According to the Doyle saleroom, the Mary K Young Collection “offers an opportunity unparalleled for decades to obtain works from the most revelatory and desirable period” of the writer and illustrator.
The group forms a featured section of the online-only auction of Rare Books, Autographs & Maps, for which bidding ends on Wednesday, April 22.
It includes “at least eight unique items” containing about 20 original drawings or letters written and drawn by Potter before her marriage in 1913 (with most before 1900), a formative period where she was developing her form of art.
Doyle specialist Peter Costanzo says: “Part of the charm of this early period is that Potter apparently did not intend to publish books for children, she simply sought a simple and affectionate way to communicate with them, and in combining an early mastery of the drawing of animals and a playful love of verse, Potter created a style all her own.
"She published 30 books between 1901, when she was 35 years old, and 1930 when she more or less retired.”
Pictured here are five Potter highlights from the Doyle auction.
1. Potter tribute to Lear (pictured top)
This March 1897 picture letter from Potter to her young cousin Molly Gaddum illustrates a favoured tale of her childhood, Lear’s The Owl & the Pussy Cat. It is estimated at $40,000-60,000.
The charming eight-page letter (featuring eight drawings) opens with a short note to Molly in which Potter’s comfort with Lear’s whimsy and nonsense is apparent, writing: “I have drawn you some pictures of the owl and the pussy-cat. It is very odd to see an owl with hands, but how could he play the guitar without them?”
Constanzo says: “The Owl & the Pussy Cat is a landmark document in the formation of Potter as an author and illustrator, and the letter has been exhibited at both the Morgan Library and the Grolier Club in New York.”
2. Most famous creation
Also estimated at $40,000-60,000 is this early watercolour drawing related to Potter’s most famous creation: Peter Rabbit, first imagined in a picture letter to Noel Moore (son of the her former governess, Annie Moore) in 1892, and a frequent subject along with his siblings Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail at the time she self-published the story at the suggestion of Annie in 1901.
The Mary K Young Collection features several drawings of bunnies including Peter, such as this example known as Peter Rabbit Sledging or Two Rabbits in a Sledding Mishap. The subject was taken up several times by Potter and the present drawing depicts the ‘after’ in a two-part story sequence. The ‘before’ part would typically show a rabbit pulling another on a sled as they pass a signpost and this ‘after’ drawing depicts the sled upturned and the bunnies buried in snow.
This drawing is dated 1894 and is related to Potter’s early efforts in the creation of Christmas cards, as is another drawing in the collection, Bunny in a Red Jacket Shoveling Snow (estimate $20,000-30,000), in which an older rabbit shovels snow before his home and under a leafy tree.
3. Watercolour on silk
Two watercolours on silk probably executed between 1901-05 recreate scenes from The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The first – shown here, estimated at $20,000-30,000 - depicts Mrs Rabbit Buttoning Peter’s Coat, the scene that accompanied the published text ‘Now run along, and don’t get into any mischief. I am going out’ in the 1901 edition.
4. On a personal note
The latest items in the collection referencing Peter Rabbit and family are dated 1908-09, as this early period came to a close, and from a time when Potter ceased to write new picture letters to children, but rather sent little notes with continuations of her stories signed by her characters, “wonderfully personalised extensions of the tales that must have enthralled the young recipients”.
Offered at an estimate of $30,000-40,000 is an “extremely rare” surviving group of four of these letters written to Master Jack Ripley and signed from Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Josephine Rabbit and Mr. McGregor and is also accompanied by a picture postcard of a bunny by Potter herself.
Ripley was known to have a deformity in his hands and had a very stern father. Constanzo adds: “It seems Potter, who did not have children of her own, found ways to communicate directly and lift the spirits of children who needed it most."
5. Self-published book
Beyond original art, the collection includes several of Potter’s published books and a few personal letters, including the rare 1902 self-published The Tailor of Gloucester shown here, estimated at $4000-6000, along with the 1906 The Story of the Fierce Bad Rabbit presented in a concertina format and an inscribed copy with two signed letters of The Tale of Piggling Bland.
In the letters that accompany that last-mentioned book, the content points to Potter turning a corner to the most productive period of her life: she married William Heelis in October 1913 (the local solicitor who assisted her in buying land), published many more books, farmed and raised sheep, and started conserving the lands that would became part of the National Trust.
In the earlier of these two letters she signs almost hesitantly as “Peter Rabbit/Nobody remembers to call me Mrs. Heelis” but in the second letter she signs boldly as “Beatrix Heelis”.