- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2002

The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History serves up a multimedia exhibit on the literature and life of Beatrix Potter just in time for Easter and the 100th anniversary of publication of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit."

"Peter Rabbit's Garden," which draws on material from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Frederick Warne Archive, opens today and continues through May 26.

The British author, who was born during the Victorian era, is perhaps most famous for her children's books, such as "Peter Rabbit," which she both wrote and illustrated. However, the celebrated author also was interested in land conservation and science, which the exhibit will feature along with her literary achievements.

"I think the exhibit will make people realize how multifaceted Potter is," says Linda Lear, a Potter expert who is working on a biography of the author for Penguin, "Beatrix Potter A Life in Nature."

"You are going to learn that she is first and foremost a natural scientist," says Ms. Lear, a research professor of environmental history at George Washington University who helped the Smithsonian with the exhibit.

Potter she married late in life grew up in a well-to-do family where manners and tradition were everything. One way for her to escape her strict life was to venture into nature to study flora and fauna.

As a young child, she started filling sketchbooks and journals with her observations. Later, she became an authority on mycology, the branch of botany that deals with fungi, including mushrooms.

"She actually wrote a paper that was presented at the Linnean Society, but she couldn't be there because she was a woman," Ms. Lear says. "She was really a genius She was even very close to discovering penicillin."

The Linnean Society of London, founded in 1788, studies natural history. It is named for Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), the father of modern plant and animal classification.

When Potter realized that she would not be productive as a scientist because of the limitations set on women, she turned to writing fiction. The foundation for her ever-popular tales about Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Jemima Puddle-Duck and others came from her interest in plants and animals.

Potter added heavy doses of English customs to her stories Peter Rabbit drinks tea when he comes home from his mischievous escapades in Mr. McGregor's vegetable garden, and all the creatures dress in Victorian country style and Potter used simple, cute story lines that children can follow easily.

Many of her stories were written with a particular child in mind. For instance, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," was written in 1893 for the son of a former governess.

The story starts out with Mrs. Rabbit telling her children, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter, that she's going to the bakery. The first three bunnies are pleased to stay by her side, but Peter goes off to plunder Mr. McGregor's lettuce and carrot rows.

Mr. McGregor notices the thief and starts chasing the adventurous Peter, who ends up taking refuge in a water pail. The bunny escapes but catches a cold from being wet. While his siblings get bread, milk and blackberries for dinner, Peter gets only tea before bedtime.

"She had to print [the story] privately," Ms. Lear says, "but then they sold like hot cakes, and when they came out in color, the stores couldn't keep them in stock" for the price of a shilling.

Miss Potter published 23 stories between 1902 and 1930.

She married William Heelis, a solicitor, in 1913 and started a new chapter in her life. She and her husband became farmers. She used the royalties from her books and family money to buy land and learn as much as she could about the traditional ways of farming in the Lake District, 250 miles northwest of London.

The author wanted to preserve agricultural land from being used for development and bought 4,000 acres (which included 21 farms) for this purpose.

When she died in 1943, the land was donated to the National Trust of England, which is similar to the National Park Service.

"She was one heck of conservationist," says Ms. Lear, who will give a talk about Potter at noon March 8 at the museum.

"She understood that it was not just about preserving the beautiful views around the lakes, it was about saving the farms and the vernacular architecture, too."

The exhibit will feature all 23 tales, or "little books," that Potter wrote between 1902 and 1930 and a giant "little book," which will give biographies of characters such as Benjamin Bunny, Jemima Puddle-duck, Mr. Jeremy Fisher, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs. Tiggywinkle and Mr. Tod.

Among Potter's scientific work that will be showcased is her theory on the germination of spores.

Also featured will be early photographs of Potter and her family, and a 360-degree panorama of the author's Hill Top garden in the Lake District.

The very youngest visitors may enjoy the exhibit's storyteller tree, where Potter's tales will be read aloud.

WHAT: "Peter Rabbit's Garden"

WHERE: Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through May 26


PHONE: 202/357-2700

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