Beatrix Potter: 1866-1943

peter_rabbit_first_edition_1902-beatrix-potterBorn on July 28, 1866  in South Kensington in London, England,  Beatrix Potter is best known for her  illustrated children’s books. She was an author, illustrator, mycologist, farmer, and conservationist. Potter came from a  wealthy family and although her father was a barrister, he devoted much of his time to his passions of art and photography. He and Beatrix’s mother Helen were socially active associating with many writers, artists, and politicians.

Potter had a lonely childhood and was educated at home by a governess. By the age of eight, she was filling sketchbooks with drawings of animals and plants and her artistic endeavors were encouraged, especially by her father.

In her teens, Potter spent most of her time studying, and painting and sketching. “Although she got her Art Student’s Certificate for drawing, Beatrix reached the age of 21 having had little real education. Like many adult daughters of the rich, she was appointed ‘household supervisor’ – a role that left her with enough time to indulge her interest in the natural sciences.”

In her 20s, Potter developed into a talented naturalist, made studies of plants and animals at the Cromwell Road museums, and learned how to draw with her eye to a microscope. She began to focus more on drawing and painting and began to earn a small income from her illustrations.  She had also begun to write illustrated letters to the children of her former governess, Annie Moore. Peter Rabbit was born in a letter she wrote in September 1893 to Annie’s son, Noel.

Six publishers rejected “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” before Potter decided to publish her own edition of the story. Having seen the edition, publisher Frederick Warne decided to publish Peter Rabbit, and within a year had already had to produce six editions to meet demand. “This success marked the start of a life-long relationship between Beatrix and Warne who proposed marriage in 1905. ” Although she accepted him – defying her parents, who saw that being ‘trade’, a publisher was an unthinkable match for their daughter – Norman unexpectedly died less than a month later of a blood disorder.”

Potter continued writing and produced one or two new books each year for the next eight years. In 1909 she met and then befriended a local solicitor, William Heelis. After a period of having to battle her parents’ objections to her relationship Beatrix married William in 1913.

After her marriage, Potter dedicated herself to the role of lady farmer and became an expert in breeding Herdwick sheep. From 1920, and due to failing eyesight, Potter did  less and less creative work and her books had to be pieced together from sketches and drawings done years earlier. Her last major work, “The Tale of Little Pig Robinson”, was published in 1930.

In the final part of her life, Potter concentrated on her other passion – conservation which was inspired by her friendship with Canon Rawnsley, one of the founder members of the National Trust. “Her expanding estate, funded by revenue from book sales, gave her the opportunity to fulfil an ambition to preserve not only part of the Lake District’s unique landscape but the area’s traditional farming methods.”

Beatrix Potter died on December 22, 1943.  She left 14 farms and over 4,000 acres to the National Trust, land that it still owns and protects against development today.

She wrote and illustrated a total of 28 books, including the 23 Tales, the ‘little books’ that have been translated into more than 35 languages and sold over 100 million copies.  Her stories have been retold in various formats including a ballet, films, and in animation.

Sources: V&A MuseumBibliOdyssey

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