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Shakespeare, Dulac, Rackham, Beatrix Potter and Babbitty Bees

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Sunday 14 March 2010

Shakespeare, Dulac, Rackham, Beatrix Potter and Babbitty Bees

This is a self-indulgent, heady combination of people I love! Beautiful words and images arising from sensitive, accurate observations and appreciation of the natural world.  Shakespeare and Beatrix Potter, creators of magical worlds and Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham, the very best of fairy illustrators.

Shakespeare’s bees

I am an unashamed fan of both “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest”. During my blog break, in between trying to organise things for the exhibition I went back to look at these two wonderful plays and their mention of bees.

When I was a child I was fascinated by my grandmother’s tiny house which was full of books. There were many small cheap editions of the classics which included the easy reader version of  Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare where I first encountered these magical fairie worlds.

There are many references to bees in Shakespeare but probably the most famous is Ariel’s song from the Tempest Act Five, Scene 1

“Ariel:           Where the bee sucks, there suck I,
                    in a cowslip's bell I lie;
                    There I couch, when owls do cry.
                    On a bat's back I do fly
                    after summer merrily, merrily shall I live now,
                    under the blossom that hangs on the bough.
                    Shall I live now

Edmund Dulac’s illustration of Ariel living his freedom is sublime,  in the quality of the botanical observation and the spirit of the words and of course the virtuoso handling of watercolour.

 Dulac ariel

In “A Midsummer Nights Dream”  Titania requests that the fairies look after her new love the Donkey headed Bottom,

“Be kind and courteous to this gentleman;
Hop in his walks and gambol in his eyes;
Feed him with apricocks and dewberries,
With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries;
The honey-bags steal from the humble-bees,
And for night-tapers crop their waxen thighs
And light them at the fiery glow-worm's eyes,”

Later in ACT IV, Scene 1 Bottom revels in his new status and requests of Cobweb:

“Mounsieur Cobweb, good mounsieur, get you your
weapons in your hand, and kill me a red-hipped
humble-bee on the top of a thistle; and, good
mounsieur, bring me the honey-bag.”

Here is the incomparable Arthur Rackham's illustration for the passage:

The “red hipped Humble Bee” in question which Shakespeare refers to might well be Bombus lapidarius as he refers in other plays to the “red tailed Humble Bee” . Rackham’s interpretation shows a white tail, which is sometimes the case with both lapidarius and lucorum but probably not to that extent. However I am not one of the joyless ones who like to niggle, I just revel in the gorgeous pen drawing of the thistle.

There was an understanding in Shakespeare’s time that bees collected both wax and honey from flowers but he would know that bumble bees carry honey in a separate honey stomach, more than the honey bee due to their size. In fact on a rather gruesome note, Gilbert White in Letter XXVII To The Honourable Daines Barrington December 12, 1775, mentions a simple boy who would eat bees for their honey.  It’s a very curious passage written in a matter of fact way but not without some sympathy for the boy’s condition. You can read more here in Project Gutenberg Etext of The Natural History of Selborne.


Beatrix Potter. Wizz, zizz and Babbitty

But away from all that to the charm and beauty of Beatrix Potter

Anyone who knows anything about her is already aware that she was a very fine natural history observer and painter as well as the writer and illustrator of her wonderful books.

Here is a set of drawings including some bees. see the beautiful big aforementioned Bombus lapidarius on the left.


You can see this and more of her beautiful work at the V and A’s site here in an article about her entitled “Beauty in the Detail

“She used a fine, dry brush to define meticulously and minutely the anatomy of even the most delicate specimens. Fascination with scientific accuracy underpins Potter's artistic technique, a bee, beetle, butterfly, ladybird and spider enjoy supporting roles in The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse. Potter observed them, and her ' most terribly tidy particular little mouse' with astonishing attention to detail.”

And here, indeed is the wonderful Mrs Babbitty Bumble from the Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse.  Poor Mrs Tittlemouse who only wants a neat and tidy house is beset by bugs..and the ultimate is finding the mossy nest of bumblebees in her larder. “ I am not in the habit of letting lodgings, this is an intrusion” she says and enlists the help of the muddy footed toad Mr. Jackson who will do anything for a little dish of honey!


 bb1 bb2 bb3 bb4

Mt Jackson it appears eats one of the other unwelcome guest hiding in the plate rack, ( a woodlouse I think ) but draws the line at the Bumble bee. About to take a bite he puts her down “I do not like bumble bees, they are all over bristles”

bb 5

But he does help  Mrs Tittlemouse  to restore order and is rewarded with acorn cups of honey.. and all is well.. but I think the bumblebees had to find another home!

