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A Letter to the Earth from Beatrix (final) - detail #01.jpg

A Letter to the Earth from Beatrix

Allan Bank, The National Trust, Grasmere

Soft Opening: 16 March - 22 September 2022

with open access to artist working in progress,
then completed murals for visitors

Hard Opening: 23 September - 15 December 2022

with complete installation of whole project,
including exhibition and workshops

New Season: 27 May - 29 October 2023

with complete installation of whole project,
assembling new series of animal portraits
A Letter to the Earth from Beatrix

     Situated in the quiet woodland in the Grasmere valley, overlooking the serene village with a rich history traced back to the Medieval times, against the Lake Grasmere surrounded by the ancient fells, Allan Bank stands as a key artefact in the heart of the Lake District owned by the National Trust. The house was built in 1805 by the Liverpool solicitor Gregory Crump and housed notable tenants such as the Romantic Poet Laureate William Wordsworth and his family, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the Lake Poets, and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust, with his wife Eleanor. It was a hub of creativity and reform. Wordsworth wrote the first edition of “A Guide through the District of the Lakes” at this place. In the later editions, the poet developed his criticism of the destruction of the natural environment through indiscreet human agencies. Sir Jonathan Bate, a biographer, critic, broadcaster and scholar, stressed the importance of how Wordsworth’s critical view as an environmentalist influenced others subsequently: John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic and social reformer, John Muir, naturalist and advocate of establishing Yosemite National Park, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley as mentioned above, and Beatrix Potter, the children’s book author and conservationist, to name a few. Their collective voice and legacy resound ever louder in the current ecological crisis.

     In this art project, I explored the themes mentioned above, focusing on Beatrix Potter as an icon of inspiration on many levels. Artist, researcher, celebrated illustrated book author, farmer, entrepreneur, conservationist, and enactor of the ambitions of Canon Rawnsley in the conservation of the Lake District. This was manifested in her financial and organisational agency in acquiring and then bequeathing large estates to the National Trust in its early days, forming the core of its 25% ownership of the present National Park. At the same time, Potter maintained and supported farming traditions, notably the Herdwick sheep breed, which is now a mainstay of the Lake District Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site. 

The project comprises a large mural portrait of Beatrix and a two-storey mural of an old ash tree, transforming the internal walls of Allan Bank. The presence of a large mural portrait of Beatrix in Rawnsley’s home signifies a line of continuity between Ruskin, Wordsworth, Potter and Rawnsley in the development of the earliest landscape conservation movement. I aimed to portray Beatrix in her early to mid-twenties, before she reached her full potential in her later years, in the quest to immortalise her like a Muse so that her voice echoes in our contemporary society and beyond. Young Beatrix, depicted in a manner no artist has ever portrayed, is also designed to be relatable to young audiences, her burgeoning environmental awareness similarly relatable to the youthful leadership of the modern environmental movement. At the same time, my large-scale mural of an old ash tree symbolises Beatrix's passion inherited by the National Trust, which will launch a conservation campaign for European ash which is dying. As for the style, I referenced the Japanese traditional paintings, particularly those produced in the Edo Rinpa (School of Kōrin) style by Sakai Hōitsu and Suzuki Kiitsu. The style recalls the Japonisme of the cultural elite in which Potter grew up (a key artefact in the major Beatrix Potter exhibition at V&A in 2022 was Beatrix's late 19th-century Japanese tansu cabinet, once part of her Kensington home and transplanted to Hill Top, her house in the Lake District.) The distinctly Japanese treatment – at once architectural and at the same time intensely graphic – alludes to the international nature of wealth, empire and aesthetics that underpinned what on the surface appears to be a deeply local, native and internalised culture of the Lake District villa. This old ash tree is based on the one standing at the Cartmel Priory, which William Wordsworth once visited to mourn his teacher and mentor, who died prematurely and was buried at this church graveyard. At Allan Bank, Wordsworth wrote his first edition of ‘The Guide to the District of the Lakes’, and its later edition catalysed the conservation movement not only in the Lake District but also in America. His passion was succeeded by Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, who inspired Beatrix Potter about the importance of conservation. This old ash tree symbolises the unbroken chain of ecological movement up to this day. Alongside the mural paintings, I produced a series of small works inspired by Beatrix's creativity culminating in a solo exhibition in a dedicated room at the hard opening in September. This exhibition consists of these small works alongside an original drawing and wooden panel painting of Beatrix Potter, portrait drawings of William Wordsworth and Hardwicke Rawnsley.

