Somehow she always knew to save the best for last.
When my mother took me along to run errands in the summer at the outlet shops — or “shoppes,” I should say, for the entrance sign emblazoned the word on my memory in those early years — I found ways of amusing myself and recognizing our various stops over time.
The menswear store, for instance, I knew by the scent of its bright pinewood floors. The best clothing racks were the circular ones; a small girl could slip unseen into their center, suppressing her giggles, until her mother stopped browsing to guess whether she was hidden among the short-sleeve polos or the button-down shirts. When Mom walked to the counter to purchase my father’s clothes, I too would pop out into the open, gravely pretending to shake the hand of a mannequin in farewell.
I held my nose to avoid the hot-glue smell at the hair accessories stand and the overpowering rose potpourri that saturated every clearance item in the home decor shop. The fudge and ice cream confectionery held an undeniable fascination for me as we passed by, of course, but my favorite shop — and very often our final one — was the Royal Doulton fine china outlet.
Whatever the weather outside, the first step after the swoop of the glass door took me into what seemed another world. Here it was cool and dim and hushed, the space lit chiefly by spotlights on glass shelves. The shelves lined the walls and extended out from them, creating smaller display rooms where I walked with the careful tread of a museum-goer.
I looked at the impossibly thin, deckled edges of miniature sculpted roses, and at the figurines of dancers in ballgowns. The elegance of motion in the sweeping porcelain skirts, with the ladies in them turning to smile demurely over their shoulders; the jaunty tilt of the puppies’ heads; the gently scalloped rims of the teacups and saucers: these left me with a sense of beauty and gracefulness that inexplicably stirred a resonant chord in me. The thin loops on the sides of the teacups looked as if they might house my pointer finger and thumb exactly, but I kept my hands very still and walked on by.
For in the back right-hand corner of the shop was the best spot of all: a little rug and a tantalizing rectangular box, containing twelve white books tailor-made for small hands. Each book had a woodland creature on the front, painted in exquisite colors. I’d never seen such stories or illustrations anywhere else, and I intended to acquaint myself with each one.
As a little girl, Helen Beatrix Potter was supremely sensitive to the details of her surroundings. She filled sketchbooks with the stages and habits of caterpillars, realistic sketches of nearby pastoral scenes, and careful drawings inspired by nature manuals. Together with her brother Bertram, Beatrix collected a veritable menagerie of reptiles and mammals, including a snake named Sally — who escaped and was never found! — in the third-floor nursery of their home. Small animals, books, fungi, and art were among her chief interests, and whether in London or on holiday with her family in Scotland or the Lake District, she was always noticing, always observing.
As she grew, her watchful focus and innate curiosity fueled a deep interest in mycology and art. Beatrix was not content to simply depict fungi in watercolors, so she began a series of experiments, germinating their spores to study their classification. Even the paintings in her children’s books, for which she eventually became famous, were drawn directly from nature; she found she had to be in firsthand contact with her subjects to produce her best work. The settings for her many stories were taken from the houses and villages she knew, and her pet animals frequently served as models for her characters.
Beatrix’s keen eyes — lest one imagine the author gallivanting about the romantic countryside churning out book after book — were also required for work that frequently kept her from her pens and paintbrushes. She was intensely involved in breeding Herdwick sheep and managing multiple farms; she examined properties up for sale in the Lake District while considering how to preserve their beauty and their local culture.
Her gift of perception aided her well into her later years. On more than one occasion, she noted that though her eyesight was failing, she could still go for walks in her memory through her beloved countryside and see every stone, every stick.
I turned each page with care. The plots of these stories were not the traditional up-and-down flash-bang I was used to in children’s books. They invited me to linger — so I did. I could practically feel the soft fronds of the feathers that Hunca Munca pulled out of a dollhouse pillow in The Tale of Two Bad Mice; I shook off, with an effort, the “soporific effect” of the lettuces devoured by the Flopsy Bunnies; I savored the sumptuous mouth-feel of the words “cherry-coloured silk” in The Tailor of Gloucester. When it was time to go, I got up from my cross-legged position as if I had gained thirty pounds in that sitting; my imagination, laden with these new scenes and friends, was ever reluctant to leave them behind.
