“Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.” – Beatrix Potter
Beatrix Potter Biography
Helen Beatrix Potter was born on 28 July 1866 in West Brompton, which is in London, England. She had a relatively privileged upbringing, being born into an upper-class household. She was the daughter of Rupert William Potter who was a lawyer and Helen Leech who was the daughter of a successful cotton merchant and shipbuilder. The family’s wealth enabled Beatrix to be educated by three governesses during her childhood, the last of which, Annie Moore, who was only three years older than her, she remained friends with throughout her life.
Annie would go on to have eight children of her own and Beatrix would send them beautiful illustrated letters and it was Annie who suggested that these could form the basis of a series of books for children.
Her upbringing also had its downside though, in that she was fairly isolated from other children. Her holidays were spent traveling in Scotland where she developed a love for the natural world using paintings and drawings to help her to describe the flora and fauna of the area. Over time Beatrix developed a particular interest in studying mushrooms and other fungi and her artistic skills improved as she described her observations. Her work is considered to be so good that it is still used today by mycologists to help identify fungi and a collection of her work can be found at the Perth Museum and Art Gallery in Scotland.
Not having many other children around whilst she was growing up, meant that she spent a lot of time with her younger brother, Walter Bertram. As children, they had many small pet animals which they kept and looked after in their schoolroom including rabbits, a hedgehog, bats, and a significant collection of butterflies and other insects which they studied and drew.
Beatrix was very well read and was influenced by stories of fairy tales and fantasy. She read stories such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales, and Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Potter also said that the illustrations from Alice in Wonderland inspired her at a young age. She loved works that included illustrations and began to develop her own style, often creating illustrations for classic stories such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Puss-in-Boots. Her illustrations also included fantasy works based on her pet rabbits, kittens, mice, and guinea pigs.
As a teenager, Beatrix enjoyed visiting the art galleries in London and she became a relatively sophisticated art critic. From the age of 14, she kept a journal, which she wrote in code, a simple substitution cipher which she developed herself and she recorded her observations when she visited art exhibitions within it.
By the 1890s Beatrix and her brother were looking for ways to earn a little money and began to illustrate Christmas cards and cards for other occasions with the subjects still based around their pets, particularly the mice and rabbits. Several of her drawings of Benjamin Bunny were sold to a publisher and later she also sold some frog illustrations which accompanied a popular annual called Changing Pictures. It was during this time that Beatrix began to think about publishing her own illustrated stories.
In 1893, Beatrix was on holiday in Perthshire, Scotland and as she often did, sat down to write a letter to Noel, the eldest son of her last governess, Annie Moore. The problem was that Beatrix couldn’t really think of anything interesting to tell him in the letter, so she decided to write a story for him based around the characters of four little rabbits called Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter. This letter would become one of the most famous letters in history and would be the beginning of her career as a writer and illustrator.
On October 2, 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published. It was an immediate success and was followed up in 1903 with The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and the Tailor of Gloucester which had also been first illustrated in a picture letter sent to Annie Moore’s children. By this time she was in her thirties and was writing and illustrating her books full-time.
Throughout her career, she wrote thirty books, the most well-known being the twenty-three children’s books. She worked with editor Norman Warne and published two or three small books annually. She published the little books through World War I, after which she began to focus on land conservation and farming.
A number of years earlier, back in 1882, Beatrix had holidayed in the Lake District where her family had entertained a number of different local dignitaries including Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley who was the founding member and secretary of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Beatrix learned about land conservation and preservation from him, and was a supporter when she grew older of the National Trust’s quest to help preserve the beauty and practicality of lands that were at risk from development. Beatrix would also buy land herself so that she could personally preserve and renovate the buildings, many of which would be outfitted with traditional furniture and stonework from the surrounding area.
In 1905 Beatrix bought Hill Top Farm which is located near Sawrey in the Lake District and developed a growing interest in raising and breeding the indigenous Herdwick sheep. In 1923, she bought a piece of land that was formerly a deer park and restored it with thousands of Herdwick sheep, establishing her as one of the main Herdwick sheep farmers in the county. Shepherds and farmers admired her for her experiments in biological remedies for common sheep diseases as well as employing the best people to manage the farm.
On one of the farms she bought she needed help in protecting the boundaries, and she sought help from W.H. Heelis and Son, a firm of local solicitors. William Heelis was employed to help her buy pasturelands next to each other and as managing and owning these farms necessitated more collaboration with the widely respected Heelis the two became close. In 1912, he proposed, and they were married on 15 October 1913. They remained together until her death.
Following her death, due to complications from heart disease and pneumonia on 22 December 1943, almost all of her illustrations were donated to the National Trust. On what would have been her 150th birthday in 2016, Emily Zach published The Art of Beatrix Potter: Sketches, Paintings, and Illustrations, saying that she was, “far more than a 19th-century-weekend painter. She was an artist of astonishing range.” Beatrix Potter is still considered to be one of the greatest children’s book authors and illustrators of all time.