Today we’re away in imagination to Hill Top Farm, Cumbria, once home to children’s author Beatrix Potter. Of course, the children don’t care much about Beatrix Potter’s life; they care about the world of the books which is much more real to them, deceptively simple narratives given force and reality by Potter’s watercolour illustrations. A story about a difficult daughter, an awkward spinster, and a middle-aged story-teller turned sheep-farmer and conservationist is never going to sell like the drama of Peter Rabbit’s disobedience. But the strange thing is that this preference has never been confined to children; Hill Top never has presented itself as a writer’s house, but as the stage-set for Potter’s stories.
Potter sets six of her tales in Near Sawrey or Hill Top itself. From very early on Potter received admiring visitors and was keen to show them the house as it had already appeared in the books; these visitors would see, disposed suggestively around the house, the artefacts featured as backdrop to her animal characters in her illustrations. In 1912 Beatrix and her father Rupert Potter took a series of photos apparently designed to feed this interest in the documentary grounding of the fantastic: Rupert’s photograph of the dresser at Hill Top, for example, is clearly taken from a rat’s vantage-point. On her removal to Castle Cottage after her marriage to William Heelis in 1913, and despite more or less giving up her literary work, Potter preserved Hill Top as a study, studio, and indeed shrine to some ten years of a domesticity animated by fantasy. When Potter left Hill Top Farm as a legacy to the National Trust on her death in 1943, it was on condition that nothing in it was moved or altered, and that it was never lived in again. It would remain, in short, the ground of the books. Since 1943 the National Trust has performed its ever-extraordinary trick of conferring life-in-death upon the house despite some 70,000 visitors a year – replacing wallpaper, re-weaving the landing-rug so that it matches the illustrations to The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, and conscientiously displaying artefacts next to the relevant illustrations. In that sense, the Trust has maintained Hill Top into a companion text for readers of the Tales. Yet though perhaps this impulse is generally in tune with the Trust’s ethos, it clearly originated with Potter.
The visitor to Hill Top today is invited to engage in reading the house as a text rather than as merely a writer’s or illustrator’s workshop. The task of making the house mirror the text is naturally eased by the importance of illustration to the Tales. There is the porch, the garden-path, the garden-wall and the garden-gate so familiar from pictures in The Tale of Tom Kitten, the dresser, the chairs, the range, and the landing that appear in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, the teapot from The Tale of the Pie and the Pattypan, the dolls and the doll’s house food from The Tale of Two Bad Mice. Nowadays if you visit you are also shown Anna Maria’s rat-hole, the chest-of-drawers from which Tom Kitten’s ‘elegant and uncomfortable clothes’ are plucked, and, artfully disposed around the garden, if you are sharp-eyed enough, you can spot the spade, watering-can, riddle and garden door familiar from Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck’s abandoned eggs.
This experience of viewing Hill Top combines recognition and misrecognition, satisfaction and frustration. Objects familiar from the texts seem oddly unfamiliar, slightly out of scale and proportion. It takes a while before you realise that to make them look more familiar you would need to shrink your view-point to cat or rat or goose level. And then, the cats, rats, mice, rabbits, geese and ducks are nowhere in evidence, let alone packed up in uncomfortable clothes, except, that is, in the shapes of some painted souvenir china and the odd figurine once owned by Potter herself. The house does not pretend to present itself as the origin of the books, but rather, merely, as one of a series of possible illustrations to them. Thus it is not at all clear whether the house provides an entry-point into the texts or whether it is the other way around. But what is clear is that it provides a sort of walk-in experience of fantasy for adults and children alike