Childhood & Growing Up

Helen Beatrix Potter, known as Beatrix, was born on 28 July 1866 to Rupert and Helen Potter in Kensington, London.

Her younger brother Walter Bertram followed six years later. Both Beatrix and Bertram loved to draw and paint, and often made sketches of their many pets, including rabbits, mice, frogs, lizards, snakes and a bat.

Beatrix was always encouraged to draw, and she spent many hours making intricate sketches of animals and plants, revealing an early fascination for the natural world that would continue throughout her life. Although she never went to school, Beatrix was an intelligent and industrious student, and her parents employed an art teacher, Miss Cameron, and a number of governesses, including Annie Moore, to whom she remained close throughout her life.

Two of Beatrix’s earliest artist models were her pet rabbits. Her first rabbit was Benjamin Bouncer, who enjoyed buttered toast and joined the Potter family on holiday in Scotland where he went for walks on a lead. Benjamin was followed by Peter Piper, who had a talent for performing tricks, and he accompanied Beatrix everywhere.

The most exciting time of the year for Beatrix was the summer, when the family travelled north to spend three months in Scotland. The children had the freedom to explore the countryside, and Beatrix learned to observe plants and insects with an artist’s eye for detail. When Beatrix was sixteen, the family stayed instead at Wray Castle, overlooking Lake Windermere, where Beatrix began a lifelong love of the countryside and of the Lake District.

Botanist, Artist and Storyteller

Beatrix was invited to study fungi at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, and she produced hundreds of detailed botanical drawings and investigated their cultivation and growth.

Encouraged by Charles McIntosh, a revered Scottish naturalist, to make her fungi drawings more technically accurate, Beatrix not only produced beautiful watercolours but also became an adept scientific illustrator. By 1896, she had developed her own theory of how fungi spores reproduced and wrote a paper, ‘On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae’, which was initially rejected by William Thiselton-Dyer, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens. Undeterred, Beatrix continued her research, and after a year George Massee, a fungi expert who worked at the Kew gardens, agreed to present her paper to the Linnean Society of London, as women at that time were not permitted to do so. Although the paper was never published, scientists still recognize her contribution to mycological research today.

Long before she was a published author, Beatrix Potter drew illustrations for some of her favourite stories, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Cinderella, as well as her sketches from nature. Her imaginative art led to the publication of her earliest works – greeting-card designs and illustrations for the publisher Hildesheimer & Faulkner. There followed more publications, including a series of frog illustrations and verses for Changing Pictures, a popular annual offered by the art publisher Ernest Nister, which cemented Beatrix’s desire to publish her own illustrated stories.

One of Beatrix’s earliest stories, that of Peter Rabbit, came from a picture letter originally sent to Annie Moore’s son Noel. After being rejected by several publishers, Beatrix decided to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit herself, printing an initial 250 copies for family and friends in December 1901. The book’s instant success encouraged Frederick Warne & Co., who had previously turned it down, to reconsider their decision, offering to take it on as long as Beatrix re-illustrated it in colour. On publication in October 1902, it was an immediate bestseller. The following year, Beatrix published The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester with Frederick Warne, and the rest of her legendary tales followed.

In addition to commercial success, Beatrix also found a suitor in the form of her editor at the publishing house, Norman Warne. Although chaperoned, a relationship between the two bloomed, but his proposal was opposed by Beatrix’ parents as he worked ‘in trade’. Despite this, Beatrix became engaged to Norman in 1905, but was devastated when he died of leukaemia just a month later.

Businesswoman and Pioneer

In addition to her publishing, Beatrix was keen to license her creations, and it was she, rather than her publishers, who pushed forward these ideas.

She designed and created the first Peter Rabbit doll herself in 1903, registering it immediately at the patent office, making Peter Rabbit the world’s oldest licensed literary character. Beatrix went on to explore other merchandise options, including tea sets and bedroom slippers, and remained closely involved in product development. She also invented a Peter Rabbit board game for two players in 1904, a complex version of which was redesigned by Mary Warne and came to market thirteen years later. In addition to toys and games, Beatrix published books, including Peter Rabbit’s Almanac and painting books for Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-duck. She felt passionately that all merchandise should remain faithful to her original book illustrations and be of the highest quality.

The Lake District

Beatrix loved the Lake District, and it became her solace after the death of her beloved Norman.

Income from her books enabled her to invest in farmland, including Hill Top Farm, which would become a feature in many of her tales.

As she invested in the Lake District, she developed a relationship with William Heelis, a local solicitor who assisted her property dealings. William proposed to Beatrix in 1912, and they were married in London the following year. They lived together at Castle Cottage in their beloved Lake District until her death in 1943.

Beatrix was a staunch supporter of the National Trust, having been impressed on meeting its founder Hardwicke Rawnsley from her first visit to the Lake District at sixteen. She followed its principles in preserving her buildings and farms in keeping with the rural culture of the area, and she saved many farms from developers.

During her lifetime, Beatrix bought fifteen farms and took a very active part in caring for them. Dressed in clogs, shawl and an old tweed skirt, she helped with the hay-making, waded through mud to unblock drains, and searched the fells for lost sheep. Beatrix bred Herdwick sheep on her farms in the Lake District, and said she was at her happiest when she was with her farm animals. She won a number of prizes for her sheep at local shows, and became the first elected female President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association in 1943.

Legacy

Beatrix died in 1943, leaving fifteen farms and over four thousand acres of land to the National Trust.

In accordance with her wishes, Hill Top Farm was kept exactly as it had been when she lived in it, and receives thousands of visitors every year.

Today, more than two million Beatrix Potter books are sold across the world every year – four books every minute. The charming stories have a timeless quality, passed down from generation to generation and discovered anew by many more readers each year. Her books, her art, her Herdwick sheep and her indomitable spirit are all part of her enormous legacy that continues to this day.

Further Reading

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