Long before cottagecore was a Millennial lifestyle ideal, the artist, writer and mycologist Beatrix Potter was living the slow life for more than TikTok likes. In fact, the creator of Peter Rabbit, the iconic children’s bunny who lives in Mr. McGregor's vegetable garden (along with his sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail), had culinary interests beyond the plots of McGregor’s carrots and lettuce. Mushrooms, and all their intricacies, were Potter’s produce, or more accurately, fungi, obsession.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902, followed by a decade’s worth of books and forthcoming merchandise inspired by the characters. Potter, however, had been illustrating fungi since the early 1890s, when she was in her mid-twenties. She studied the uniqueness and intricacies of mushrooms from her home in London, and while on holiday in Scotland.
“It wasn’t unusual for women of her age and status in society to take an interest in natural history,” says Emma Laws, director of collections and research at The Devon and Exeter Institution. “Natural history was a very popular field of study in Victorian England and a suitable interest for women who didn’t have to venture far from home to find specimens to study and draw, including insects, shells, flowers and fungi.”
Thanks to the use of her brother’s microscope, and a specimen cabinet in the schoolroom, in which she kept birds’ eggs, fossils, insects, and more, Potter learned how to arrange and label them accurately. She also made frequent visits to the Natural History Museum, studying specimens and observing how they were classified and displayed, to replicate the process at home and capture it in her artwork.
“Natural history became a serious pursuit in her twenties, but Potter had always had an interest in the natural world,” says Laws. “Her earliest extant sketchbook [from when she was 8] includes drawings of birds’ eggs and caterpillars, labelled carefully with accompanying notes and observations. She was naturally inquisitive with a keen sense of observation.”
That keen observation led her to selling her first artwork in 1892, paintings of fungi and mosses, which she sold to illustrate children’s annuals. But why mushrooms? “Potter seems to have been drawn to the unusual beauty of fungi; she also incorporated them within the fantasy world of her imagination,” Laws says. “She drew fungi artistically in their natural habitat, but also as scientific specimens, sometimes dissected or with separate drawings of specific parts of the fungi. She also learned how to draw magnified specimens under the microscope.”
Mycological illustration of the reproductive system of a fungus. Hygrocybe coccinea, made by Beatrix Potter and conserved at Armitt Museum and Library
In her journal, Potter wrote: “The little tiny fungus people singing and bobbing and dancing in the grass and under the leaves all down below... I cannot tell what possesses me with the fancy that they laugh and clap their hands, especially the little ones that grow in troops and rings amongst the dead leaves in the woods. I suppose it is the fairy rings, the myriads of fairy fungi that start into life in autumn woods.” The mystical, whimsical life of fungi inspired Potter in myriad ways.
“Potter always drew from life,” Laws says. “On holidays, she had time to explore nearby woods, and in the summer and autumn the countryside offered an abundance of fungi to draw.” In at least one drawing, Potter marked an X on a rough sketch to pinpoint the location of the fungus she had drawn. “It is likely that she spent hours walking through the woods to locate fungi and on long holidays with family, these expeditions must have offered some respite from the society of her parents,” Laws adds.
Beyond art, not much is known about Potter’s culinary interest in mushrooms, though one can imagine she must have been fascinated at a market selling all types of edible fungi. A Scottish mycologist, Charlie McIntosh, encouraged Potter’s interest during a family holiday to Birnam in 1892, and continued to mail her specimens to study and draw after she returned to London. By 1894, fungi had become a serious occupation, and her interest extended from drawing and classifying fungi, to asking questions about how they reproduce, Laws explains.
Potter likely didn’t cook for herself, but did prepare a research paper on mycology, which she presented to the Linnean Society in 1897. That paper no longer exists, and probably was not of great interest, though Laws speculates Potter’s theories on the germination of spores were correct. As Potter biographer Linda Lear writes in Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (2006), “Her watercolours are considered so accurate that modern mycologists refer to them still to identify fungi’.
“Quite incredible,” Laws adds.