The Tailor of Gloucester–part 1

18Dec10

Beatrix Potter Age 9, courtesy Warne Archive, from http://www.peterrabbit.com

Beatrix Potter, the amazing writer, illustrator, naturalist, mycologist . . . wrote and illustrated 23 children’s tales and I think they saved her life. For those new to Beatrix Potter, and I’m not sure anyone is, she was the creator of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and of such characters as Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and Squirrel Nutkin. She was born in South Kensington in 1866 and kept almost a prisoner in her parents house, educated by governesses and tutors. Her parents discouraged higher education for her, and assumed she’d grow up and stay in their home and keep house. The publication of Peter Rabbit in 1902–she was 34–and other books earned enough money for her to buy Hill Top Farm in Cumbria in her beloved Lake District, and move out of her parents’ house.

I really want to talk about The Tailor of Gloucester, but to talk about the illustrations I do need to look a little more at Beatrix Potter herself. As she grew up, Beatrix Potter vacationed in the Lake District and Scotland, where she was a keen observer and collector of wildlife. She sketched and painted much of what she saw. If a pet died, like as not its flesh would be removed and its skeleton rearticulated for study. She was a naturalist, and the animals in her stories and pictures, though anthropomorphised, are recognizable as animals.

With that in mind, let’s move to The Tailor of Gloucester, one of her earliest books. Beatrix gave the story with its dozen watercolor illustrations to the daughter of her former governess for Christmas, 1901, and published it in 1903. The story itself is deceptively simple, and bears more than a passing resemblance to the fairy tale “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” Potter herself said that the story was taken from a story she heard on a trip to Gloucestershire (though the mice turned out to be the quite human apprentices of the tailor in question). The illustrations of the street and the shop came from sketches she drew of the that tailor’s shop.

The Tailor of Gloucester, first edition cover. Image from Wikipedia

A poor tailor gets a commission to make a waistcoat for the Mayor’s Christmas wedding. The tailor is frugal and measures closely, so that he leaves only cloth scraps fit for clothing for mice. He measures and cuts the cloth for the waistcoat, but is short of “twist” for the decoration for one of the buttons. He goes home and gives Simkin, his cat, the last of his money to go get food and the “twist.”  While the cat is out, the tailor finds the mice Simkin had caught and imprisoned under teacups in the kitchen and sets them free, though he knows the cat will be upset. Simkin returns with the food but is angry at the loss of his mice and hides the twist. The tailor believes all is lost. He becomes ill and cannot work on the coat. When he returns to the shop the morning the Mayor is to come for the waistcoat, he’s surprised to find the coat finished, except for a note in a tiny, mouse-sized script on the last button-hole saying “no more twist.” It is Christmas morning, and Simkin feels guilty for hiding the twist and gives it to the tailor who finishes the coat, which ensures the tailor’s future.

The illustrations are lush, realistic watercolors in which very mouse-like mice and cat-like cats are are dressed in human, turn-of-the-century, attire and doing awfully human tasks, but even so, I think there are interesting things to be learned on close examination of the story and the text.

More next time.

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2 Responses to “The Tailor of Gloucester–part 1”

  1. Thanks for the reminder and for some interesting background on Beatrix Potter. My sisters and I had several of her books as children, and I remember, among others, The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes and The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse. Her books always captured the imagination. I haven’t read The Tailor of Gloucester so maybe I will read it with my son. My mother’s name is Beatrice, so as a child I used to stare at the book cover and ponder the author’s name. Of course I thought it was misspelled.


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