I realize today how curiously fitting it was that I discovered Beatrix Potter’s work at that specific outlet. Had I uncovered those books piecemeal in a thrift shop or used bookstore, my response would have been no less enthusiastic, but it would have been different; I had the good fortune of encountering them in a setting that gave me the space and the sight to take them in well. Although all the tableware and figurines in the place were decidedly of one aesthetic taste, that little Royal Doulton shop was a place made for showcasing beauty. It extended to me an introduction to an artist whose work was the outflow of years and years of paying attention. I didn’t know then that she was setting me an example that I would need desperately as an adult.
To labor carefully, to lean in, to refuse to feel silly for looking long at one feature of creation: Beatrix’s practice allowed me to behold words and stories and animals without rushing on to the next chapter or errand. The world of her tales gave me the sense, though I could hardly have put it into words then, that there may yet be a way to receive something lovely into my character and personality and be softened and transformed by it — to let a beautiful thing awaken the kindred desire in me to join in the existence of beauty.
I’m older now, but still a girl-child sometimes when it comes to looking, stooping, hardly breathing as I stop to notice small splendors that cross my path. It does not come as easily as it once did. Opening a door and coming in from a world overheated by contention and a mind fevered with worst-case scenarios is often an act of the will.
But when I manage to wrench myself away and explore the ring of stars in a cosmos blossom, light-dazzled brushstrokes in an impressionist painting, or a strangely stirring musical phrase, I find that I return on lighter feet. I remember that the study of such things is a tracing of the lines in the hand of my Creator — and that the works that have helped me to see His beauty are often the works that most faithfully mirror an aspect of His creation in nature or in people.
Look, they seem to say; come break free from your entrenched thoughts and see us:
how singularly made,
how strange and marvelous we are.
In her own examination of the earth and its inhabitants, Beatrix saw something else.
At thirty years of age, she wrote about sitting on a crag on a Sunday afternoon. At her feet were “all the little tiny fungus people singing and bobbing and dancing in the grass and under the leaves all down below,” hidden from other unseeing eyes. “I cannot tell what possesses me with the fancy that they laugh and clap their hands. . . . I suppose it is the fairy rings, the myriads of fairy fungi that start into life in autumn woods.” I am intrigued that this observer, so long immersed in the art of seeing, regarded the natural world as being tinged with a bit of faerie.
Later in life, Beatrix confided to a friend:
“I do not remember a time when I did not try to invent pictures and make for myself a fairyland amongst the wild flowers, the animals, fungi, mosses, woods and streams, all the thousand objects of the countryside; that pleasant, unchanging world of realism and romance, which in our northern clime is stiffened by hard weather, a tough ancestry, and the strength that comes from the hills.”
“All the thousand objects of the countryside” proved to be fertile ground for a stance of wonder, rich with prompts and possibilities. And on the fourth of September, 1893, this facet of her imagination flowed out onto a page of stationery. After hearing that her former governess’s son was recovering from scarlet fever, and casting about for ideas on what to write to him, Beatrix penned an illustrated letter about a little rabbit named Peter.
The tale of Peter’s disobedience and his narrow escape from Mr. McGregor, which would go on to enchant children around the world, unfolded out of what Beatrix already knew. She was not stooping to a little boy’s level in telling this tale. Instead, she drew open a door to a world with which she was wholly familiar, one of “realism and romance,” one that housed the intermingling of things seen and unseen.
After one summer’s end, I settled into a more prosaic gallery of sights in Mrs. Fox’s third grade class. My classmates and I trooped dutifully from classroom to classroom, memorizing math principles and school concert lyrics, our sight inured to the reflection of fluorescent light off of tabletops, metal bookshelves, and each other’s faces. Each day passed its imprint onto the next.
Except for one.
We filed into our homeroom on a warm afternoon to discover that the desks had been pushed together into groups of six and covered with tablecloths. At each table was a small assortment of treats, real teacups with saucers, and a pot of hot chocolate or tea. When all of us were seated, parent volunteers came around to pour the tea and to give gentle instructions about etiquette.
The room was transformed. The teachers relaxed and laughed as they watched us and chatted at their own desks; the boys couldn’t get enough of Mrs. Harris’s crescent rolls, which were wrapped around miniature Hershey bars. For a long minute I took in the new atmosphere, finally looking down to pick up my own cup, and paused.
I knew this pattern: a spray of country roses clustered under a gilded edge. I looked to my right, where my friend was tipping the last drops from an ornate pink vessel that framed a similar little bouquet. I knew that one too. A maroon variation of the same theme winked across from me as another classmate carefully set it down.
