Beatrix Potter, the writer of one of the most beloved children’s book of all time, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), was a woman of immense talent, indefatigable spirit, and generous heart. Helen Beatrix, the eldest of the two children of Rupert and Helen (Leech) Potter, was born on 28 July 1866 at 2 Bolton Gardens, South Kensington, London. Although Beatrix and her brother, Walter Bertram (1872-1918), grew up in London, both were deeply influenced by long family holidays in the countryside, first in Scotland and later in the English Lake District, and by their northern roots.
As was the custom in families of her class, Beatrix was educated at home by several governesses. An eager student of languages and literature, she grew up loving classic folk and fairy tales, rhymes and riddles. Her talent for drawing and painting was discovered early and encouraged. She drew her own versions of such stories as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Beatrix also wrote imaginatively about her pets. She and Bertram kept a number of much-loved and intently observed animals in their schoolroom. In addition to rabbits, a hedgehog, some mice and bats, they had collections of insects – all identified and properly mounted – and all were drawn with the same accuracy that would later mark Beatrix as a distinguished naturalist.
Early family holidays were spent at Dalguise, a country house in Perthshire, Scotland. Allowed freedom to explore, Beatrix honed her ability to observe the details of the natural world. In 1882 the Potters began taking their holidays in the Lake District. Country life appealed deeply to Potter and years later she made her home there and produced some of her finest work.
From 1881 to 1897 Potter kept a Journal in which she recorded her activities, as well as opinions about society, art and current events. It was written in a code she invented herself, which was not deciphered until 1958. In her sketchbook Beatrix practised observation by drawing; in her Journal she practised it by writing. Both skills were paramount to the success of her books for children.
Although Potter had sold some of her artwork for greetings cards and illustrations in the early 1890s, she devoted most of her energy to the study of natural history – archaeology, geology, entomology and, especially, mycology. Fungi appealed to Potter’s imagination, both for their evanescent habits and for their coloration. Encouraged by Charles McIntosh, a revered Scottish naturalist, to make her fungi drawings more technically accurate, Potter not only produced beautiful watercolours, but also became an adept scientific illustrator. By 1896 Potter had developed her own theory of how fungi spores reproduced and wrote a paper, ‘On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae’. This was presented to a meeting of the Linnean Society on 1 April 1897 by one of the mycologists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, since women could not attend Society meetings. Her paper has since been lost.
Beatrix also wrote picture letters to children she knew and in 1901 she turned one into her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and produced her own privately printed edition of it. The idea had been turned down by several commercial publishers, but Frederick Warne published it in 1902 after Beatrix agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in colour. The following year, under the editorial supervision of Norman Warne, Potter produced The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester. All were enormous commercial successes. Twenty more little books followed at the rate of two or three a year. A woman of unusual entrepreneurial genius, Beatrix Potter also registered a Peter Rabbit doll in 1903, recognising that ‘spin-off’ merchandise such as painting books, board games, and printed wallpapers would be marketing assets for her work.
1905 Beatrix and Norman Warne became unofficially engaged but Potter’s parents objected to her engagement because the publisher was ‘in trade’. Sadly, Norman died of leukaemia only a month later. But Beatrix proceeded with plans to buy Hill Top Farm, a small working farm in Near Sawrey, a Lake District village then in Lancashire. The farm became her sanctuary, a place where she could come to paint and write as well as learn farm management. Some of her best books, such as The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907), The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908) and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (1908), reflect her delight in the old farmhouse and in farming life.
Four years later, in 1909, Beatrix purchased Castle Farm, a second property in Sawrey just across the road from Hill Top. Her ambition to own land in the Lake District and to preserve it from development was encouraged by William Heelis, a local solicitor. In 1913, at the age of forty-seven, Beatrix Potter married Heelis and moved into Castle Cottage on Castle Farm. Becoming deeply involved in the community, she served on committees to improve rural living, opposed hydroplanes on Lake Windermere, founded a nursing trust to improve local health care, and developed a passion for breeding and raising Herdwick sheep. In 1923 she bought Troutbeck Park, an enormous but disease-ridden sheep farm which she restored to agricultural health. She became one of the most admired Herdwick breeders in the region and won prizes at all the local shows. The Heelises were also enthusiastic supporters of land conservation and early benefactors of the National Trust. In 1930 Beatrix became de facto land agent for the Trust, managing some of their farms, as well as her own, over a vast section of the Lake District.
Although Beatrix continued to write, her diminished eyesight and her enthusiasm for farming meant that The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, published in 1930, was the last little book. In 1926 she had also published a longer book, The Fairy Caravan, in the United States, but because she thought it too autobiographical it did not appear commercially in England until nine years after her death.
Beatrix Potter Heelis died on 22 December 1943. She bequeathed fifteen farms and over 4,000 acres to the National Trust – a gift which protected and conserved the unique Lake District countryside. Her books, her art, her Herdwick sheep and her indomitable spirit are all part of her enormous legacy.
1 ‘A November day’, Beatrix Potter, c. 1905, showing the view from the schoolroom window of 2 Bolton Gardens at dusk (Frederick Warne Archive/V&A)
2 Dalguise House, Perthshire, 1904 (Private Collection)
3 Leccinum aurantiacum, Beatrix Potter, 1896 (Armitt Trust)
4, 5 Several of the little books are set at Hill Top Farm. Here we see the path leading to the house, taken from The Tale of Tom Kitten; and the landing on the staircase inside, taken from The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (Frederick Warne Archive/National Trust)
6 Beatrix Potter and William Heelis photographed by Rupert Potter in the garden of 2 Bolton Gardens on the day before their wedding, 14 October 1913 (Frederick Warne Archive)
7 Troutbeck Park Farm today (Gary Primrose)