Or are you looking for Search the Archives?

Please complete the form to email this item.

drawing - Design for an illustration to The Oakmen

Design for an illustration to The Oakmen

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    London (made)

  • Date:

    1916 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Potter, Beatrix, born 1866 - died 1943 (made)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Pencil on paper

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Ernest Aris (1882-1963) was a highly prolific commercial illustrator in the first half of the 20th century. He studied at the Bradford School of Art and, later, at the Royal College of Art in London. He began his career as a portrait artist and art teacher, working in watercolour and charcoal and wash, and exhibited his work at the Royal Academy, Royal Society of British Artists and the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours. By 1909, Ernest was illustrating for magazines such as The Graphic and writing and illustrating children’s books. He wrote and illustrated over 170 books (the majority published by Humphrey Milford and Hodder and Stoughton) and contributed illustrations to a further 250 titles. His illustrations were also used for advertisements, cigarette cards, games, jigsaw puzzles and seaside postcards. In 1934 Cadbury’s commissioned Aris to design the Cococubs, a collection of animal characters to be given away free with their children’s cocoa. It was hailed as one of the greatest advertising schemes of the time, with an estimated 300,000 children collecting them.

Beatrix Potter had always illustrated her own stories but by 1916 her eyesight was beginning to fail and her hands were growing stiff. She urged her publisher to find ‘some second string’ to execute the illustrations to her stories. Her original story-letter about the oakmen was written for one of her husband's nieces, Nancy Nicholson. Keen to retain the credit for the design of the illustrations herself, Potter collaborated with a commercial artist, Ernest Aris, who she hoped would 'draw to order’. Potter concealed from Aris both the text of her story and her own identity; she sent pencil sketches of her designs, annotated with instructions for their completion. Aris returned his completed illustrations, commenting that Potter's designs were ‘charming little ideas’ and her composition was, ‘in most cases’, good. However, he instructed Potter that her proposed colour scheme was ‘a little on the sombre side’ and that clean, bright colours are ‘essential for children’. It is very likely that Aris knew the origin of his commission; in any case, his remarks must have irritated Potter who would not have welcomed criticism from a commercial illustrator.

Due to some doubts as to the originality of the story, Th e Oakmen was never published. In any case, the collaboration between Potter and Aris broke down when Potter's publisher, Frederick Warne & Co., accused Aris's publishers of plagiarism: his latest book, The Treasure Seekers (1916) , featured a rabbit called Peter. Aris claimed in his defence that he had never heard of The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and impertinently requested a signed copy from Potter. Potter replied, 'I regret that I am unable to believe that your statements are truthful. Coincidence has a long arm but there are limits to coincidences'. She retorted, 'Your work has considerably technical facility but no originality'. Despite the obvious bad feeling between the two, their collaboration is unlikely to have been a success. Aris had a business-like approach to the art of illustration in which he claimed he was ‘governed’ by a set of ‘commandments’. Potter, on the other hand, was a highly instinctive artist who believed the secret of her success lay in her refusal to work to order: ‘The more spontaneous the pleasure – the more happy the result’.

Physical description

Pencil sketch on paper of an owl talking to two gonme-like men (oakmen); other oakmen carrying logs in the distance.

Place of Origin

London (made)


1916 (made)


Potter, Beatrix, born 1866 - died 1943 (made)

Materials and Techniques

Pencil on paper

Marks and inscriptions

Inscribed in pencil by Beatrix Potter on recto: 'Landscape rather blue'; 'it seems to / require a / middle sized / figure / some where / in the middle / distance'; Gnomes talking to white owl on wall / I have a skin of a white barn owl'; 'I can / manage / these, they / are supposed / to be posing / to a camera[?]'


Height: 205 mm, Width: 170 mm

Object history note

Design for an illustration to an unpublished story, The Oakmen, by Beatrix Potter, 1916, produced as a guide for Ernest Aris who was commissioned by Potter to illustrate the book. Acquired by the V&A from Leslie Linder (1904-1973) in 1973 as part of the Linder Bequest, a collection of ca. 2150 watercolours, drawings, literary manuscripts, correspondence, books, photographs, and other memorabilia associated with Beatrix Potter and her family.

Descriptive line

Rough design in pencil by Beatrix Potter for an illustration to an unpublished book, The Oakmen, 1916; Linder Bequest catalogue no. LB.1141.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Catalogue no. LB.1141, p. 137.
Hobbs, Anne Stevenson, and Joyce Irene Whalley, eds. Beatrix Potter: the V & A collection : the Leslie Linder bequest of Beatrix Potter material : watercolours, drawings, manuscripts, books, photographs and memorabilia. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1985.


Pencil; Paper




Illustration; Children & Childhood; Fairy Tales and Legends

Production Type



Archive of Art and Design

Large image request

Please confirm you are using these images within the following terms and conditions, by acknowledging each of the following key points:

Please let us know how you intend to use the images you will be downloading.