Sometimes in late summer, especially after we‘ve had a lot of rain, giant white mushrooms sprout up in our woods. Their tops can grow as large as dinner plates if the deer don’t take a bite out of them first.
They seem quite magical; I like to imagine fairies or gnomes using the flat mushroom tops as writing desks or tabletops, happily setting out their acorn teacups for special guests.
I actually became more interested in mushrooms about 20 years ago after learning about Beatrix Potter’s fascination with fungi, and then seeing her incredibly beautiful botanical drawings.
While most everyone knows Beatrix as the author and illustrator of the Peter Rabbit books, and perhaps as an ardent conservationist who helped preserve some 4,000 acres of pristine countryside in the Lake District, few may know she was also a dedicated naturalist who devoted about a decade of her life to mycology (the study of fungi), with a special interest in mushrooms.
I was understandably excited when Beatrix Potter, Scientist (Albert Whitman, 2020) came out last summer, because so far it’s the only picture book biography that takes a closer look at this lesser known aspect of Beatrix’s life.
Author Lindsay H. Metcalf and illustrator Junyi Wu beautifully document the stages of Beatrix’s development as a naturalist, from her early childhood adventures in observing, questioning, collecting, and recording, to schoolroom studies of family pets with her younger brother Bertram, to her days as an avid researcher in her twenties.
To begin with, Beatrix loved nature and the outdoors, and was born not only with artistic talent, but traits conducive to scientific study. She was naturally curious, analytical, and keenly observant, and was conscientious about recording her findings with notes and sketches.
As the book opens, we see Beatrix in her element, “giggling and splashing in the steps of the whistling postman,” as they tromp through “the lush landscape edging the Scottish Highlands,” along routes bedecked with mushrooms and moss.
The postman is amateur naturalist Charles McIntosh, whom Beatrix met at age four during a family summer holiday. How she lives for those months in the country! She and Charles had bonded over their love of nature; now she wants to “capture every rock, every flower, every thing,” and with her art and photography lessons, she has the proper skills to do just that.
Back in London, Beatrix and Bertram bring (sometimes sneak!) nature right into their nursery, and enjoy studying their various pets — snakes, mice, frogs, bats, newts, and yes, rabbits. Their critters make excellent models, and Beatrix draws them from every angle. When they die, “she removes their flesh to admire their bones.”
Although this may seem gruesome, it was a common practice in the 19th century to use dead animals as a “gift” for study. Beatrix was thus able to fully understand how animals are built in order to draw them accurately.
As the years pass, Beatrix continues to enjoy family summers in northern England and Scotland. She takes her sketchbook everywhere, anxious “to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye.”
Blessed with a vivid imagination, she’s enchanted by so many things and often envisions the fantastical. Not just ordinary toadstools, she sees, “Tiny fungus people singing and bobbing and dancing.”
This prompts her to look closer, to appreciate the lovely colors. Such a joy to paint! But now she craves even more detail, so she slices and sections mushroom specimens and examines them under a microscope, which “reveals a new world.” She can’t stop drawing and wants to learn more.
Since only Bertram is allowed to attend school, she must pursue further research by her own devices. Who could help?
Charles McIntosh, of course! Now an adult, Beatrix consults with her old friend, who offers tips on how to draw microscopic details. They discuss how to classify fungi by name, and after Beatrix returns to London, Charlie sends mushroom specimens for her to study and draw. This exchange continues throughout the 1890s, with Beatrix sharing her artwork in return for more specimens. She would produce over “350 drawings of fungi, mosses, and germinating spores.”
But as an enterprising soul who thrives on field exploration, Beatrix also does her own mushroom hunting in bogs and woodlands. The more she observes, collects, studies, and sketches, the more questions she has. She is especially curious about how fungi survive the winter and whether spores sprout like seeds.
She turns the family’s London kitchen into a makeshift lab, where she experiments with spore germination. She works diligently, thoroughly checking her specimens under a microscope, recording observations, anxiously awaiting a breakthrough.
And it finally comes! Beatrix is among the first in Britain to successfully germinate spores. She confirms her findings via more independent study and with her uncle’s help, drafts a formal paper to share her discoveries with the experts.
But when she approaches the plant scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, they dismiss her as an amateur. She doesn’t give up, returning again and again, until she finally succeeds in finding someone who will submit the paper on her behalf to the prestigious males-only Linnean Society. George Massee agrees to do this, but returns with disappointing news. The Society determines that Beatrix’s paper needs more work before it can be published.
Beatrix shares this rejection with her mentor Charlie and then withdraws the paper. For awhile she continues to research and experiment — but then stops. We will never know the real reason why, only that she decided to pursue another path.
All along, while busy with her fungi studies, Beatrix had continued to paint other things. She did landscapes, and with her brother Bertram, created some Christmas cards featuring pet rabbit Benjamin Bouncer.
She also wrote picture letters to the children of family and friends, the most notable being the one she sent to five-year-old Noel Moore, the son of her former governess — which was eventually published as The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
In writing and illustrating children’s books, Beatrix was able to fully utilize the best of her talents, calling upon deep seated passions for both nature and art, filtered through the lens of her inimitable imagination.
She doesn’t forget what she knows of nature. She follows her muse to a place where science informs art. A place of whimsy, grounded in fact.
Metcalf’s text is such a pleasure to read — succinct, engaging, informative, lyrical. She brilliantly conveys Beatrix’s enthusiasm and determination, seamlessly incorporating essential facts about fungi and scientific method that will likely inspire budding naturalists.
Metcalf’s occasional use of alliteration and parallel structure is pleasingly rhythmic, altering the pace for emphasis:
She peers closer and sees the colors.
