Written by Daniel James Parry
28th July 2016 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of iconic British childhood author, Beatrix Potter. In recognition of her contributions to British literature, we explore the life of this amazing woman.
Helen ‘Beatrix’ Potter was born in Kensington, London to Rupert and Helen Potter on the 28th July, 1866. Beatrix was the first child the pair had together, followed by younger brother Walter just six years later. From an early age, the duo loved to draw and paint, often sketching their many pets, which included rabbits, mice, snakes and a bat to name just a few, already painting a picture of an eccentric household.
Beatrix received endless encouragement in her creative endeavours, and this passion demonstrated an interest in the natural world which continued throughout the author’s life. Although she never attended school, Beatrix was often described as an ‘intelligent’ and ‘industrious’ student – her parents employed an art teacher in the form of Miss Cameron and a variety of governesses, one of whom happened to be Anne Carroll Moore, an American educator and a writer who spoke passionately as an advocate of children’s libraries. It’s believed that Moore introduced Beatrix Potter’s work to American audiences. The two formed an inseparable bond, and remained close friends for the duration of Beatrix’s life. This friendship created the idea of Peter Rabbit, who was conceived on the pages of a letter Beatrix wrote to Annie’s son Noel, in September 1893, which cited “Dear Noel, I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter. They lived with their mother in a sand bank under the root of a big fir tree.”
Sadly, this was rejected by several publishers, and so Beatrix made the executive decision to publish the story herself, printing 250 copies for family and friends in December 1901. The book’s instant success reignited the interest of Frederick Warne & Co, who had previously turned the children’s favourite down, who had a sudden change of heart and offered to take the book on, on the premise that Beatrix would recreate the story’s illustrations in colour. Upon being published, the book became an immediate bestseller. It was in this line of work that Beatrix met her first husband – and her first love – Norman Warne, who was her editor at the publishing house. A relationship between the two bloomed, and in November 1905, the two were engaged to be married. Sadly, Norman passed just a month later after suffering from Leukaemia.
Two of Beatrix’s earliest artist models were her two pet rabbits – Benjamin Bouncer, who would often join the Potter family on holiday, where he was taken for walks on leads, and Peter Piper, who was known to perform tricks, and wherever Beatrix could be found, Peter would not be far behind. When the summertime rolled around, the Potter family holidayed in Scotland, where Beatrix developed an artistic eye, closely examining plants and insects, lapping up every detail to later recreate on canvas. At the age of sixteen, Beatrix first visited the Lake District, when the family stayed at Wray Castle, which overlooked the picturesque Lake Windermere, which began a lifelong love of the area. Here, she was introduced to Hardwicke Rawnsley, founder of the National Trust, of whom Beatrix became a dedicated supporter of.
Further to her scientific interest, Beatrix was invited to study fungi at The Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, where she produced endless detailed botanical drawings, investigating their cultivation and growth. Revered Scottish naturalist Charles McIntosh encouraged Beatrix to make her scientific drawings more technically accurate, which led to her own theory being published, entitled “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae’, a paper initially rejected by William Thistleton-Dyer, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens. At the time, women were not permitted to present work to the Linnean Society of London, so a fungi expert named George Masse agreed to present her work in her place. Although the paper was never published, Potter’s contribution to mycological research is still recognised today.
Confident in her own franchise, Beatrix was keen to license her creations, driving these ideas forward herself. The first Peter Rabbit doll was designed and created by Beatrix herself in 1903, where she immediately registered it at the patent office, making Peter Rabbit the world’s oldest licensed literary character. Peter and his friends went on to adorn tea sets and bedroom slippers, chess sets and painting books – an endless list, all produced by Beatrix herself, who believed that merchandise should remain faithful to the original illustrations and be of the finest quality.
Income spawned from the Peter Rabbit franchise allowed Beatrix to invest in farmland, particularly in the Lake District, where she bought Hill Top Farm, a location which became a feature in many of the stories she wrote. Over the course of these investments, Beatrix met solicitor William Heelis, through whom she purchased many properties. Throughout her lifetime, Beatrix bought 15 farms and took a very active part in caring for them, where she bred award winning Herdwick sheep. She often cited that she was at her happiest when with her animals. This dedication resulted in Beatrix being elected the first female President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association shortly before her death. She could regularly be found wading through mud to unblock drains and searching the fells for lost sheep, dressed in clogs, shawl and an old tweed skirt.
Heelis proposed in 1912, and they were married the following year, living together at Castle Cottage in the Lake District until Beatrix sadly passed in December 1943 following complications from pneumonia. Her 15 farms and over 4,000 acres of land were left to the National Trust, and in accordance with her wishes, Hill Top Farm was left exactly as it had been during her tenancy, visited by thousands every year.
Today, over two million Beatrix Potter books are sold all over the world every year – that’s a staggering four books every minute. The delightful stories crafted by Beatrix are passed down from generation to generation. Speaking from personal experience, I certainly enjoyed the stories of Peter Rabbit as a youngster. Her legacy is kept alive by her books, her charming stories and her signature illustrations to this day.
In celebration of the 150th Anniversary of Beatrix Potter, 88 rare and highly sought after Beatrix Potter books are being sold by London based rare book store, Peter Harrington. For more information, visit www.peterharrington.co.uk