Maurice Sendak & Beatrix Potter

What Was on My . . .

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It has been awhile since I’ve done a What Was on My . . .  Life events—some wonderful and some less wonderful—kept me away. But, I was travelling last month and tripped across something fascinating that has sent me back to tell you about it.

So, here is What Was on My . . .

Agenda: A writer’s retreat in the Midlands of England, where I stayed at one of the glorious Landmark Trust properties.

If you don’t know the Landmark Trust, you should! For almost 50 years, it has saved historic properties and turned them into scattered gems throughout England. For our retreat, we chose to stay in The Potteries region of Staffordshire. Think: the home of Minton, Moorcroft, and Wedgewood. Our particular property was a ‘folly’ built on the Earl of Shrewsbury’s estate under the direction of the great landscape architect Capability Brown.

Landmark Trust's Ingestre PavilionWhile there, the author and illustrator Tim Martin and I went out for a ramble to clear our heads. Along the way, Tim recounted a visit to another Landmark Trust property that is a stone’s throw away from Beatrix Potter’s home, Hill Top Farm. He spent a full day at Potter’s home and walked away with a sense of awe. As Tim put it, Beatrix Potter knew how to hit the sweet spot between storybook illustration and natural drawing—a rare and exceptional talent.

Must-Read List: The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots.

Tim Martin also told me about the publication of The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, which I had somehow missed. Jo Hanks, an editor at Penguin Random House, had read about an unpublished story by Potter in an out-of-print biography. Intrigued, she visited the archives of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Among Potter’s papers, she made a “lucky find”—the complete manuscript of The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots. Since the story was accompanied by only one of Potter’s illustrations, Quentin Blake agreed to illustrate it, and the combined work will be released this fall for Beatrix Potter’s 150th birthday.

Mind: The Extent of Beatrix Potter’s Fandom.

Curious to learn what other Beatrix Potter *secrets* might be hidden in V&A’s archives, but still far away in the Midlands, I opened the museum’s website and began hopping page to page. Before long, I made another discovery: Maurice Sendak was a huge fan of Beatrix Potter. Like Tim, Sendak was struck by Potter’s ability to blend reality and fiction. Among other praise, he writes in Caldecott & Co., “I tremendously admire the poetry of Miss Potter’s art as she develops the fantastic, realistic, truthful story.”

This is high praise from Sendak. Yet, however appreciative his words are, I’m most struck by Sendak’s drive to imitate Potter. He appears to have been an absolute FAN. Here, he strikes the same pose as Potter did in front of her home at Hill Top Farm.

Beatrix at Hill Top House (1)

Maurice Sendak at Hill Top (1)

Sendak’s greatest homage to Potter, however, is found in his and Robert Grave’s The Big Green Book, where he repeatedly emulates her illustrations. As you can see below, it is fan art at the highest level.

Here is Potter’s Bush Hall, Hatfield and Sendak’s re-creation of it for The Big Green Book . . .

Potter’s “Bedroom interior at Camfield Place” and Sendak’s version . . .

Potter’s “The Rabbits’ Potting Shed” and Sendak’s re-envisioning of it.

Sendak’s homage continues with, among other things, the very doorway in which he and Potter posed.

Maurice Sendak, "The Big Green Book"

Sendak has been quoted as saying, “My gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart.” After my discovery about Sendak’s emulation of Beatrix Potter, I’m wondering whether he was misquoted. It seems likely there were four names on that list, and one of them belonged to the owner of Hill Top Farm.

I’m curious, how many of you had already heard of Maurice Sendak’s fascination with the creator of Peter Rabbit? As you know, it was a new discovery for me.

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