She slices . . .
sketches . . .
and scopes . . .
The narrative flows effortlessly, transitioning between country and city, from one stage of Beatrix’s journey to the next.
I loved learning about Potter’s relationship with Charles McIntosh — that he was likely the model for Mr. McGregor. And young readers will find it interesting that Beatrix was a person with ambition and an independent spirit, who sought to defy Victorian norms by earning her own money in order to be liberated from her parents’ rule.
Junyi Wu’s illustrations are gorgeous! They appear to have been done with pastels, which provide not only wonderful texture, but an appealing dreaminess. Love all the shades of green with pink accents, and Beatrix primarily dressed in blue (a nod to Peter’s blue coat?). She didn’t try to replicate Potter’s style, but instead captured her essence — a free spirit prone to whimsy, capable of capturing the beauty and wonder of the natural world.
Each spread has been carefully composed to enhance the narrative with charming details (adorable bunnies peeking out from shubbery, lovely wildflowers, grasses, plucky toadstools), but we also see samples of Beatrix’s art as she delves farther into the mysteries of mushrooms.
It’s a perfect marriage of science and aesthetics — love that we see Beatrix’s sketches of field mice as she gazes at a fairy ring, her bunny Christmas cards, mushroom drawings, and even part of the picture letter to Noel Moore, all placed in proper context.
I really can’t pick a favorite spread, though I do love young Beatrix following Charles in the woods, the scenes at Kew Gardens (been there), and because I love kitchens, seeing Beatrix in her “ramshackle lab” with the pretty green hutch/dresser in back.
But the final spread pretty much sums up this story so well — a still life with a basket of fungi, a framed painting of Peter Rabbit, another of butterflies, and the tools of her trade — pens, brushes, and the trusty microscope that symbolizes Beatrix’s transition from a casual, enthusiastic observer and artist, to a more serious minded naturalist.
But to be perfectly honest, Junyi had me at the endpapers — bunnies on the grass amid the loveliest shades of green — a soothing preview of coming pages where the reader will feel refreshingly immersed in the natural world, getting a good sense of precisely what inspired Potter.
Beatrix Potter, Scientist deepens our appreciation not only for her work, but for who she was as a person, capable of making the most of her gifts despite the limitations placed on women of her time. With multiple talents and a desire for stimulating industry, she managed to become one of the most beloved and enduring author-artist-storytellers ever.
We’ll never know if she ever aspired to become a professional mycologist, but she was certainly able to produce hundreds of amazing fungi illustrations that are beautiful works of art in addition to being scientifically accurate.
If only she could know that over a hundred years later, naturalists would still be using her botanical illustrations to help them identify fungi species. And yes, the Linnean Society finally apologized for how it treated Beatrix and other women (it only took them a century).
Backmatter includes More Info About Beatrix Potter, a Timeline (framed with Junyi’s charming floral art), Bibliography, Source Notes and suggestions for Further Reading. 🔍
🍄 COUNTRY MUSHROOM SOUP 🧅
All this talk of fungi has us famished!
Luckily Mr Cornelius found the perfect recipe in The Beatrix Potter Country Cookery Book (Frederick Warne, 1981).
This charming tome was written by Margaret Lane, who also penned two Potter biographies. The recipes are the type of simple, wholesome country fare Beatrix and her husband William Heelis might have enjoyed during their years at Castle Cottage.
As I explained in a previous post, Beatrix came into cooking after she married at age 47. Their farm and orchard provided them with nearly everything they needed: pigs, chickens, eggs, ducks, turkeys, cattle, sheep, dairy produce, herbs, fruit, and vegetables.
Willie liked to hunt and fish, while Beatrix enjoyed foraging and collecting wild plants, fruits, and nuts from the surrounding countryside. No surprise, right? She likely gathered mushrooms too! After years of studying them, she certainly knew which ones were edible.
Lane’s Country Mushroom Soup is quick and easy to prepare — just the thing for lunch after a busy morning milking the cows, cleaning out the chicken coop and shearing the sheep. 🐔
The recipe doesn’t specify what kind of mushrooms to use; we opted for a mixture of white button mushrooms and cremini (baby portobellos) for better flavor. Next time we’ll add shiitake or grown up portobellos to the mix (variety is the spice of life).
Sautéing the onions and mushrooms in a little butter, then adding several tablespoons of heavy cream at the end makes for a flavorful broth. Peter Rabbit and his friends slurped to their heart’s content, tasting the soup in different bowls just to see whether there was any difference in flavor. All very scientific, of course.
Country Mushroom Soup
- 4 oz mushrooms
- 1 medium-sized onion
- 1 oz butter
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 2 pints chicken or vegetable stock
- salt, pepper, pinch of nutmeg
- 4 tablespoons heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
DirectionsWipe and chop the mushrooms with their stalks, peel and chop the onion. Add the mushrooms and cook slowly for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle over the cornstarch, mix well and blend in the stock, stirring all the time over medium heat until the soup comes to the boil. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the cream and chives just before serving.
BEATRIX POTTER, SCIENTIST
written by Lindsay H. Metcalf
illustrated by Junyi Wu
published by Albert Whitman, September 2020
Picture Book Biography for ages 4-8, 32 pp.
*Includes Author’s Note, Timeline, Bibliography, Source Notes, Suggestions for Further Reading
**Starred Review** from Youth Services Book Review
♥️ Click here for a cool Activity Guide.
Have another chocolate or strawberry mushroom before you go. They’re really yummy!
*Interior spreads text copyright © 2020 Lindsay H. Metcalf, illustrations © 2020 Junyi Wu, published by Albert Whitman. All rights reserved.
*Copyright © 2021 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.