Beatrix Potter (1866–1943) is still one of the world's best-selling and best-loved children's authors. She wrote and illustrated 28 books that have been translated into more than 35 languages and sold over 100 million copies. Born in Kensington, London, she later moved to Hill Top Farm in Cumbria and on her death bequeathed it, along with 13 other farms and over 4000 acres of land, to the National Trust.
Helen Beatrix Potter was born on 28th July 1866 at 2 Bolton Gardens, in Kensington, London to a wealthy family. Both Beatrix's parents lived on inheritances from the cotton trade and, though qualified as a barrister, her father, Rupert, focused much of his time on his passion for art and photography. He and his wife, Helen, enjoyed an active social life among a group of writers, artists and politicians and the family included many connoisseurs and practitioners of art. Helen herself was a fine embroiderer and watercolourist and Edmund Potter, Beatrix’s paternal grandfather, was co-founder and president of the Manchester School of Design.
Being born a daughter of the Victorian upper-middle class, Beatrix had a typically restricted and often lonely childhood. She rarely spent much time with her mother and father, and, being educated at home by a governess, had very few opportunities to meet other children. Her father treated her to trips to the South Kensington Museum (the original name of the V&A), the Natural History Museum and the Royal Academy, as well as to visit his notable friends, including the Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais. He also inspired and encouraged Beatrix's extraordinary artistic talent, and by the age of eight, she was filling home-made sketchbooks with drawings of animals and plants.
Beatrix's love of animals was shared by her brother Bertram. The children spent hours watching and sketching the menagerie of pets that lived in their schoolroom. Their collection included frogs, a tortoise, salamanders and even a bat, and was added to by occasional catches from the garden (mice, hedgehogs and rabbits) that were smuggled into the house in paper bags. The children's interest was deepened by annual holidays in Perthshire and, later, in the Lake District that gave them the chance to roam freely in the countryside, and to observe, sketch, catch and even skin and dissect a wide variety of animals and birds. Bertram was the one member of the family to pursue a career as a professional artist. Although he lacked the genius of his sister, Bertram shared her passion for the English countryside, and was a supportive and valuable critic of her work.
An awkward education
Girls of Beatrix's social class had to be proficient at the genteel arts, including painting and drawing. Between November 1878 and May 1883 Beatrix's parents arranged drawing lessons and enrolled her at the new National Art Training School in South Kensington to sit her Second Grade Art Student certificate.
The young Beatrix was self-taught. She copied from nature or from books and drawing manuals, and studied the works of Constable, Gainsborough and Turner in the Royal Academy exhibitions. Grateful that her education was largely neglected, she said 'it would have rubbed off some of the originality.'
Beatrix's generic student pieces from this period, including still life studies and exercises in design and perspective, are competent enough. Beatrix was even awarded an 'Excellent' in her examinations. But her still life drawings in particular convey a dark and listless formality that in retrospect seems to be at odds with the light humour and exuberance of her book illustrations.
Beatrix remained sceptical about formal art training: 'Painting is an awkward thing to teach except the details of the medium. If you and your master are determined to look at nature and art in two different directions you are sure to stick.'
Beatrix Potter - Still life drawing of an antler, seashells and Japanese drawing
Beatrix Potter, Still life drawing of an antler, seashells and Japanese drawing manual, about 1880. © Frederick Warne & Co., 2010
Betarix Potter - Still life drawing of grapes and peaches
Beatrix Potter, Still life drawing of grapes and peaches, July 1882. © Frederick Warne & Co., 2010
Beatrix Potter - Still life drawing
Beatrix Potter, Still life drawing, probably an exercise in design for the Art Student’s Certificate, about 1879. © Frederick Warne & Co., 2010
Beatrix Potter - Still life drawing of part of a decorative frieze
Beatrix Potter, Still life drawing of part of a decorative frieze, June 1882. © Frederick Warne & Co., 2010
Beatrix Potter - Still life drawing of a salt-glazed stoneware jug and bananas
Beatrix Potter, Still life drawing of a salt-glazed stoneware jug and bananas, June 188. © Frederick Warne & Co., 2010
Beatrix Potter - Still life drawing, probably an exercise in design for the Art Student’s Certificate
Beatrix Potter, Still life drawing, probably an exercise in design for the Art Student’s Certificate, 14 May 1879. © Frederick Warne & Co., 2010
Beatrix Potter - Still life drawing of grapes and peaches
Beatrix Potter, Still life drawing of grapes and peaches, October 1883. © Frederick Warne & Co., 2010
Beatrix Potter - Still life drawing of a vase and pomegranates
Beatrix Potter, Still life drawing of a vase and pomegranates, November 1881. © Frederick Warne & Co., 2010
Beatrix Potter - Still life drawing, probably an exercise in perspective for the Art Student’s Certificate
Beatrix Potter, Still life drawing, probably an exercise in perspective for the Art Student’s Certificate, about 1879. © Frederick Warne & Co., 2010
Second Grade Art Student Certificate issued to Beatrix Potter
From rejection to a rabbit
Bertram was sent away to boarding school, so Beatrix spent most of her adolescence on her own, studying, and painting and sketching. Another outlet for her creativity was a diary, in which she used a miniaturised secret code to record daily thoughts and observations (a habit that continued until she was 30). Although she got her Art Student's Certificate for drawing, Beatrix reached the age of 21 having had little real education. Like many adult daughters of the rich, she was appointed 'household supervisor' – a role that left her with enough time to indulge her interest in the natural sciences.