     The series of small works is partly a homage to the great body of work that Beatrix Potter amassed, as well as an attempt to place a spotlight on her creativity. As is well known, the name "Beatrix Potter" is synonymous with her "Little Books", namely the Peter Rabbit series. I wondered what the secret to this enduring popularity is. I believe it is the vitality with which Beatrix imbued each character, allowing the reader to feel that they are about to leap from the page at any moment. Take, for example, Jeremy Fisher. Although toads in real life are slimy and squat, in Beatrix’s hands he becomes magically endearing. I am certain that this ability to express so much through drawing is based on abilities acquired by Beatrix in her childhood. We know that she kept rabbits, house mice, hedgehogs, lizards, tortoises and bats as pets, and drew them. I am fascinated above all by the huge quantity of fungi that she painted. These works are not simply a collection of drawings, but original research materials that took her to the forefront of fungus research. Based on these studies she compiled a paper entitled “On the germination of the spores of Agaricineae” and submitted it to the Linnean Society, the authority on taxonomy and natural history, in London. At the time, the society was not open to women; Potter abandoned her attempt to have the paper published and eventually stopped drawing fungi. I have been lucky enough to view some of the 400 drawings of natural subjects that Beatrix bequeathed to the Armitt Library in Ambleside and was astonished by their accuracy, both in artistic and scientific terms. The drawings were produced several years before she wrote the illustrated letter to her governess Annie Moore’s son, Noel, which would go on to become “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”. The characters that she created were all based on similar acute levels of observation. As a Japanese artist living and working in the Lake District today, I have tried to reinterpret the stories and characters to which she gave birth as a result of her day-to-day observations. The result is a series of portraits of small animals (including my own pets) that I meet in my own day-to-day life.

     For the new series of animal portraits, following the first series exhibited in 2022, I developed the idea based on the same concept of the previous series, portraying small animals that I meet in my day-to-day life. However, I attempted to surpass the previous series by broadening my scope further into contemporary society. For instance, Portrait #16 (Herdwick Ram, a Rogue Politician) is not, as it might first appear, a harsh satiric criticism of a particular politician. Rather, it metaphorically raises questions about power, corruption and lies within our current political systems. When I read The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, I noticed that Beatrix deliberately gave reptiles names such as “Sir Isaac Newton” and “Mr. Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise”, in satire of stubborn academic authorities. In her case, this may have been a dig at the Linnean Society. Stubbornness, corruption and power within the political climate continue to produce new wars and riots in our time, and in reflection of this, I produced Portrait #15 (Cat, an Armed Policewoman), depicting the cat as a peacekeeper against sexism, racism, abuse of power, etc.

     At the same time, I have also attempted to encompass human endeavour throughout history, while linking it to the future. Portrait #14 (Badger, Memento Mori), for instance, is a homage to the lasting legacy of Western art with its concept Memento Mori, which means “Remember your mortality”. On a walk with our beloved springer spaniel Joe through the wood near our house, I found the skull of a badger, from which I developed the concept of this work. Sadly Joe died of cancer in early 2023, and Portrait #23 (Springer Spaniel, a Countryman) is dedicated to our happy memories of him. For Portrait #18 (Rat in Spacesuit), I explored the meaning of the age of space development. Rats have always been present wherever humans are, creeping into ships since ancient times, and I wondered if they are ready for space travel? This rat, alongside the shrew depicted in Portrait #22 (Shrew Napping in Hammock) both came into our home as a result of our cat Mei who hunted them!  

     Portrait #13 (Android Herdwick Lamb Dreaming of Electric Sheep), as will be obvious to many, is in homage to the prophetic Si-Fi novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick, which was the source of the film known as “Blade Runner”. Directed by Ridley Scott, this is one of my most favourite films, and I decided to embody the concept of this work in this way, given the recent accelerated rate of progress in Artificial Intelligence. As leading computer scientists and tech CEOs raise concerns about the existential risk from Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), I find myself wondering where we humans are heading. I hope that, rather than apocalyptic dystopia, we will see super-intelligent AI robots becoming Artificial Friends (AF), as Kazuo Ishiguro depicted in his novel "Clara and Sun". For Portrait #19 (Red Cow, a Melancholic Butcher), I explored the pending ecological crisis. We are told that one of the causes is our excessive global meat consumption. The cow in this portrait is pondering whether it is possible to satisfy humanity by butchering her fellow cattle while minimizing her consumption of grasslands and destroying woods and forests.

     The other portraits all follow largely the same concept, some humorous, some satiric, some jocular, reflecting our contemporary culture. All these portraits are in black and white, allowing the viewer to colour them and fill them with life according to their own imagination. Hence, I have named the project "A Letter to the Earth from Beatrix", imagining a youthful letter from Potter to herself as an older person and also addressing future generations.

     I completed all works apart from drawings with the unique line hatching technique which I created and have developed over the past 18 years. This line hatching method is a fusion of inspiration from the concept of designo, established in the Florentine School during the Renaissance, with neurological studies, one of which reveals that the human visual brain perceives objects predominantly by oriented lines.   


     This project was generously supported by Arts Council England in 2022 and has become part of the interpretation and curation of Allan Bank. The project was also directly linked to the National Trust’s local response to the co-curated National Trust / V&A show in 2022.

Final Report - A Letter to the Earth from Beatrix.jpg

This is the final report of my ACE supported art project A Letter to the Earth from Beatirx. Please click the image for further details. 

Big Ash (Mural).jpg
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