One hundred years ago to the day (15 October 1913) Beatrix Potter was married at St. Mary Abbots in Kensington. It seems fitting that this church is agreeably situated near the corner of Hyde Park, roughly equidistant from the V&A Museum and the V&A Archives, which now house the world’s largest collection of Potter artworks, correspondence, manuscripts and first editions.
Warne Archive: Rupert Potter (1832-1914). Beatrix Potter and William Heelis in the garden of Bolton Gardens the day before their wedding day. 14 October 1913. © Frederick Warne & Co.
Beatrix (47) married William Heelis (42) in a small ceremony with just a handful of witnesses. Looking at a painting from 1902 and an amazingly similar recent photo, kindly supplied by the church, it is easy to see how the wedding party might have been somewhat dwarfed by its surroundings!
From a watercolour by E. W. Evans (fl. 1880s – 1900s) in St Mary Abbots, Kensington Parish Magazine, January 1902. Courtesy of St. Mary Abbots.
St Mary Abbots: interior view of the east end. October 2013. © Peter Darrell.
The church was designed by the prolific Gothic revival architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) and dates from 1872. The high altar contains ornate Italian mosaic panels of the four Evangelists; there is a beautiful vaulted, cathedral-like ceiling, and tall stained glass windows represent the life and crucifixion of Christ. The strange fit of the church to the party size is perhaps best explained by the fact that Potter’s parents were keen for her to marry the fellow Anglican in the most locally prestigious of venues whilst Beatrix was not known for her love of large gatherings.
The pair had been engaged for a little over a year. They had gradually got to know each other in the fields, fells and villages of the Lake District. William acted as Beatrix’s solicitor and financial advisor for further Lakeland acquisitions, after her initial 1905 purchase of the now famous Hill Top farm and farmhouse.
Linder Collection: LC 15/A/1, Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). Hill Top farmhouse. About 1905. Trustees of the Linder Collection. © Frederick Warne & Co.
The union came at a mature stage in their lives and careers – Beatrix a successful, well-loved author and artist of children’s books, and Heelis, a respected local Hawkshead solicitor. That said, the power that Beatrix’s parents still had over her can be perceivably felt through her correspondence from the era. She wrote: ‘[T]hey were very silly they would not let Mr Heelis come to the house for ever so long – and I think the opposition only made us more fond of one another’ (1). This opposition had much to do with Potter’s upper class parents objecting to William being “in trade”. It’s heartening and amusing, however, to hear all the romantic rebelliousness of an excited teenager, in the almost 50 year old Beatrix’s response to the situation!
Potter had just completed The Tale of Pigling Bland, her 15th ‘little book’, published just days before her marriage took place. She was amused by speculation concerning the autobiographical nature of what was essentially a love story between two pigs.
V&A Linder Bequest: LB 917. Aunt Pettitoes feeding her piglets: duplicate of an illustration from The Tale of Pigling Bland. . © Frederick Warne & Co.
The illustrations did feature, however, background scenery from the walks they took together whilst courting near the Cumbrian village of Near Sawrey.
Linder Collection: LC 28/B/2. Beatrix Potter (1866-1943).Background to the frontispiece to The Tale of Pigling Bland. About 1909. Trustees of the Linder Collection. © Frederick Warne & Co.
She wrote in response to the insinuations: ‘When I want to put William in a book it will have to be as some very tall thin animal’ (2). William, though of a naturally quiet nature, was a well-known, respected (and very tall!) local figure.
V&A Linder Bequest: LB 1956, (Photographer unknown). William Heelis in Hill Top porch. 1913. © Frederick Warne & Co.
Beatrix proved to be a romantic and traditionalist. She took her husband’s name, signing correspondence from this point on as ‘Mrs Heelis’ and found it distressing that few in London remembered to refer to her as such. She complained of feeling ‘very dumpy’ without her husband when she returned to manage family affairs in the capital a few weeks after her marriage (3). She couldn’t wait to be back in the North Country and resume her new life there.
Mr and Mrs Heelis were indeed rural creatures at heart; greeting them at the station when they first returned from London as man and wife was their tenant farmer John Cannon with a new white bull for their farm. The perfect wedding gift!
Linder Bequest: LB 163. Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). Study of a bull’s head and bull lying down. Undated. © Frederick Warne & Co.
Don’t forget you can book an appointment to view artworks from our Potter collections at the Archive and Library Study Room at Blythe House. For those with an interest we offer a pre-selected range of topic boxes on a number of different themes.
1. To Fanny Cooper, 9 Oct 1913, National Trust
2. To Margaret Hough, 4 November 1913 (In Judy Taylor (ed.). Letters to children from Beatrix Potter. London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1992, p. 170
3. To Ameila Warne, 3 Nov 1913, Free Library of Philadelphia