Biography of Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter remains one of the world's best-selling and best-loved children's authors. She wrote and illustrated 28 books, including her 23 Tales which have sold more than 100 million copies. In her later years, she was a farmer and sheep breeder in the Lake District.

Helen Beatrix Potter was born on 28 July 1866 and grew up at 2 Bolton Gardens in Kensington, then a semi-rural part of London. Her father's circle of friends included the politician John Bright, the Unitarian minister William Gaskell and the artist Sir John Everett Millais. The Potter family had money inherited from the cotton trade and were well connected. Edmund, Beatrix's grandfather, owned a calico printing works and was co-founder of the Manchester School of Design. The family had artistic leanings. Helen, her mother, was a fine embroiderer and watercolourist, and her father Rupert, though qualified as a barrister, focused much of his time on his passion for the new art form of photography (he was elected to the Photographic Society of London in 1869).

Self-portrait with Beatrix at Lingholm, Keswick, Rupert Potter with a decorative mount by Beatrix Potter, 1898, albumen photograph and watercolour over pencil. Museum no. AR.4:380-2006. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd.

Rupert Potter's favourite photographic subject was Beatrix. Photography was then a laborious process but Beatrix appears to have endured patiently the elaborate choreography and the camera's uncomfortably long exposure. The photographic record of Beatrix's life from childhood to marriage captures her at home in London, on holiday in the countryside, formal amongst family, or relaxed among her pet dogs and rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer. It was Beatrix's delight to accompany her father on photographic expeditions. Happy to be by his side and excited by the possibilities of the new art form, she also became an avid photographer. She later inherited one of her father's old cameras, "a most inconveniently heavy article…which has been breaking my back since I took to that profession". Through photography, Rupert instructed Beatrix in the art of composition, and she took photographs to record details that she would later use in her art.

Beatrix Potter with her dog, Spot, at Dalguise, Rupert Potter, 1880, albumen photograph. Museum no. BP.870, Linder Bequest cat. no. LB 2083. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As a Victorian middle-class girl, Beatrix had a typically restricted and often lonely childhood. She rarely spent time with her mother and father and, educated at home by a governess, had few opportunities to meet other children. In art, she was self-taught at first. She would later say that she was grateful for this; a less neglected education "would have rubbed off some of the originality". By the age of eight, Beatrix was filling home-made sketchbooks with drawings of animals and plants copied from nature or from books and drawing manuals. Beatrix's love of animals and art was shared by her brother Bertram (who himself later became a professional artist and etcher). The pair spent hours watching and studying the menagerie of pets in their schoolroom: frogs, a tortoise, salamanders, and occasional mammals caught in the garden (bats, mice, hedgehogs and rabbits), which were smuggled into the house in paper bags. Annual holidays in Perthshire and, later, the Lake District, gave Beatrix and Bertram the chance to roam freely in the countryside and they sketched and even dissected a wide variety of animals and birds.

Once Bertram went to boarding school, Beatrix spent most of her adolescence on her own. She studied the works of Constable, Gainsborough and Turner in Royal Academy exhibitions and visited the South Kensington Museum (later renamed the V&A) to draw costumes and other objects. Between November 1878 and May 1883 Beatrix's parents arranged drawing lessons and enrolled her at the National Art Training School. Beatrix's student pieces from this period included still life studies and exercises in design and perspective, in typically formal style. 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".

(Left to right:) Still life study of a blue vase with pink and white pelargoniums and double wall sconce, by Beatrix Potter, May 1883, watercolour on paper. Museum no. AR.4:381-2006. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London, courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd. and The Trustees of the Linder Collection; Still life drawing (probably an exercise in perspective for the Art Student's Certificate), by Beatrix Potter, December 1879, chalk and pencil. Linder Collection cat. no. LC 1/B/1. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London, courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd. and The Trustees of the Linder Collection

As Beatrix reached the age of 21, she became 'household supervisor', a role that left her with enough time to indulge her interest in the natural sciences. Through her 20s, Beatrix made studies of plants and animals at the Natural History Museum and learned how to draw what she saw under a microscope. She became particularly interested in fungi, and wrote a paper called On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae (gilled fungi) which in 1897 her uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe, a chemist, arranged to be presented on Beatrix's behalf to the Linnean Society (as a woman she could not attend herself).

Examples of fungi - Yellow Grisette (Amanita Crocea) and Scarlet Fly Cap (Amanita Muscaria), by Beatrix Potter, 1897, Ullock, Cumbria, watercolour and pen and ink over pencil. Museum no. BP.244, Linder Bequest cat. no. LB 292. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd.

In 1890 her first illustration commission from a greetings card company, Hildesheimer and Faulkner, led to various other commissions. Her childrens' books evolved more unexpectedly, from illustrated letters she wrote to the children of her former governess, Annie Moore. The first, to Noel in September 1893, featured a rabbit. Others included one to Eric about a frog and another to Norah about a squirrel. In about 1900, Beatrix borrowed her letter to Noel to make a rough version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. In 1901, after six publishers rejected the idea, Beatrix set about printing her own edition. Frederick Warne later agreed to publish an edition, which was an immediate success. This marked the start of a life-long working relationship between Potter and Warne.

Illustrated letter to Norah Moore, 25 September 1901, by Beatrix Potter, Linder Bequest catalogue no. LB 1468. Museum no. BP.880. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd.

Her work for Warne also brought Potter friendship with, and then love for, her editor Norman Warne, who proposed in 1905. She accepted, defying her parents, who considered a tradesman an unsuitable match for their daughter – despite their own background in 'trade'. In the event, the marriage never took place, since Norman unexpectedly died of pernicious anaemia less than a month after proposing. Beatrix was devastated and threw herself into buying and renovating a new property, Hill Top Farm in Sawrey in the Lake District. Although unable to live there permanently because she had to look after her parents in London, she stayed as often as possible and began to learn the business of running a farm. She continued to write one or two new books a year for Warne for the next eight years.

Lady rabbit and gentleman rabbit passing on the street, design for a Christmas card by Beatrix Potter, June 1890, London, watercolour and pen and ink. Museum no. BP.443(a), Linder Bequest cat. no. LB 1769. © Image courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd.

In 1909, through purchasing another Cumbrian property, Castle Farm (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. Marriage freed Beatrix to settle properly in the Lake District. She was finally able to throw herself fully into farming. After purchasing a sheep farm, Troutbeck Park, in 1923, she became an expert Herdwick sheep breeder working with shepherd George Walker. Failing eyesight 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 was The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, published in 1930.

Beatrix Potter with Kep at Hill Top, photographer unknown, 1913. Museum no. BP.1407, Linder Bequest cat. no. LB 2094. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Apart from farming, Beatrix's major passion towards the end of her life was conservation, an interest inspired by her friendship with Canon Rawnsley, a founder member of the National Trust. Her expanding estate, funded by revenue from her book sales, allowed her to fulfil an ambition to preserve the Lake District's unique landscape and its traditional farming methods. When Beatrix died aged 77 on 22 December 1943 she left 14 farms and more than 4,000 acres to the National Trust.

Sketch of Kep guarding sheep, by Beatrix Potter, 5 March 1909, watercolour and pencil on paper, mounted on card. Museum no. BP.297, Linder Bequest cat. no. LB 178. © Image courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd.
Background image: Self-portrait with Beatrix at Lingholm, Keswick, Rupert Potter with a decorative mount by Beatrix Potter, 1898, albumen photograph and watercolour over pencil. Museum no. AR.4:380-2006. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd.