“Love from your friend Peter Rabbit:” Beatrix Potter’s Miniature Letters to Jack Ripley Acquired by the Cotsen

CUMBRIA, UK – MAY 30TH 2016: Beatrix Potters writing desk at Hill Top – a 17th Century House once home to childrens author Beatrix Potter, taken on 30th May 2016.

Over the years Beatrix Potter composed picture letters to children she knew.  Noel Moore, the eldest son of her friend and last governess Annie Carter Moore, was especially lucky.  Miss Potter sent him a version of what became The Tale of Peter Rabbit. ne of Noel’s little brother Eric was the recipient of a draft of The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher and Molly Gaddum was sent another one.   Those two picture letters of Jeremy Fisher are among the greatest treasures of Cotsen’s Beatrix Potter collection.

Between nineteen naughts and the early 1920s, Miss Potter wrote teeny-tiny unillustrated letters from her characters in the little books to her young fans.  These miniature manuscripts do not come on the market very often and Mr. Cotsen wasn’t able to acquire any examples while building the Potter collection. Judy Taylor, the Potter scholar, succeeded in tracking down a quite a number, which she published in Letters to Children from Beatrix Potter (1992).    But another Potter devotee, the late Mary K. Young, purchased in the 1990s the four to Master Jack Ripley, of Gloucestershire, whose father was a breeder and trainer of Argentine polo ponies.  She loaned them to the Beatrix Potter exhibition at the Grolier Club in 2000.   It came as something of a surprise that he highlights of Mary Young’s collection were to be auctioned during the pandemic by Doyle’s in New York City.  The sale was not especially well-publicized, but with a derring do, and enthusiastic support from the Friends of the Princeton University Library and John Logan, the English Literature bibliographer, and a canny agent to obtain the letters for Cotsen.

Here they are, as photographed in Judy Taylor’s book.  The letters are matted and framed and my poor cell-phone camera simply wasn’t up to the challenge.   At least these reproductions have transcripts of all the letters, which makes it easier to make out the messages from Peter Rabbit, Josephine Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, and Mr McGregor.

With a second heartfelt thanks to the Friends and to John Logan for making this fabulous acquisition possible.

 

Little Dragons Go Back to School

Edward Burne-Jones, “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies” (detail). From Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” John Dewey

Long before Hiccup befriended and subdued the dragon, Toothless, in Cressida Cowell’s book How to Train Your Dragon (2003), the nineteenth-century English artist, Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), imagined a world where baby dragons went to school to learn everything dragons need to know to become fearsome creatures.

Burne-Jones was a Pre-Raphaelite artist known for his illustrations for William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, and decorative designs and paintings depicting Medieval subject matter. After the 1860s, his work and artistic ideology was associated with the Aesthetic Movement. Art, according to Aestheticists like Burne-Jones, should not be used for didactic or moralizing purposes; rather, it should be considered an object of beauty whose sole purpose was to elicit a sensual and emotional response from the viewer (Landow).

Burne-Jones filled personal correspondence to family and friends with sketches and caricatures. He was especially fond of writing to the children of the household and entertained them with delightful and humorous pictures (MacCarthy, 328). His desire to connect with children and entertain them through art-making can be further seen in a sketchbook in the Cotsen’s collection, Margaret: AUG:MDCCCLXXXV (Manuscripts 91749).

Inscription from Edward Burne-Jones, Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

A handwritten inscription states that Burne-Jones gave his daughter, Margaret, a plain sketchbook before she married and moved to 27 Young Street. It goes on to state that the book was given to his granddaughter, Angela, when she was eighteen months old and that, “E. B-J began making drawings in it for her when he came to see her” (Burne-Jones).

Edward Burne-Jones, “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies.” From Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

The sketchbook contains a number of drawings, ranging in subject matter and level of finish. Some depict landscapes, animals, and everyday life, while others, like the “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies” depict mythological and fantastical creatures.

The “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies” (December 5, 1892) is a finished drawing done in Burne-Jone’s linear style. It shows a group of nine, adorable, cat-like baby dragons in a courtyard. At the rear of the courtyard, sits a podium with an open book and ink well, above which hangs a sign that bears the title of the piece. To the left is a doorway leading into “Hisstry School” (history) and to the right is a doorway leading to “Jogruffy School” (geography).

The baby dragons are shown wrestling with each other, peeking out from the doorways, rolling on their backs, or, rubbing away tears. The creatures are not the typical, scaly dragons that we’re used to seeing. Instead, they each have spots and random tufts of hair down their backs and tiny tails. Their round little bellies and diminutive stature show that they are indeed juveniles who are presumably attending their first day of school, just like many of our own children.

To the students who are attending their first day of school, we wish you good luck! You may not learn how to fly or breathe fire, but you will be in good company as you learn about history and geography, and maybe even about dragons in mythology!

Burne Jones, Edward Coley. Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

Landow, George P. “Aesthetes, Decadents, and the Idea of Art for Art’s Sake.” VictorianWeb, 5 December 2012. http://www.victorianweb.org/decadence/artsake.html

MacCarthy, Fiona. The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.