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Beatrix Potter's illustrations are the centrepiece of an exhibition

"Susie" (2020-03-28)

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agar powder - Now of all hopeless things to draw,' Beatrix Potter wrote in 1892, ‘I should think the very worst is a fine fat fungus.' 

For a Victorian middle-class young woman, natural history was a ‘suitable' occupation - and after inheriting her younger brother's microscope when he went away to school, Beatrix became an accomplished botanical painter.

She was drawn to fungi because they presented a challenge. 

Moreover, on family holidays in Scotland, mushroom picking was an opportunity to get out into the countryside in her pony cart, away from her controlling mother - a rare taste of freedom, even though Beatrix was in her 20s.

Beatrix Potter (pictured in 1892) who was drawn to illustrating fungi because they seemed like a challenge, is set to have her work displayed at Somerset House in London

During those holidays she befriended Charlie McIntosh, an erudite naturalist and the local postman. 

On her return to London, he would send her specimens that he found on his rounds, and Beatrix in return sent him her first drawings of fungi. 

One day in September 1893, she discovered a rare pine cone fungus in the grounds of the Potters' holiday home in Perthshire; Beatrix painted it there and then, and the next day she wrote the famous picture letter to her former governess's little boy about the adventures of mischievous Peter Rabbit. 

McIntosh, with his long beard, was her inspiration for Mr McGregor, the villainous gardener whose wife made Peter's father into a pie.





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As her interest became ever more scientific, Beatrix became intent on discovering how fungi spores germinate. 

Believing her ideas were breaking new ground, she submitted a paper to the men-only Linnaean Society - though it had to be presented by a man on her behalf.

Beatrix's exquisite, scientifically accurate watercolours of fungi are still used by mycologists to identify mushrooms; and now a selection of her illustrations features in an exhibition, Mushrooms: The Art, Design And Future Of Fungi, opening this week at Somerset House in London.

How many skaters gliding on the festive ice rink at Somerset House each winter realise that mushrooms are being cultivated in ‘fungi chambers' in the disused coal holes around the courtyard? Since 2016, resident mycologist Darren Springer has been growing mushrooms on waste coffee grounds from the site's cafes as part of the Edible Utopia project exploring sustainable food production in the city.

Beatrix's most famous creation is Peter Rabbit (pictured), visitors of the exhibition will be given the opportunity to tour a hidden mushroom farm

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to tour this hidden mushroom farm.

Fungi are everywhere, says curator Francesca Gavin; according to experts, there are 2.2-3.8 million fungal species on Earth - and their spores float around us constantly.

Their DNA suggests they are more akin to animals than plants. The oldest and largest organism in the world is a fungus, the Armillaria ostoyae - nicknamed the Humongous Fungus - which covers more than 2,300 acres of Malheur National Forest in Oregon and is believed by some to be 8,650 years old. 

Most of it lies underground but in autumn it blooms edible honey mushrooms, said to be delicious with spaghetti and chilli.

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the mycelium, the thread-like underground fungal web that exists beneath every forest and wood, dubbed the World Wood Web. 

‘It's a catchy name for what scientists have discovered about mycelium,' explains Francesca. 

Curator Francesca Gavin describes mushrooms (Beatrix's painting pictured) as nature's computers

‘Mushrooms are nature's computers, communicating through this web of threads like our neural networks.' 

Through the mycelium, mature trees can share nutrients with younger trees - dying trees can divest their remaining resources for the good of others - and can communicate warnings about pests and toxins.

Beatrix Potter would undoubtedly have been fascinated to learn about the importance of fungi today. 

Researchers are experimenting with psilocybin - the psychedelic ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms' - as a treatment for depression and addiction. 

New research into mycelium is highlighting its ability to boost immunity, lower cholesterol, reduce risk of heart disease, reduce diesel contaminants in soil, decompose plastics in weeks, create biofuel, and replace animal feed and traditional pesticides.

Designers are exploring the strength of mycelium as a building material, and its potential in manufacturing sustainable furniture and textiles. 

The exhibition features ‘biofactured' ceiling lights grown in a laboratory and even funky mycelium shoes.  

Mushrooms: The Art, Design And Future Of Fungi is at Somerset House, London, from Friday until 26 April, free entry.


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