980 2415

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