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Beatrix Potter, ‘Study of Peter Rabbit’, © Frederick Warne

Beatrix Potter, ‘Study of Peter Rabbit’, © Frederick Warne & Co., 2006

An affectionate companion

The 'real' Peter Rabbit was a Belgian buck rabbit called Peter Piper that was, as wrote Potter later, 'bought at a very tender age, in the Uxbridge Road, Shepherd's Bush, for the exorbitant sum of 4/6'. He was to prove a sound investment. This 'affectionate companion' lent his first name to one of the world's best-loved fictional characters and earned Beatrix Potter enduring international acclaim for the series of 'little books' that bear his name.

Peter Piper was the second rabbit that Potter acquired in the 1890s (the first was called Benjamin, himself to become the subject of a story in The Tale of Benjamin Bunny), and a much-loved member of the menagerie that kept her amused in what was a rather lonely childhood. Potter wrote later in a letter to a child that:

'Peter used to lie before the fire on the heart rug like a cat. He was clever at learning tricks, he used to jump through a hoop, and ring a bell, and play the tambourine.'

Potter spent a lot of time studying and drawing Peter Piper. He was rather fat, 'good at tricks' and 'very naughty' - the perfect model for a story about a mischievous and greedy little rabbit. Potter first composed her story of Peter Rabbit in 1893 in the form of a picture-letter to Noel Moore, the five-year-old son of her friend and former governess, Annie Moore. He was recovering from a bout of scarlet fever. Potter begins:

'I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you story about four little rabbits, whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter'.
Original illustration for 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit’, Beatrix Potter. © Frederick Warne & Co. 2006

Original illustration for 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit’, Beatrix Potter. © Frederick Warne & Co. 2006

A book for little rabbits

In the following years Beatrix sent other picture letters to Noel and to his brother and sisters, including stories about an 'excessively impertinent' squirrel called Nutkin and a disconsolate frog called Mr. Jeremy Fisher. In 1900 Annie suggested to Beatrix that her picture letters might contain material for several picture books. Fortunately the children had kept their letters safe and Beatrix was able to borrow them to copy and rework her text and illustrations. Noel's story of Peter Rabbit was to become Beatrix's first book.

In 1900 Beatrix borrowed Noel's letter – she wanted to rework the original pictures and story and try and sell the idea to a publisher. Her intention was that the book would be small-format, so it could be held easily by children's hands, and that it would feature a black-and-white illustration on each page, to keep the interest of the youngest readers. Six publishers, including Frederick Warne, rejected the story – they wanted something in a larger, more expensive format, and colour illustrations. But Potter remained resolute, deciding that since 'little rabbits cannot afford to spend 6 shillings on one book' she would publish the book herself, at a sale price of 1s 2d.

On 16th December 1901, Strangeways & Sons printed 250 copies, each with a colour frontispiece printed by Hentschel of Fleet Street. The first edition's immediate success prompted Potter to order a reprint of a further 200 copies only a few months later, in February 1902. One copy of Beatrix's privately printed edition contains the following inscription:

'In affectionate remembrance of poor old Peter Rabbit, who died on the 26th of January 1901 at the end of his 9th year … whatever the limitations of his intellect or outward shortcomings of his fur, and his ears and toes, his disposition was uniformly amiable and his temper unfailingly sweet. An affectionate companion and a quiet friend.'

Beatrix Potter ‘The Original Peter Rabbit Books’ © Frederick Warne

Beatrix Potter ‘The Original Peter Rabbit Books’ © Frederick Warne & Co., 2006

An appalling quantity of Peter

Meanwhile, a friend of the Potter family, Canon Rawnsley (one of the founder members of the National Trust), had encouraged Frederick Warne to reconsider publishing Beatrix's story. On 16th December 1901, as Potter celebrated the printing of her private edition, Warne wrote with an offer to publish the 'Bunny Book' the following year, with the condition that she slightly revised the story and produced colour illustrations. His terms were agreed to.

Potter was interested in all aspects of the book's production, carefully editing Warne's proofs for both the text and illustrations, and making recommendations for the design of the endpapers and the colour binding. Publication began in October 1902 with a first edition of 8000 copies, a further 12,000 copies were printed in November and 8220 copies in December. Within a year Warne was already planning a sixth printing. Beatrix was astonished: 'The public must be fond of rabbits! What an appalling quantity of Peter'. Widely considered to be one of the most popular children's books of all time, The Tale of Peter Rabbit has gone on to sell an astonishing 40 million copies worldwide.

