Beatrix Potter at Lingholm
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Birth of Beatrix Potter who spent ten summer and autumn holidays at Lingholm between 1885 and 1907.
Coming from a wealthy middle class family who had made their money in the Calico printing trade in Glossop in the 1820 and 1830’s, and later moving to London, Beatrix’s father Rupert Potter qualified as a barrister and after marrying well led the life of a gentleman. With an interest in painting and drawing he was also to become a keen photographer, a relatively new technology at the time.
The family enjoyed renting large country houses for their lengthy summer and autumn holidays, some lasting several months, with Lingholm becoming their favourite and most frequently visited Lakeland holiday house.
Arriving at Lingholm for the first time, one can imagine that the 19 year old Beatrix would have found great inspiration from the lakeside setting, woods filled with red squirrels, insects and animals, the wide variety of flora and fauna and the landscape which would have been the perfect environment for her interest in illustrating so many aspects of nature.
She is said to have loved every moment of her visits to Lingholm, particularly in comparison to the strict and sheltered life she encountered at her family home in London where she had been brought up by a strict nurse and then educated at home by a governess in what must have been quite a restricted and lonely childhood.
Beatrix was just 19 when she first visited Lingholm and over the years she stayed there completed many sketches, paintings and drawings. She produced two well-known paintings of the house; one of the main staircase, which remains unchanged today, painted in 1907/8, and one entitled simply “Rain” from 1898 which shows part of the house looking up towards Skiddaw which she painted in what is now the main bedroom in our Skiddaw apartment but would then have been one of the draughty attic rooms that Beatrix used for drawing and painting when she stayed at Lingholm, the same view today is virtually unchanged over one hundred years later.
Stairway at Lingholm c.1908
Rain: Lingholm, c. 1898
When it came to storytelling, the Lingholm woods and the lakeshore were the setting for Squirrel Nutkin which Beatrix wrote and illustrated whilst staying at the house in 1901. The story which was originally written as a picture letter was a follow up to one she had written at Lingholm four years earlier in 1897 that she sent to Noel Moore, the eldest son of her former governess, about some American squirrels who set sail using their tails as sails. She expanded on the story and sent the longer version to Noel again in 1901, and the book was finally published in 1903.
The now famous Squirrel Nutkin illustrations below were all drawn by Beatrix while she was staying at Lingholm and are all set in the Lingholm woods, or the nearby shoreline, we still have a population of Red Squirrels at Lingholm and are actively working on increasing their numbers with help from the National Trust.
Squirrels walking through the wood carrying fish.
Squirrels sailing to Owl Island on rafts
Squirrels hoisting down sacks of nuts at lake side.
Squirrels at the edge of the lake, making rafts.
Perhaps the four year gap between the original picture letter and the expanded story gives an insight into the storytelling genius of Beatrix Potter as clearly these were tales she had imagined in outline and then developed in her mind over time.
We know that she also worked on illustrations for Jemima Puddle-Duck and, we believe, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle in the Lingholm attics although she did not write these at Lingholm. The latter book was set in Little Town and the Newlands valley just up the road from Lingholm where she visited many times whilst staying at the house, often with her brother Bertram.
If you visit the valley today you can still see Lucy’s house (Skelgill farm) which is virtually unchanged from the illustration in the book. In fact many of the illustrations along the bridleway at the bottom of Catbells from Skelgill to Littletown (it is a real place ) are instantly recognisable , if you go looking for the bridleway keep to the right hand side of Catbells as you approach from Lingholm and carry straight on the tarmac road which turns into the Bridleway after a short way. Be sure to take a copy of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle with you!
If you make it as far as Littletown which is only a 45 minute walk from Lingholm, there is a café at Littletown Farm which is where Mrs Tiggy-winkle lived!
Similarly, if you go for a walk around Lingholm and through Lingholm Park to the south of our Estate along the Catbells path you will see several views that are instantly recognisable.
The Newlands Valley still remains a wonderfully untouched area due in no small part to the land and farms that Beatrix bought in later life and bequeathed to the National Trust.
