Beatrix Potter finally presents her paper

Tue, 24 Apr 2012 09:31:00 BST

Ali Murfitt, as Beatrix Potter, interviewed by
ITV’s Gerry Foley in the Linnean library

A distinguished gathering of eminent scientists gathered in London to see a significant research paper by Beatrix Potter presented at last by a woman.

Dressed in period costume, Ali Murfitt, a mycologist and ecologist, summarised what is thought to be the substance of ​ On the germination of the spores of agaricineae ​to the Linnean Society who, in 1897, insisted that Miss Potter's work should be read by a man.

The event was organised by journalism and public relations lecturer Eileen Jones to mark the centenary of Ambleside's Armitt Museum where a substantial collection of Beatrix Potter's work as a scientific artist is held. Following the refusal of the scientific community to take her seriously, Miss Potter turned eventually to writing children's books.

But the executive director of the Linnean Society, Dr Elizabeth Rollinson, interviewed on Radio 4's Woman's Hour, said that records proved that Beatrix Potter's work was accepted by the Society. Miss Potter chose to take it away for further development, but her work was not rejected, as some had suggested.

The event was part of a programme of promotional campaigns which made up an action research project which Eileen has been running with a CVF research grant. Exploring ways in which small museums can extend influence and improve visitor numbers, she has increased tenfold the coverage of the Armitt in the local paper, the Westmorland Gazette; secured national coverage in the Guardian, Independent, The Times, on radio and TV; and acquired the loan of previously unseen letters and drawings by the guidebook writer, Alfred Wainwright, from his biographer, Hunter Davies, arranging subsequent media coverage.

The Linnean event was, literally, the icing on the cake, as the Society commissioned for the Armitt a centenary cake, elaborately decorated in the style of Beatrix Potter’s illustrations.

The centenary cake commissioned for
the Armitt Museum by the Linnean Society

The conference was opened by the president of the Linnean Society, Dr Vaughan Southgate, and was addressed by the patron of the Beatrix Potter Society, the actress Patricia Routledge. She paid tribute to the "wonderful collection of astonishing depictions of fungi" held by the Armitt.

Britain's leading mycologist, Professor Roy Watling, who had prepared the paper read by Ms Murfitt, addressed the conference by video link from Edinburgh. He stressed the importance of Miss Potter's findings, and the observational detail of her art. "Beatrix Potter was illustrating things that scientists didn't realise existed until much later," he said.

One of the Fellows of the Linnean Society, Dr Brian J. Ford, a research scientist, writer and broadcaster, said that “an event like this has been long needed”. He referred to the film, Miss Potter, starring Renee Zellwegger which, he said, “portrayed her as a dotty woman”.

“This has restored her reputation as a diligent scientist.”

Eileen said that she had been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm with which the project had been embraced by the Linnean Society, and by Prof Watling. “This began as an idea for a promotional event for the museum, and turned into a significant occasion which has raised the profile of mycology, and of course the reputation of Beatrix Potter as a scientist and scientific artist.

“It has triggered debate on both sides of the Atlantic among writers and scientists, and the Linnean conference raised issues which will impact on further study.”

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