Two Artists and Their Houses: Beatrix Potter, Georgia O’Keeffe

As a writer, I’ve always been deeply interested in the relationship between women and their houses–especially when the house becomes something more than just a roof over a woman’s head. “The house” has been a feature in the lives of many of the women I’ve written about. Beatrix Potter, for instance, the British children’s book author-illustrator who was the protagonist in my Cottage Tales series, eight novels about Beatrix’s life in the little village of Near Sawrey, in England’s Lake District.

This is Beatrix’s enchanting cottage on 30-acre Hill Top Farm, which she bought in 1905. At the time, she was 39 years old and a spinster, the only daughter of wealthy London parents who expected her, in true Victorian fashion, to devote herself to taking care of them.

Beatrix had other ideas. She was a devoted daughter, but she found her parents’ London life too confining and their expectations of her too limited. She was quietly, defiantly determined to become independent. So she used the money she had earned from the sale of The Tale of Peter Rabbit  and other books to buy a run-down farmhouse in a tiny village a day’s train-ride from London.

It wasn’t easy for a big-city offcomer to find acceptance among the standoffish North Country villagers. But Beatrix–never one to “put on airs”–was determined to become a villager herself. In her quiet way, she integrated herself into the life of the village, adopting their furnishings, their foods, their dress, and their customs. As time went on, she grew into the larger life of the Lake District, becoming a deeply-respected breeder of endangered Herdwick sheep and a staunch conservationist. She used her inherited family wealth and the income from the sale of her “little books” to purchase 14 farms on 4,000 acres of precious north-country land, which she donated to the National Trust. Her aim: to preserve a landscape and a lifeway that was in danger of disappearing forever.

Now, I’m working on a book about Georgia O’Keeffe-, another artist who, like Beatrix, was determined to have a house of her own in a faraway place–far away, that is, from the New York life she lived with her husband and art agent, Albert Stieglitz. Like Beatrix, she was declaring her independence, not only from Stieglitz but from the way the New York art critics defined her work. In 1940, O’Keeffe used money from the sale of her art to purchase a summer home: an adobe house at Ghost Ranch, a remote New Mexico guest ranch in the Piedra Lumbre valley. Five years later, she bought the crumbled ruins of a second adobe, a hacienda with three acres of walled garden in the tiny pueblo village of Abiquiu. Her friend, Maria Chabot, rebuilt it for her: a labor of love that was not returned as Maria might have wished.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu Home

Maria ran up against a great many challenges in the rebuilding of the Abiquiu house. The villagers resented O’Keeffe’s purchase, and while the use of traditional methods and materials required the help of the local Hispano-Indian men, Maria–an assertive Anglo woman with a let’s-get-it-done style–had to work to win their cooperation. The post-war home-building boom and the continued expansion of nearby Los Alamos made building materials hard to get. The weather limited the available construction time. Stieglitz had died, and O’Keeffe was spending most of her time in New York untangling his affairs. She was often too occupied there to have much timely input into important decisions at the house site. And Maria had to fit her house-building into her other obligations: she was dealing with ill, elderly parents in San Antonio and managing Los Luceros, a large farm in the Rio Grande valley. All things considered, it’s something of a miracle that she got things done. In 1949, the house was finished and O’Keeffe became a resident.

But while the artist made several financial contributions to the life of Abiquiu, she held herself carefully aloof from it, a patrona who insisted on maintaining a safe distance between herself and the native villagers at the same time she depended on them to do the work that maintained her lifestyle. And unlike Beatrix Potter, who furnished her north-country home with the same north-country furniture and crafts as her neighbors, O’Keeffe turned her Pueblo-style home into a gallery, not for native furnishings or crafts but for her personal iconic artistic aesthetic: sleek mid-century modern furnishings, influenced by her lifelong interest in the Orient (witness the many kimonas in her closet).

Teachers often tell young writers to “write what you know.” I’ve never been happy with that advice. For me, writing what I don’t know is far more interesting because it forces me to learn something new. Right now, I’m learning about Chabot, O’Keeffe, and their house-building–so different from what I learned about Beatrix Potter and her house-building. And Rose Wilder Lane, too–who emptied her bank account to build that stone house that her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, never enjoyed. And Lorena Hickock, who lived in both Eleanor Roosevelt’s White House and in her own little white house on Long Island.

Women and their houses–a fascinating subject for a story, don’t you think? Share yours . . .



28 comments on “Two Artists and Their Houses: Beatrix Potter, Georgia O’Keeffe

  1. And I do too – like reading about Beatrix Potter and the Cottage Tales, so much so that I’m on the 4th reading of the books. I’m looking forward to getting and reading about Mrs Roosevelt and Georgia O’keefe as well as other books.

  2. Women and their houses – and their gardens too! My interest in this subject dates back to reading and re-reading “Anne of Green Gables” as a child (each of my grandmothers gave me a copy). In college, I made my way through most of the works of L.M Montgomery when I was avoiding my “real” reading, and she’s definitely another author who wrote houses into her books like characters.

  3. I agree with you Susan, it is far more interesting to learn about your subject. When I was a growing up my Mother used to take me for a drive on Sundays to look at houses. We never tired of of it and were always looking for new neighborhoods or towns to peruse. I continued the tradition with my daughter although we don’t have a set schedule, any day of the week will do. I know that I have mentioned before how much I love the Cottage Tales series. Georgia is so different from Beatrix. I am not surprised that her house is vastly different too. This upcoming book sounds fascinating and I am enjoying your blogs about it.

  4. So glad to hear you are writing a story about Georgia O’Keeffe. Several years ago I attended a reunion of college sisters. We stayed at Ghost Ranch and were able to visit her home near there.

  5. Today’s reading in Mark Nepo’s Book of Awakening started with a quote by Georgia O’Keeffe. “To see takes time.” Then I read your blog and loved your comment, “For me, writing what I don’t know is far more interesting because it forces me to learn something new.” Your energy surrounding learning something new seems like a way of taking time to see what you didn’t before. I love that about you.

  6. Such an interesting post, I can’t wait for the O’Keefe book. And like another Becky (something about your books and women named Becky?), it makes me want to read the Potter books. I’m currently in the middle of the China Bayles series, and loved Loving Eleanor. Your process in writing your books is as interesting as the resulting books! Thanks for letting us inside.

  7. Having lived in apartments and a condo I couldn’t believe my good fortune when a realtor friend found me my dream house. A newly built house in an established neighborhood. At 51 I finally had my own, albeit small, plot of land with a 1300 sq ft house on it. I’ve lived here 18 years and hope to make it many more. I’m even adding on a sunroom for my ever expanding house plant collection. Your China Bayles books have always been one of my favorite series but this newsletter has piqued my interest in your Miss Potter series. Thank you!

  8. Such an interesting post – thank you! I am another who has loved your Beatrix Potter books, and also another who would love to see you write about Tasha Tudor. I loved the article about Georgia’s wardrobe, and I will look forward to reading your book about this fascinating woman. One of my favorite authors of books for children and young adults was Virginia Hamilton, and I had a wonderful video about her which I enjoyed sharing with my students, and I am wondering if she might be interesting to you as a research subject. I agree with you completely that we should encourage writers to learn about their subjects, and that it is not necessary to stick to writing about what you know. Thanks again!

  9. I actually now own “Tasha Tudor’s Garden” which I bought used as a library discard. I was already familiar with it since I worked in a library that owned a copy. I also have her book on dollhouses. I was also fascinated with dollhouses since I was a young child. I wanted them authentic which included a bathroom. Now that I am a senior citizen, I don’t want the upkeep of a large garden and my children have their own homes to deal with. I am living in an apartment complex that has trash chutes. elevators, and air conditioning and don’t think Tasha would want air conditioning but I do.

  10. Oh my goodness! When I clicked on the link to the kimonos of O’Keefe, I immediately knew what that was. My mother loved the artist’s smock from Neiman-Marcus and made her own pattern as well. I still have it, along with versions of the outfit in denim, seersucker and poplin. Thank you for making me smile today.

