We know a fair bit about how Beatrix Potter created her tale of an impudent squirrel who lost his tail, thanks to Leslie Linder’s History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter. Of artists who might have been early influences on her, we know rather less. Her art is so exquisite that it is difficult to think of other individuals to compare her to. And Miss Potter’s loyal fan base of scholars have been more intent upon gathering information about her life, family, and friends than reconstructing the contents of the nursery library at 2, Bolton Gardens.Like any great artist, Potter’s style changed over the course of her career, especially during the transitional years from the 1890s, when she struggled as an unknown amateur artist to establish herself, and the early 1900s, when her little books began coming out. It’s easy to see the differences in her renderings of red squirrels over time by comparing the cover illustration for Nutkin and this study in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Potter’s style from the 1890s, with its greater emphasis on naturalistic detail, may point to a famous Victorian animal artist whose illustrations she may well have known and imitated: Ernest Griset (1844-1907) Griset was French by birth, but considered himself an Englishman. Celebrated in the 1860s and 1870s for his anthropomorphized grotesques of creatures, his satirical manner was based on countless studies of animals and birds at the London Zoo. A jobbing artist with a large family to support, he poured out illustrations for the magazines and for heavily illustrated books for the Christmas market. The famous Dalziel firm engraved his blocks and the beautiful drawings were sold for a pittance in a London shop.
I found some intriguing similarities between some of his illustrations in The Favorite Album of Fun and Fancy (1880) and Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. The most striking one is the squirrels navigating the waters on little rafts of bark…
Is this the sort of coincidence where two minds independently hit on the same idea? Is it my imagination or are there other parallels between Griset’s squirrels and Potter’s Nutkin? We may never know!