ONCE upon a time, on her holidays in Scotland and the Lake District, a young girl grew up sketching the plants, animals and insects she stumbled across with a particular eye for detail.
From those humble beginnings, Beatrix Potter would go on to become one of the most famous and successful children’s authors of all time, renowned for her precise and enchanting illustrations reflecting her fascination with the natural world.
She became particularly interested in mushrooms and toadstools, and from the late 1880s to the turn of the century produced hundreds of finely detailed and botanically correct drawings of fungi.
She also visited her former governess, Annie Moore, and would send letters with amusing anecdotes to the Moore children, often illustrated with pen and ink sketches, which would provide the basis of some of her later books – including one about a particularly naughty rabbit named Peter.
Flash forward a century and a half, and a new generation of young people are exploring their interest in the natural world through art, painting and photography.
This week our Picture of the Week featured photographs by 11-year-old Sahasi Upadhya taken on family walks around the area.
And if one good thing has emerged from the pandemic lockdowns, it might be the number of young people and their families reconnecting with nature.
Adults too have found local landscapes a continuing source of inspiration and delight, with more than a dozen professional artists featuring in recent Beyonder articles about their work.
On social media too, Twitter and Facebook feeds have been awash with nature journal entries, sketches and photographs recounting people’s encounters with the natural world.
In her Drawn Into Nature blog, Bristol artist Jules Woolford explains how her love for the natural world led her to a career helping people to engage with nature and wildlife.
“When I discovered the world of journaling, it was a natural progression to begin keeping a traditional nature journal, like my idols Edith Holden and Beatrix Potter,” she says.
“Our modern lives are so frantic, often filled with noise, busy work, and negative stress. I’m on a journey to slow down and simplify; concentrate on experiences rather than things, (try to) worry less, be more grateful, and kind.
“Sometimes I take two (or three) steps backwards, but I’m trying to keep going. Nature is a great healer, teacher and an inspiration to me. Through my journals, I try to be an advocate for the earth, and all its life forms. I’m fascinated by the stories we’ve created about the natural world, and I love sharing these little tales from history, folklore and fable.”
Up in Northumbria, naturalist Stewart Sexton is a bird enthusiast whose paintings and photographs attract plenty of attention on Twitter @Stewchat, although he modestly claims: “A Northumbrian born and bred, I have been interested in natural history for as long as I can remember. I take photos but I’m no photographer, I paint but I’m not an artist either.”
That’s all very well, but if you lack Stewart’s obvious talent but still want to explore your artistic talent through nature, how do you get started?
Maureen Gillespie, an Oxfordshire artist whose chilly lockdown walks at Blenheim Palace saw her singled out as The Beyonder’s Picture of the Week recently, has some advice: “Probably the easiest way to develop your artist talents is to get outside and really observe nature.”
Not that you have to go far to find inspiration, she stresses. “Your local park, trees on your road, flowers in your garden or window box, all these amazing things are there to see, smell and touch and when you really study them you can bring them to life in a drawing or painting.”
Fellow Oxfordshire artist and art teacher Sue Side agrees: “I focus on close looking with my young learners. We look – really look – at the world around us and then we interpret, through drawing, painting, sculpture,” she says. “The aim is to encourage exploration and response – to not worry about finding the right word or the ‘correct answer’.”
Photographer Graham Parkinson found his lifelong interest in wildlife was sparked as a six-year-old by the popular I-Spy books – and the fact his gran had a large garden with a field behind it to explore.
He wasn’t alone. The famous spotter books were first published in 1948, with Mansfield head teacher Charles Warrell the man behind the publishing phenomenon of the 1950s and 60s.
A believer in active learning who devised the spotter guides to keep children entertained on long car journeys, he saw the idea rejected by eight publishers and could hardly have known quite how popular they would prove when he set about self-publishing them (just like Beatrix Potter).
“Spotters” gained points for finding the contents of the books in real-life situations. On completion, they sent the books to Big Chief I-Spy, as Mr Warrell had become known, for a feather, an order of merit and entry into the I-Spy Tribe – which by 1953 had grown to half a million members.
The 40-odd titles went on to sell some 25 million copies by the time Michelin relaunched the series after a seven-year gap in 2009-10. Big Chief I-Spy himself died in 1995 in Derbyshire at the ripe old age of 106.
So it might be a modern I-Spy book that ignites today’s youngsters’ interest in nature – or any one of a dozen quizzes, scavenger hunts or nature guides produced by a variety of organisations from Wildlife Trusts to the Chiltern Society. and Chiltern Open Air Museum.
The National Trust lists keeping a nature diary as one of its “50 things to do before you’re 11 and three-quarters”, whether that means finding an old notebook or making one out of an old cereal box and decorating it with doodles, paper, leaves, feathers or any other natural items you can find nearby.
You certainly don’t need to have any specialist equipment to have fun – and who knows, the next Beatrix Potter could just be out there somewhere!
See The Beyonder’s Nature guides page for some more activity sheets, and check out the Local landscapes feature to meet more artists who have found inspiration in the Chilterns landscape. If you are a photographer, we welcome contributions to our monthly Chilterns calendar feature. Just drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org