  11. My dad was a homebuilder, moving our family from one house to another, until he sold them out from under us. Then I married an engineer who had to move every 2 or 3 years, including stints in Indonesia and Bahrain. But, ever since attending college in Austin, TX, we’d shared a dream of retiring to the Texas Hill Country. We found and purchased our dream home as our youngest was heading off to college. At first it was just our weekend place, but when Hubby kept postponing his retirement date I finally told him “I’m moving to Wimberley now. I hope you’ll join me soon!” It took him a couple of years but we saw each other most every weekend, and the time in between was filled with discovering the woman I was truly meant to be, finding my tribe, and doing so many amazing things that I never could have imagined, including joining Story Circle Network and attending one of your conferences!

  12. Wonderful piece this month and I’m going to have to look closer at their lives. I loved your Beatrix Potter books as well as the one about Lorena Hickock.

  13. Me too. I still have one of her books, “Snow Before Christmas,” written in 1941. When she was touring and signing “Take Joy!,” I bought the newer book, and asked if she would sign the book from the 1940s. Normally, I would not embarrass an author by asking for a signature in a book that had been bougt elsewhere. This was a reasonable exception. Snow Before Christman had been out of print for many years, and I had kept the book since I was a pre-schooler. She signed both books.

  14. I spent the afternoon touring the Rochester, NY home of Susan B. Anthony . It is now a museum and testament to her life’s work. I was both mesmerized by the guide’s stories of her efforts to enable me, as a female, to vote and the lovely details of her century-plus year old home. I do not currently love the home I’m in, but I have loved several old homes and would still prefer one of them to anything built since 1940. Great blog.

  15. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the homes of Georgia O’Keeffe, Beatrix Potter and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Each home clearly reflected the personality of its owner. Wilder was short and the furnishing and fixtures within the house were built to accommodate her height.

  16. I’d love to visit both their houses. Back in the 90s, I was lucky enough to stumble into a Beatrix Potter exhibit at the V & A in London. They were displaying the clothing Beatrix used for reference when drawing her charming tales. Including the waistcoat from The Tailor of Gloucester. The viewer, felt a relationship with Miss Potter and her stories.

  17. I love reading about women and their houses. I have a Beatrix Potter book that has pictures of the inside of her house as well as the gardens. I kept it right by my side as I read the cottage tale books so I could look at each room as you described them and told the story. Loved every minute of reading those books!!
    (And I would also be interested in Tasha Tudor.)

  18. I’ve loved our homes on Long Island but when it came time to retire, we decided to renovate a dilapidated 150-year-old Carriage House on acreage owned by our son and his family. Since the property was on the local historical registry, we were encouraged to “stay true to the place”. After restoring the roof and wood siding, we adapted the horse stalls, carriage area, and hay loft into living space. With beloved furniture plus numerous artifacts and a bright color scheme, we’ve loved living here in this unique structure for the past 17 years. It’s private but near family and surrounded by gardens and landscape to give us endless pastimes and pleasure.

  19. A home tells so much about a person. I have a Cape Cod cottage that I love and it is filled with antique furniture, photos, and knickknacks. A few years ago I moved my mother in with me. I drove her and her pets from California to Maine. We added on to the house and Mom’s part of the house distinctly reflects her and the things she loves. Luckily her possessions aren’t that different from mine!

  20. I grew up in a small apartment and always longed to live in a house, with stairs and a fireplace, just like my favorite characters on TV shows. I thought that would bring stability and happiness. At the age of 50 I finally got my dream, and filled my house with the crafts and art that I love. My house is a very important component of my contentment. Most of all, it has love.

  21. I love this. My dream was a “mists of Avalon” lake house that I lived in for 25 years. It is lovely learning how other women created their dream

  22. Always enjoy reading your incites into the women you write about! As to writing about what you know, perhaps with you it is writing from what you know that applies. For you know people and are willing to do the digging to know your subjects inside out! Speaking as a woman who was once termed a spinster on a property contract. I suspect you would have uncovered that I wanted to cross that out and write Wild Woman! Where is the term for the unmarried man? Savoring each Cottage Tale book this summer. The audio books are so very well done! They have been a balm for this year of 2021.

  23. Years ago I bought an unfinished house and finished it according to a drawing I had made of it. I was happier there than any other house I have lived in, but I was forced to move. A house is a home only as long as you are safe there.

  24. Many years ago when I first saw the house I live in now, I knew I would live here. It was the house I had seen in a dream. I always thought I’d live here until I died, but now am ready to leave. The dream has changed and it is no longer home.

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