You can read the spreads yourself at Childrensbooksonline , but these, above, are taken from on old book belonging to Chris. We only have a few things in the apartment here and Chris travels very light, but there are 3 Beatrix Potter books in the book case, they were his as a child and read by his children too. 

There is nothing nicer than an old book passed down from generation to generation is there? I appreciate a fine pristine first edition  but I do love old books, love to see their previous owners names, love the grubby thumbed pages of much loved and well used favourite volume.

I recently picked up an old rather tatty volume of Sladens “Humble bee” which I had ordered from the local library. The librarian apologised for the condition it was in..

“But” I said, “it’s the contents .. it’s all about the contents .. isn't it?”

It’s exactly how I feel about people too..


A final thought for all you beekeepers this coming year, old and new..

May your “singing masons be busy building roofs of gold” 

Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act 1 Scene 2.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely post! Rackham and Potter were wonderful artists.

For those who are interested in Sladen's book. You can also read it online, or download it for free as a 14MB pdf:

14 March 2010 at 17:13  
Blogger Melanie J Watts said...

A wonderful post! I'm still deciding wether to get bees for my garden. I have plenty of wild bees so it is mainly for honey.

14 March 2010 at 18:33  
Blogger Bozena Wojtaszek said...

I'm a fan of Beatrix Potter's illustrations too. But recently I went through the site with old prints and when I saw "apiary" I had to think about you. So for Medieval references go here:


15 March 2010 at 09:43  
Blogger Unknown said...

I feel the same way about old books. Better scuffed and lovingly read than pristine and unused. And then the smell of old bookshops.... ahh!
No camera with me to record, but I was in the garden yesterday, feeding our ferrets and spied a small bumble bee visiting the solitary open bell of an early cowslip. From my memory of what it looked like I'm going with a Carder bee as the id - not classically bee patterned, but a strong impression of red-brown end to its body. I shall have to make sure I have the camera with me at all times so I can record these things and make proper ids.
Good luck with the exhibition.

15 March 2010 at 14:27  
Blogger Threadspider said...

What a sublime post. Thank you so much for reminding me of some of the words from Beatrix Potter I had forgotten I used to read to my children twenty odd years ago.

16 March 2010 at 08:09  
Blogger Richard said...

Val - I love this post - I thought I had detected some Rackham influence in your trees and scarecrows! His trees and plants (like the thistle here) always have an arthritic spikiness that suggests evil is being planned...

16 March 2010 at 08:28  
Blogger sharp green pencil said...

Thank you all. It was very self indulgent but sometimes that's what blogs are for!

Alan : Thank you very much for the Sladen link . I did try to read it on line before but I am so stuck in my old fashioned ways and like to hold book, but the online resources for books is now wonderful isnt it? I am going to write more about Sladen but there is not very much info to be had on the web except for a USA biog. I realise now we lived 6 miles away from where he was in Dover. My partner Chris remembers a Sladen at Dover Grammar school!

Bozena: Hope you got my return comment and thank you so much for the resource! my bee related image file is now even more comprehensive.

Mark: ahh another fellow soul and I love the casual line"feeding our ferrets" :) How wonderful to have ferrets! I can't tell you how much I miss secondhand book shops. Pascuorum are very pretty..with their gingery thorax.I cant tell you how many times I just don't have my camera with me!

Threadspider: Beatrix Potter's work is so totally delightful. I am not sure that over exposure and terrible re drawings and cartoon versions have done the books any favours. I love to go back to the originals. Its like a little breathing space. I have at home a very early edition of the Tailor of Gloucester belonged to my mother which has those wonderful blank pages.. even more breathing space... ahhh

Richard, you are so right, I was brought up on story books which had the darker Victorian illustration work.All the Andrew Lang books in their early editions, Arthurian legends in the Everyman editions with swirling black and white drawings and decorations.. some things are hard to shake off!

16 March 2010 at 12:47  

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