When was the last time you read a book by Beatrix Potter? Like fairy tales and nursery rhymes, her work can be a bit darker than its cutesy-pie, beddy-bye reputation. For instance, her first and most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, begins with Mrs. Rabbit, a single mother, reminding Peter and his siblings, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, not to venture into Mr. McGregor’s garden lest they end up “put into a pie” by Mrs. McGregor. That, we learn, was the savory fate of Peter’s missing father. Chilling.
Many of Potter’s other characters, including Jemima Puddle-Duck, Jeremy Fisher, and Pigling Bland, also have to worry about being eaten. That’s because the author-illustrator, born in 1866, was a serious student of the natural world who didn’t turn a sentimental eye away from things like the food chain. A new exhibition makes that plain: “Beatrix Potter: Drawn from Nature,” which is on view now at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s full of her paintings and drawings, of course, but also photographs, letters, journals, toys, and other artifacts.
One thing that distinguishes Potter’s artwork is the way her animals look like real animals even when they’re wearing little blue jackets or breeches. Peter Rabbit was created when Potter was 35, but she had been drawing animals and plants from life since she was a little girl. She grew up in a big gloomy house in London but enjoyed extended vacations in the English and Scottish countrysides, where she could muck around in the woods. She might even have become a pioneering mycologist—someone who studies mushrooms and other kinds of fungi—if not for the sexism of the 19th-century British scientific establishment.
Potter had a lot of pets: 92 over the course of her lifetime, by one estimate. When she was young, she and her brother, Bertram, kept not just a pet dog, but also rabbits, birds, mice, salamanders, lizards, snakes, and snails, all of them named, including the namesakes of future literary sensations Peter and Benjamin Bunny. The V&A exhibit includes an expert watercolor painting she did as a teenager of Judy, a lime-green lizard with a very long tail, who, alas, never got her own book.
Potter didn’t just draw and paint animals. When their pets died, she and Bertram sometimes pickled their bodies to preserve them, or boiled away fur and flesh to study their bones. According to the exhibit’s catalog the children “may have practiced taxidermy.” As Bertram wrote to Beatrix when he was away at school and their pet bat was apparently ailing, “If he can’t be kept alive… you had better kill him + stuff him as best you can.” She may have ignored her brother and gone the boiling route instead: the exhibit includes her detailed pencil sketch of a bat skeleton, wings outstretched.
We told you she was a serious student of nature. —Bruce Handy
In the United Kingdom, it’s become increasingly rare to hear someone yell “fetch, Boris!” In 2020, a year after Boris Johnson was elected prime minister, 313 dog owners named their pets in honor of him. In 2021, as his popularity plummeted, that number fell to 123.
While we like to think our pet’s name is original, trends inevitably influence the decision. Tom Vaughan, the head of marketing at the pet insurance company Agria, told The Times of London that “the pandemic appears to have had a significant role to play in this all-important decision [of naming] over the last few years.” In 2021, not one pet owner in the U.K. was moved to call their dog Corona, while Pfizer and Zeneca became popular puppy names.
Plus, perhaps as a result of being stuck at home all the time, dog owners have increasingly turned to outer space for inspiration. In the last year, the U.K. alone has seen a 60 percent increase in dogs named Rover (the name of the robot NASA sent to Mars).
Much like baby names, for pets “there will always be ‘classic’ big names,” Vaughan said. In the U.K., that list includes Bella, Willow, Teddy, Buddy, and Milo.
Opt for an original name if you want to avoid confusion at the puppy park. Or you can choose one of the names that has become increasingly unpopular. For girl dogs, Roxi, Libby, and Peach are passé; for boys, it’s Spike, Nacho, and Alan. Inexplicably, the number of puppies named after the fashion brand Chanel went from 28 in 2020 to zero in 2021. Perhaps that one is for the best.
Thinking about getting a dog? Listen up! For any AIR MAIL Pilot reader who names their new pet after us, we will give the puppy a bone—and the owner a lollipop. —Bridget Arsenault
“I must not disturb the class … I must not disturb the class …” Did your elementary-school teacher ever make you write that line over and over again after you misbehaved? It happened to AIR MAIL Pilot, too. As it turns out, even class clowns in ancient Egypt were punished with writing exercises.
Recently, a team of researchers from the University of Tübingen in Germany traveled 125 miles outside of Luxor, Egypt—where the ancient settlement of Athribis once was—to dig up a temple built during Cleopatra’s father’s reign, in the first century B.C.E. While excavating the temple, they discovered 18,000 fully intact limestone “notebooks” (or, as the ancient Egyptians called them, ostraca).
The pottery pieces featured shoppings lists, trade records, and school work inked onto them. The school books, if you can call them that, look familiar to ones from today. “There are lists of months, numbers, arithmetic problems, grammar exercises,” Professor Christopher Leitz, who conducted the excavation, told The Times. Many also featured drawings of gods, people, birds, and other animals, proving that even Ancient Egyptian students got bored in class and doodled.
At one point, researchers on the dig were stumped by an odd pattern: many of the ostraca had two or three of the same characters repeated on the front and the back. Eventually, the team concluded that ancient teachers punished unruly students by making them use reeds or hollowed-out sticks dipped in ink to write the same words again and again. In the search for an ancient temple, archeologists stumbled upon one of the earliest forms of detention.
AIR MAIL Pilot likes to think that young Cleopatra was forced to sit and rewrite characters while her friends played during recess—just like us. —Elena Clavarino