I have to confess straight away that I never knew the books of Beatrix Potter when I was a child; in fact, living in the suburbs of London during the war, I seemed not to have encountered any of those books that we think of as the classics of children's literature. I came to them when I was an adolescent and in some ways I didn't find that was a disadvantage; I think I was able to enjoy the distinctive characteristics of Lewis Carrol, Edward Lear and Kenneth Grahame more keenly than I would have done at a younger age. And the same was true of Beatrix Potter. In fact the only Beatrix Potter book that I bought spontaneously was, I see from an annotation inside the cover, purchased at the age of 32. It is The Tale of Two Bad Mice; I bought it because I admired it so much and it is still my favourite. Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb contrived to be, in a way that seems exclusive to Beatrix Potter's genius, both beautifully observed animals and at the same time, humanly reacting people. I now have all twenty three of the series of Beatrix Potter books in that familiar format which as people seem to like to say, is "adapted to small hands." So it is indeed, except what worries me slightly is the possible implication that the books are also adapted to small mentalities. What is remarkable about these books is that we adults can go on admiring Beatrix Potter's skills as an illustrator, her sense of drama, her ear for everyday dialogue and a countrywoman's wonderful lack of sentimentality. How fortunate I was, unexpectedly, to encounter her at even closer quarters.
It must be about a year ago that I received the extraordinary letter from Francesca Dow, the director of Penguin/Random House children's books. It was about a story by Beatrix Potter which she had never illustrated. It was called The Tale of Kitty in Boots and included with the letter was a facsimile of the original manuscript. Would I like to illustrate it?
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
As I took the manuscript in hand, I could not avoid a momentary thought that the reason it had not been illustrated was - could this possibly be? - that it was not very good. That thought had disappeared as soon as I began to read. This was a story full of character, incident and anarchic activity. I could not wait to say yes.
It seems that we do not really know why Beatrix Potter did not illustrate the story. It was written in 1914. We are told that her publisher was not unduly enthusiastic about it, and at a difficult time at the beginning of the first world war, Beatrix Potter's concerns were probably much more with her marriage and her enthusiasm for sheep farming. When she returned to illustration work two or three years later, it was not to revisit this book but to produce two volumes of nursery rhymes, at that time probably more cheering to the young reader and more gratifying to her publisher.
As I came to think about the book and how it should be illustrated, it occurred to me that there were one or two unusual coincidences in the manuscript's arrival in my studio.
One was that the well brought up cat, who is the heroine of the story, although called Kitty by her mistress, calls herself Miss Catherine St Quintin. That is not a spelling that I approve of myself, but you can see that it is a name I would have noticed. And, by one of her common cat friends, she is also called 'Q', which is a name which I have answered to amongst family and friends for a great deal of my life. There was to me an even more striking coincidence. Within some five minutes' walk of my studio there is Bousfield School, which I have visited for the last assembly of the year for the last twenty years to help give out books to the young leavers. On the walls are some of my pictures and outside in the playground there are others painted directly on the walls (by the children's parents). But, on the outside wall of the school, there is a plaque which shows Peter Rabbit, because it was in a house on this site that Beatrix Potter was born and spent all her young life. I am afraid I can't altogether dismiss the innocent fantasy that Kitty in Boots may have been sitting in the archive of the Victoria and Albert Museum, for all these years simply waiting for me.
The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots by Beatrix Potter, illustrated by Quentin Blake, is published by Frederick Warne & Co on Thursday 1st September in hardback, priced £12.99. Quentin Blake's original illustrations for The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots will be exhibited at The House of Illustration from 2nd September.