Through her 20s, Beatrix developed into a talented naturalist. She made studies of plants and animals at the Cromwell Road museums, and learned how to draw with her eye to a microscope. She became particularly interested in funghi, and wrote a paper called On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae (gilled funghi) that in 1897, with the help of her uncle, notable chemist Sir Henry Roscoe, was presented by the Assistant Director of Kew on Beatrix's behalf to the (all male) Linnean Society. But, being an amateur and, probably more significantly, being a woman, her efforts were not taken seriously – and her theories were rejected.
This slight was probably what led Beatrix to focus more on drawing and painting, abilities that had already begun to earn her a modest income (in 1890 a commission from a greetings card company had led on to a range of other illustration jobs). She had also begun to write illustrated letters to the children of her former governess, Annie Moore. Peter Rabbit was born in a letter she wrote in September 1893 to Annie's son, Noel. Seven years later Beatrix asked to borrow the letter back, and copied the illustrations to produce a rough version of what was to become The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Drawn into the future
In 1901, after the idea was rejected by six publishers, Beatrix defiantly published her own edition of the rabbit story. Having seen a copy, Frederick Warne decided to publish Peter Rabbit, and within a year had already had to produce six editions to meet demand. This success marked the start of a life-long relationship between Beatrix and Warne's. It also brought Beatrix friendship with, and then love for, Norman Warne, her editor, who sent her a marriage proposal in 1905. Although she accepted him – defying her parents, who considered that, being 'trade', a publisher was an unthinkable match for their daughter – Norman unexpectedly died less than a month later, of pernicious anaemia (a now-treatable blood disorder).
Beatrix was devastated but nevertheless able to make plans for her future, buying Hill Top Farm in Sawrey in the Lake District less than a year after Norman's death. Although she was unable to live there full time because she was expected to take care of her parents in London, she stayed as often as possible, and began to learn the business of running a farm. She also carried on writing, producing one or two new 'little books' each year for the next eight years. In 1909, through purchasing another Cumbrian property near to Hill Top, she met and then befriended a local solicitor, William Heelis. After a period of having to battle her parents' objections to her relationship with 'a country solicitor', Beatrix married William in 1913.
Time to expand
Marriage freed Beatrix to settle properly in the Lake District. She was finally able to throw herself fully into the role of lady farmer, enjoying physical, day-to-day tasks such as helping with hay-making and unblocking muddy drains. Beatrix also became an expert in breeding Herdwicks, a type of sheep indigenous to Cumbria. Failing eyesight, particularly from 1920 onwards, meant that she did less and less creative work – increasingly, her books had to be pieced together from sketches and drawings done years earlier. Her last major work, The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, was published in 1930
Apart from farming, Beatrix's major passion in the final part of her life was conservation, an interest inspired by her friendship with Canon Rawnsley, one of the founder members of the National Trust. Her expanding estate, funded by revenue from book sales, gave her the opportunity to fulfil an ambition to preserve not only part of the Lake District's unique landscape but the area's traditional farming methods. Weakened by bronchitis, Beatrix died aged 77 on 22nd December 1943. In her will she left 14 farms and over 4000 acres to the National Trust, land that it still owns and protects against development today.
A life in photographs
Beatrix Potter's father Rupert took up photography in the 1860s when it was still a relatively new art form. An enthusiastic and skilled amateur, he was elected to the Photographic Society of London in 1869 and later contributed to photographic exhibitions. Closely observed by Beatrix, Rupert often assisted his friend Sir John Everett Millais by photographing backgrounds for paintings and sitters for portraits. In her journal Beatrix recalls her father photographing the former Prime Minister W.E. Gladstone for Millais' portrait of 1885:
'They kept off politics of course, and talked about photography … how far would the art be carried, did papa think people would ever be able to photograph in colours?'Rupert's favourite and most forbearing subject was Beatrix herself. Photography was an expensive and laborious process but she appears to have endured patiently the elaborate choreography and the camera's uncomfortably long exposure. Here, the photographic account of Beatrix's life from childhood to marriage is a legacy of Rupert's passion for both photography and his beloved daughter. He captures her at home in London and on holiday in the countryside; sombre and formal among family, relaxed and playful among her pet dogs and rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer.
Beatrix aged 15 with dog, Spot
Beatrix aged 25 with rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer
Beatrix and brother Bertram, with parents and dog
The Right Honorable W.E. Gladstone by Rupert Potter, 28 July 1884
Beatrix aged 18 at Bush Hall, Hatfield
Beatrix aged 69 at the Keswick Show, 1935
Beatrix Potter aged 9
Beatrix Potter aged 10
Beatrix Potter and Spot