Perhaps Lingholm’s strongest and most intriguing connection with Beatrix Potter is with regard to the much debated origins of Mr McGregor’s garden in ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’. Although it is widely accepted and confirmed by Beatrix that Mr McGregor’s garden was a combination of several gardens that she visited whilst staying at large holiday houses (it being usual in those days for any large house to maintain a kitchen garden to supply the cook) in a letter to her publishers Frederick Warne in 1942 she was more specific than she had been previously when she stated;
“If the vegetable garden and wicket gate were anywhere it was at Lingholm near Keswick; but it would be vain to look for it there as a firm of landscape gardeners did away with it, and laid it out anew with paved walks etc.”
Peter squeezes under the gate.
Whilst Mr McGregor’s garden was certainly a combination of many gardens and of the considerable imagination of Beatrix, it seems reasonable to assume from the above comment that the extensive kitchen gardens at Lingholm in the late 1800’s had a strong influence on her and were her original inspiration for Mr McGregor’s garden. Intriguingly she kept this information, which had been the subject of countless discussions by enthusiasts over the years, to herself until just a year before her death in 1943.
Peter escapes under the gate.
There are many gardens laying claim to be Mr McGregor’s garden and several have certainly played a part in the story, but Beatrix never confirmed anywhere else as the original Mr McGregor’s garden.
In the same manner as the Squirrel Nutkin story, the origins of The Tale of Peter Rabbit go back some years before the full story was written when on 4th September 1893 Beatrix sent an eight page picture letter to the same boy, Noel Moore, whilst on holiday in Scotland about four little rabbits named Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter who lived in a sandbank under a big fir tree. The picture letter had the basic outline of the story as it went on to be published and of course featured the dangerous Mr McGregor and his garden. Given that Beatrix had by then enjoyed three holidays at Lingholm in 1885, 1887and 1888 and from Beatrix’s earlier comments regarding the Estate and its gardens it is almost certain that Lingholm has played some part in the most popular rabbit story in history.
It is probably one of the most famous literary letters ever written and fortunately letters from Beatrix were highly prized by children so when in 1900 she asked Noel if she could borrow the letter he was able to produce it.
She had an idea that her story might make a book but after initially being unable to interest a publisher she published the first edition privately in 1901 with a production run of just 250. It had a total of 41 black and white illustrations and a coloured frontispiece, the now famous Mrs Rabbit dosing Peter with camomile tea. The book was a great success with a further 200 copies printed privately before the Publisher, Frederick Warne, agreed to publish the book commercially at which time the illustrations were reduced in number to 31 and coloured in. The book was published by Warne in 1902 and the rest is history… the biggest selling children’s book of all time.
The original proof of the coloured frontispiece referred to above was actually sent to Beatrix by the printers whilst she was staying at Lingholm in 1901 and the Estate’s address is written on the proof which is held in the V and A Beatrix Potter collection. If you ever see a copy of The Tale of Peter Rabbit with 41 black and white illustrations for sale in a second-hand book shop, buy it – they are somewhat sought after!
The original proof of the coloured frontispiece
For many years there was a first edition of the Warne publication that had been signed by Beatrix and kept at Lingholm in the collection of Lord Rochdale who owned the Estate when the Potter family rented the house in the 1900’s but sadly it was sold at auction before we bought the Estate. These editions are also very sought after and sell for several thousand pounds.
During negotiations with Frederick Warne, Beatrix showed the business acumen that was to serve her well in future years and it was at her insistence that the books remained small despite the publishers previous insistence that they would not publish if it remained this size. Just imagine how different things could have been if the book’s small size hadn’t been retained?
When we bought the Estate, the Rochdale family told us that without question the Kitchen gardens at Lingholm were the original Mr McGregor’s garden and this knowledge had been handed down to them over three generations living at Lingholm.
