See Two Views of a Natural World Worth Preserving at the Morgan Library

Two overlapping shows celebrate the skillful illustrations of author Beatrix Potter and the sketches and watercolors of Walton Ford.

An illustration of a rabbit wearing a dress tending to a pot over the fire while three smaller rabbits look on
Mrs Rabbit pouring out the tea for Peter while her children look on, 1902-1907. Linder Bequest. Museum no.BP.468. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/courtesy of Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd

Humans, drawn to both the natural world and fantastical characters, seem to have an inborn knack for combining the two in our imaginations. “Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature,” created by the V&A Museum in London and curated for the Morgan Library by Philip Palmer, honors Beatrix Potter (1866–1943), the creator of numerous and unforgettable animal characters including Peter Rabbit and Mr. Jeremy Fisher. In the exhibition, we (re)discover a prolific artist through her life and creations. The exhibition encompasses preparatory sketches, illustrated postcards or ‘picture letters,’ encoded journal excerpts and completed folios, in addition to personal artifacts from her later life as a farmer in Hill Top.

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Though Potter grew up in London, her attraction to nature came at a young age. She kept pets, such as lizards and a rabbit, and became quickly fascinated by the countryside and its rich offerings. In her visits to Scotland, Devon, Cornwall and northern England’s Lake District, where she spent the remainder of her life, Potter observed, documented and collected species and specimens, which served as materials for her famous illustrations and picture books.

The first of such books, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), which she wrote and illustrated, was an immediate success. Centered on young and naughty rabbit Peter entering the delicious garden of Mr. McGregor, the book contains much of what would become Potter’s mark and appeal: mischievous animal characters, watercolor-based illustrated vignettes, a narrative weaving tenderness and light transgression. She published dozens of animal tales following Peter Rabbit, including The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904), The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) and many others.

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Her animal characters include frogs, foxes, squirrels, hedgehogs, cats and mice—an ode to the English countryside. They depict, in Potter’s words, the “strength that comes from the hills” and a “pleasant, unchanging world of realism and romance.” Even in her scientific illustrations, such as of mycology, Potter’s drawings reveal a sensitive quality to connect with her subject matter. In her children’s books, animals channel human qualities. Their anthropomorphic behaviors—hedgehogs wearing clothing or Mrs. Rabbit tucking Peter to bed with a chamomile tea—create a fantastical atmosphere resembling human life; characters adopt both human and nonhuman manners.

A hastily made painting of a black panther in a snowy field with a town in the distance
Walton Ford (b.1960), Study for “Zürichsee,” 2015. Watercolor, gouache, and ink over graphite, The Morgan Library & Museum, gift of the artist, 2019.219. © 2024 Walton Ford. Photography by Janny Chiu

Not solely confined to a young readership, animal tales have remained popular in old and new forms. Written explicitly for adults, Bernardo Zannoni’s My Stupid Intentions (2023), a fictional autobiography of a beech marten, and the new translations of Felix Salten’s original Bambi (1923) remind of the genre’s potency to convey messages—light or dark—about human predation and the leveling cruelty of time. Animals talk, act, feel. They survive seasons and the harsh lessons that come with penurity, hunger, and pleasure-seeking. They encounter humans, a strange species that often infringes on their well-being.

These tales inform our relationship with the natural world and notions of interdependencies and rekindle deep entanglements between humans and other species. They also nourish our cravings for enchantment and a restoration to pre-modern times. Often focused on quests, predator and prey or hero stories, as well as the dangers of failing to anticipate hardships and changes of fortune, animal tales reveal truths about frailty and resilience in idealized landscapes of abundant forests, rivers and warm dens. Yet these settings, and their characters, change, and when they deviate, a moralizing message emerges.

A drawing of a giraffe standing next to a man wearing blue sitting in a chair
Nicolas Hüet, French, 1770–1828
‘Study of the Giraffe Given to Charles X by the Viceroy of Egypt,’ 1827, Watercolor and gouache, over black chalk. The Morgan Library & Museum, purchased on the Sunny Crawford von Bülow Fund 1978, 1994.1. Photography by Steven H. Crossot

Analyst Marie-Louise von Franz examined the psychological dimensions of the fairy tale in a series of books, in which she highlighted their resonances with Jungian concepts, such as the shadow or archetypes, for example, the Great Mother or the Hero. Van Franz connected the fairy tale with everyday life and, in Interpretation of Fairy Tales (1970), considered such stories as “the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes” for its meaning is “contained in the totality of its motifs connected by the thread of the story.” Through a symbolic series of pictures and events, the tale conveys “the Self” in myriad ways, which van Franz explains as “the psychic totality of an individual and also, paradoxically, the regulating center of the collective unconscious.”

One does not need to experience Potter’s English countryside and its fauna to understand the dangers of a rabbit crossing into a human garden or the effects of gluttony and fear. Thus, the tale—like its corollary, the myth—carries core teachings transcending place. “Fairy tale language seems to be the international language of all mankind,” added van Franz. As a guiding “system,” the fairy tale can be interpreted analytically, intuitively, sensorily and emotionally.

What Beatrix Potter’s drawings also represent are artifacts of communion and transmission. They draw us to a certain innocence of childhood, the warmth of cold evenings and our ability to imagine worlds outside our own parameters. The show underscores Potter’s legacy and the significance of nature in her life, as an illustrator and storyteller but also as a leader of conservation efforts who donated her land (and most of her illustrations) to the National Trust.

A blad man in black with a gray beard sits in front of an illustration of a lion biting a bloody book
Walton Ford in his studio. Photo by Charlie Rubin

Further investigating the expanse of the natural world and the contemplative power of images, the Morgan Library will also feature next month more than sixty sketches, drawings and paintings by Walton Ford (whose Lion of God will be on view at Ateneo Veneto in Venice starting April 17) of wild animals, shown for the first time publicly. These works question the didactic nature of bestiaries, zoos and the visual representation of fauna across time, including our reception at the age of the Anthropocene. Their uncanny familiarity and strangeness become objects of inquiry, and the subjects lend themselves to inviting a dialogue with artists such as Gustave Doré, Max Ernst and Rubens, among others, also on show. For example, Ford follows the snowy wanderings of a black panther who escaped the Zurich Zoo. The motif of the Barbary lion evokes strength, as well as the mourning of a species now virtually extinct. Placed alongside a 17th-century card of an elephant running after its trainer in Rajasthan, these images emphasize a desire for agency and the animals’ ability to populate new imaginary landscapes.

Together, the two exhibitions introduce new ways of looking at nature, asserting that humans are, in the end, just a different breed of animal in need of further insights into the world around them.

Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature” is on view through June 9 while “Walton Ford: Birds and Beasts of the Studio” will open April 12 and run through October 20—both at the Morgan Library.

See Two Views of a Natural World Worth Preserving at the Morgan Library