I looked down at my own teacup again, watching the steam roll in upward curlicues into the air. My second and third fingers fit right into the scrolled handles. I took a joyful first sip.
My mother had contributed those teacups to that school party. I cannot remember now whether I had already seen them at home, but I would see them many times over the years to come. They appeared on some hard-to-wake school mornings; they cradled sweet ginger tea on sick days when my medicine had trouble going down. Even in the throes of a cold, I couldn’t help but feel a thrill when one of the teacups was set in front of me — because it was marvelous to find, over and over, that their beauty was not merely for watching from a distance. They were, amazingly, meant for enjoyment and for service.
What I learned, both at the improvised tea table and in the corner of the china shop, was that beauty most truly comes into its element when it makes contact with another. It is of course possible to idolize beautiful things: we can cherish a set of china far more than it deserves, or sell our scruples in exchange for an image we’d like to present to the world. In such cases I agree that it would be better to gouge out their particular hold on us than to continue to be fettered.
But done right, the cultivation, the stewardship, and the spending of beauty are a natural and essential step in loving others.
A husband picks wild asters on his way home from work for his sleep-deprived wife. A teacher and a group of parents conspire to host a special event at school. An artist writes a charming story of a little rabbit and irate gardener to a sick child. Such gifts can leave an impact far surpassing the guess of the giver; they bide their time until they are called to mind in times of isolation and difficulty and utter poverty of spirit.
Consider this, they quietly suggest: why would anyone go to such trouble?
Could it be that you mean something to someone?
As I try to engage in the ministry of beauty through these two modes of receiving and extending it, I am continually struck by how much I need the guidance of others.
I don’t mean the kind of instruction that comes through flower arrangement classes or editing techniques, though these have their place. Rather, what I saw in my mother and Beatrix Potter was a willingness to love prodigally: to place bone china in the hands of elementary school students, to “squander” detailed line drawings on a letter that a single child would receive. Since then, I’ve witnessed gardeners who have plucked their flower beds clean in order to give a bouquet away. I’ve met hostesses who have intentionally dropped plates in their kitchens to set clumsy guests at ease.
And it has been through such examples — like the breaking of an alabaster flask of nard — that I’ve come to understand what constitutes a truly lovely work. “She has done a beautiful thing to me,” our Lord said simply of the woman who poured the ointment over His head (Matt. 26:10; Mark 14:6; ESV).
Each act that claims kinship to hers is an illustration of a central truth: we love as we have been loved.
And when we choose to spend our lives being simple conduits of beauty, filled and poured out repeatedly in the name of the One who poured Himself out for us, then we taste life to the full.
In her late fifties, Beatrix Potter sifted through some old family papers. Most of them contained news of illnesses and deaths. “They give a distorted impression… The milestones are all tombstones! But the record of the cheerful jog trot round of life between them is not kept.” I am thankful that when I remember her life, I think of an entire merry series of milestones — twelve in particular — that intersected with mine.
And the thankfulness wends its way still further upstream, to the Lord who cultivated delight in a small girl so that she might comprehend His heart toward her, and learn to obey the greatest of His commands. I can well imagine she might have a word or two to say to her older, oft-hurried self.
Go into the hushed and dim places,
into the spaces hidden in corners of quiet shops,
and mountain gardens, and lively woodlands.
And when you emerge, serve
what you have
with the same unsparing measure,
like a cup of cold water
poured for the least of these —
a fragrant draught of tea
in a fine-handled cup
just right for two of a wondering child’s fingers.
 Beatrix Potter, The Journal of Beatrix Potter, 1881-1897, transcribed from her code writings by Leslie Linder (1966; revised edition, 1989); 17 Nov 1896, 435.
 Beatrix Potter Heelis to Bertha Mahony Miller, 25 Nov 1940, Beatrix Potter’s Letters (selected by Judy Taylor, 1989), 422-3.
 Beatrix Potter Heelis to Fanny Cooper, 27 December 1924; The National Trust manuscript collection.
We are grateful for Joanna’s amazing eye, her skill, and her generosity!
Amy Baik Lee writes from a desk looking out on a cottage garden, usually surrounded by children’s drawings, teacups, and stacks of patient books. She is a former scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature at the University of Virginia, a sometime author of devotional short stories, and a current member artist of the Anselm Society. Ever seeking to “press on to [her] true country and to help others to do the same” (C.S. Lewis), she posts essays and stories about Homeward longing at Amy Baik Lee.