Peter Rabbit Eating Radishes
There are two more facts supporting the declaration that Beatrix made that Lingholm had been the original Mr McGregor’s garden: Firstly in the letter to her publishers dated 1943 she confirmed of the Tale of Peter Rabbit that the “fir tree and some woods background were near Keswick”. Given that by the date of 1893 she had only ever holidayed at Lingholm in the Keswick area it seems entirely possible that the fir tree may well have been on the estate. She certainly made many similar illustrations of the Lingholm woods and trees in Squirrel Nutkin.
Secondly, in a separate letter to a friend in New Zealand dated 1939 she also confirmed that the famous panoramic picture of Peter sitting upright in a wheelbarrow looking out onto a slightly sloping Kitchen garden with Mr McGregor bent down in the background “was done in a garden at Keswick that was completely altered afterwards” – a clear reference to her view on the Lingholm kitchen gardens being “done away with” in the later letter to her publishers.
Tellingly if you take the Peter in the wheelbarrow illustration and look at the slightly sloping site where the old lower Kitchen gardens were at Lingholm they are very similar.
Peter Rabbit spies the gate and Mr. McGregor
There is also another, later, Mr McGregor’s garden next door to Lingholm. In 1903 the Potters were unable to rent Lingholm as it was now increasingly being used as the main family home of the first Lord Rochdale, so instead spent their summer holidays at Fawe Park where she sketched many illustrations of the Kitchen gardens which she used as Mr McGregor’s garden in the Benjamin Bunny story. The gardens at Fawe Park have remained virtually unchanged and are instantly recognisable today.
Whilst staying at Fawe Park, Beatrix had a very busy summer as she also completed many illustrations for her famous Derwentwater sketch book and many of those illustrations were used in the tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.
Fawe Park which is located between Lingholm and Nicol End Marina along the pathway towards Keswick however is not open to the public, and peeking over the high fence is not really encouraged. However, for those who are curious, a trip on the Keswick Launch is the best way to view the gardens which are clearly visible from the lake. The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (Peter’s cousin) was published in 1904.
Reverting back to Lingholm and the original Kitchen Gardens which were bulldozed away in the early 1900’s; we are, in June 2016, about to turn full circle with what we think is the most exciting development at Lingholm since the house was built in 1873 with the opening of our reinstated walled garden and café built on the site of the original Mr McGregor’s garden.
You can see more about this project on the café and walled garden section on this website.
We hope you have found this short history of Beatrix Potter’s connections with Lingholm and some of the surrounding areas informative. As a family, we take great pleasure from the association Lingholm has with the greatest children’s author of all time.
Lingholm is only one of many places Beatrix is associated with in the Lake District and if you are interested in her work, details of some of the places she was associated with can be found at www.hop-skip-jump.com/beatrix-potter-in-the-lakes-our-partners. There is also a trail guide created for Beatrix Potter’s 150th Anniversary year – click here to view.
The more you study Beatrix’s stories and illustrations, the more you become enchanted with her work. The stories are far more complex and meaningful than they may first appear and we heartily recommend to anyone who hasn’t read her little books to do so, whatever age you may be.
David Seymour, Lingholm, January 2016.
Illustrations from The Tale of Peter Rabbit | © Frederick Warne & Co,. 1902, 2002 | Reproduced by permission of Frederick Warne & Co.
Illustrations from The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin | © Frederick Warne & Co,. 1903, 2002 | Reproduced by permission of Frederick Warne & Co.
In researching the history of Beatrix Potters’ time at Lingholm I have relied primarily upon the following sources however the assumptions reached are entirely my own and should not be attributed to the sources mentioned below.
Beatrix Potter 1866-1943 THE ARTIST AND HER WORLD published by F.Warne & Co and the National Trust, written by Judy Taylor, Joyce Irene Whalley, Anne Stevenson Hobbs and Elizabeth M Battrick.
Beatrix Potter, THE V & A COLLECTION published by the Victoria and Albert Museum and Frederick Warne and compiled by Anne Stevenson Hobbs and Joyce Irene Whalley.
Beatrix and her brother Bertram on the East Terrace at Lingholm in 1898