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A Dream of Toasted Cheese

June 25, 2014 | by

Dream-Cheese-1

An early drawing by Beatrix Potter. Image via Retronaut.

Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe was a prominent nineteenth-century chemist—a pioneer in photography and the first to obtain the element vanadium in its pure form. He was also, incidentally, Beatrix Potter’s uncle. In 1906, he wrote,

I also wrote a First Step in Chemistry which has had a large sale. With reference to this little book, I here insert a reproduction of a coloured drawing by my niece, Miss Beatrix Potter, as original as it is humorous, which was presented to me by the artist on publication of the work.

Although by 1906 Potter was already the successful author of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, and The Tailor of Gloucester, she would’ve been a girl when First Step in Chemistry was published. The image, however, is interesting not merely because of its accomplished style—the precocious Potter received childhood art lessons—but because it recalls her interest in science. While she’s well known now as a conservationist and animal artist, her early scientific interests were broad: she studied archeology and entomology and made a serious study of mycology. Indeed, in 1897 she had a male friend submit her paper “On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricinea” to the Linnean Society.

Roscoe supported her in these endeavors: using his university connections, he arranged meetings for Beatrix with prominent botanists and officials at Kew Gardens. The congratulatory picture is a testament to their affectionate relationship. Nevertheless, the image, while fantastic, is peculiar: the mice seem to have taken over the lab by night to conduct risky cheese-toasting experiments with terrifyingly large Bunsen burners. And while the bespectacled lead mouse seems scholarly enough, behind him, the scene is anarchic: the effect is more that of Ratatouille than of a well-organized laboratory. And let’s face it, the resulting treat is less than tempting. The mice are sort of like scientific Tailors of Gloucester—albeit less organized, and less altruistic.

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