A fair bit is known about the creation of Beatrix Potter’s tale of an impudent squirrel who lost his tail, thanks to Leslie Linder’s History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter. Much less is known about the work of other artists who may have influenced her. Her style did change over the years and she drew squirrels rather differently in the 1890s, when she was an unknown amateur artist carving out a niche for herself and the early 1900s when she achieved success with the little books. Compare the red squirrel capering on the cover of Squirrel Nutkin and the study below in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The study of the two squirrels, with its greater emphasis on naturalistic detail, points to work of the famous Victorian artist, Ernest Griset (1844-1907). Celebrated in the 1860s and 1870s for his anthropomorphized grotesques of creatures, Griset drew countless studies of animals and birds at the London Zoo. He was obliged to pour out illustrations for the magazines and for heavily illustrated books for the Christmas market to support a large family. His wood engraver, the Dalziel firm, sold for a pittance the beautiful drawings.
Could his illustration of two squirrels navigating the waters on little rafts of bark in The Favorite Album of Fun and Fancy (1880) have given Potter the idea for the convey of squirrels going to Old Mister Brown’s island?
Or is it a coincidence? Two minds independently hitting on the same idea? Is it my imagination or are there other parallels between Griset’s squirrels and Potter’s Nutkin? It’s an idea worth pursuing…