Peter never stopped running …

Advances in modern printing and design technology have played a crucial role in maintaining the fresh appearance of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Warne re-photographed Beatrix's original illustrations for a new edition in 1987. In 2002, to mark the centenary of the commercial publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Warne has designed another new edition. Taking the first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit as a guide, Warne has redressed Peter according to Beatrix's original intentions with six 'extra' illustrations (including four removed from the 1903 edition to allow space for illustrated endpapers), a new typeface and plainer, more 'restful' endpapers.
Illustration to The Tale of Peter Rabbit, 1902. © Frederick Warne & Co., 2010

© Illustration to The Tale of Peter Rabbit, 1902. © Frederick Warne & Co., 2010

Peter Rabbit™: the tale of The Tale

Beatrix Potter conceived her tale of Peter Rabbit on 4 September 1893 in an illustrated letter to Noel Moore, the five-year-old son of her friend and former governess, Annie Moore.  Noel was recovering from a bout of scarlet fever so Beatrix amused him with a story based upon her real pet rabbit, Peter Piper: '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…'.

In the following years Beatrix sent other picture letters to Noel and to his brother and sisters, including stories about an ‘excessively impertinent’ squirrel called Nutkin and a disconsolate frog called Mr. Jeremy Fisher.  In 1900 Annie suggested to Beatrix that her picture letters might contain material for several picture books.  Fortunately the children had kept their letters safe and Beatrix was able to borrow them to copy and rework her text and illustrations.  Noel’s story of Peter Rabbit was to become Beatrix’s first book.

Beatrix wanted her picture book to be small (to fit a child’s hands) and affordable, with a black and white illustration on every page to hold the attention of even the youngest reader.  At least six publishers, including Frederick Warne, rejected Beatrix’s manuscript; they wanted a larger, more expensive book with colour illustrations.  Beatrix, however, was resolute: 'little rabbits cannot afford to spend 6 shillings on one book and would never buy it'.  She decided to publish the book herself.  On 16 December 1901 Strangeways & Sons printed 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit with black and white illustrations produced by the Art Reproduction Company of Fetter Lane.  Only the frontispieces were printed with the new three-colour-process by Hentschel of Fleet Street.  A second edition of 200 copies appeared in February 1902.  One copy of Beatrix’s privately printed edition contains the following inscription:

In affectionate remembrance of poor old Peter Rabbit, who died on the 26th of January 1901 at the end of his 9th year … whatever the limitations of his intellect or outward shortcomings of his fur, and his ears and toes, his disposition was uniformly amiable and his temper unfailingly sweet.  An affectionate companion and a quiet friend.

Meanwhile a family friend, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley (a founder member of the National Trust) encouraged Frederick Warne to reconsider Beatrix’s book.  On 16 December 1901, as Beatrix celebrated her privately printed edition, Warne wrote to offer terms for the publication of the 'Bunny Book'; she would have to cut the text and colour the illustrations.

Beatrix used one of her privately printed editions as a working copy, deleting eleven illustrations and re-writing the text until the book was just thirty-two pages.  She was interested in all aspects of the book's production, editing meticulously Warne's proofs for both the text and illustrations and designing the cover, title page and frontispiece.  She even made suggestions for the colour of the binding. 

Publication began in October 1902 with a first edition of 8000 copies; a further 12,000 copies were printed in November and 8220 copies in December.  Within a year Warne was already planning a sixth printing.  Beatrix was astonished: 'The public must be fond of rabbits! What an appalling quantity of Peter'.  Widely considered to be one of the most popular children’s books of all time, The Tale of Peter Rabbit has gone on to sell an astonishing 40 million copies worldwide.  

The format of the book has changed considerably since its first printing in October 1902.  The text of the first three printings is identical but in the fourth printing of April 1903 Beatrix changed just one word; ‘Peter wept big tears’ became ‘Peter shed big tears’.  By August 1903 Beatrix had already published a second book, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, with colour endpapers.  In order to accommodate the new endpapers in the fifth and subsequent printings of The Tale of Peter Rabbit  Beatrix reluctantly eliminated a further four illustrations and adjusted the text accordingly.  Warne introduced white jackets to all the little books during the Second World War but it was not until years later that they became standardised to distinguish them from re-illustrated and pirated editions.  The 1987 Original and Authorized Edition of the series featured rephotographed illustrations and green covers under white jackets. 

Most recently, Warne redesigned the entire series of little books for the 2002 centenary of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, including a new typeface on cream paper and Beatrix’s preferred plain endpapers.  Most significantly, Warne restored the four illustrations removed from The Tale of Peter Rabbit in October 1903 and included two further illustrations produced by Beatrix for Warne’s first edition but never used. Warne’s latest edition of the tale follows ‘faithfully Beatrix Potter’s intentions while benefiting from advances in modern printing and design techniques.’

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