The Victoria and Albert Museum in London boasts the world’s largest collection of drawings, manuscripts, correspondence and photographs belonging to the highly successful children’s author Beatrix Potter. Best known for her creation of the much loved Peter Rabbit, Potter was also a natural scientist and conservationist and is credited with preserving much of the land that is now part of the Lake District National Park.
Helen Beatrix Potter was born on 28th July 1866 in Kensington, London. Her father, Rupert William Potter (1832-1914) was a barrister and her mother, Helen Leech (1839-1932) was the daughter of a wealthy cotton merchant and shipbuilder. Her cousins on her mother’s side are reportedly related to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (b.1982).
Beatrix and her brother Walter Bertram, who was born in 1872, spent much of their time playing in the countryside – Kensington was a semi-rural area at the time – and had many pets, including rabbits, mice, a hedgehog and some bats. Both of their parents were artistic and enjoyed exploring nature, particularly their father who was a keen photographer. Rupert Potter had been elected to the Photographic Society of London in 1869. Beatrix was one of her father’s favourite subjects to photograph and he also taught her how to use his heavy camera.
The Potter family became rather prosperous after inheriting money from the cotton trade. Rupert also invested in the stock market and was particularly wealthy by the 1890s. The family were able to afford governesses for their daughter that, whilst provided her with a good education, meant Beatrix was often kept away from her parents. Being educated at home also meant she did not have much social interaction with children her own age. As a result, she had a rather lonely childhood.
Beatrix relished the hours she spent with her brother in the countryside. The family annually visited Dalguise, a settlement in Perthshire, Scotland, which allowed the children the opportunity to roam freely. It was here that they acquired many of their pets, often secretly in paper bags until their schoolroom was full of a menagerie of animals.
Like their mother, who was a watercolourist, Beatrix and Bertram were interested in art as well as animals, often painting and drawing the animals they had smuggled into the house. When Bertram left for boarding school, Beatrix spent lonely days studying the paintings of John Constable (1776-1837), Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) and J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) at the Royal Academy of Arts and drawing the exhibits at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A).
Since she was eight, Beatrix had been filling sketchbooks with drawings of animals and plants. Noting her love of drawing, her parents enrolled her at the National Art Training School in 1878, which she attended until 1883, where she learnt about still life and perspective. Despite the training, Beatrix preferred to draw the plants and specimens that she had developed a preference for as a child. Insects were of particular interest to Beatrix and she taught herself to be an amateur entomologist. Using her brother’s microscope, she studied various creatures in detail and learnt how to prepare slides of the specimens she collected.
Beatrix had an eye for detail and was determined to be able to draw living creatures as accurately as possible. Scientific accuracy was key to her style of drawing, which she produced with a fine, dry brush. Her many hours studying insects under the microscope are evident in some of her famous illustrated storybooks.
Flowers were a typical subject for girls to study, therefore, it is no surprise that many of Beatrix’s sketchbooks contain drawings of plants and flowers. Her grandmother gave her a copy of John E. Sowerby’s British Wild Flowers, and she spent hours carefully copying the illustrations. She painstakingly tried to accurately depict flowers so that they could easily be identified from her drawings. The “careful botanical studies of my youth” helped Beatrix create realistic fantasy worlds for anthropomorphic characters in later life. Geraniums are abundant in The Tale of Peter Rabbit and other stories feature carnations, fuchsia, foxgloves, waterlilies, pansies, roses and snapdragons.
During her 20s, Beatrix also became interested in fungi, which she collected and drew as she did with insects and flowers. Her fascination, however, stretched further than making detailed drawings and led her to write a paper called On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae. Unfortunately, as a woman, Beatrix was unable to present the paper to official bodies and was rebuffed by William Turner Thuselton-Dyer (1843-1928), the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on account of her gender and amateur status. Fortunately, her uncle, Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe (1833-1915), as vice-chancellor of the University of London was able to present Beatrix’s paper to the Linnean Society in 1897 on her behalf. The Linnean Society of London was dedicated to the study of natural history and evolution, and, in 1997, issued a posthumous apology to Beatrix for the sexism she experienced in attempting to submit her research.
As a way to earn money in the 1890s, Beatrix used her drawing talents to produce Christmas and greeting cards. Many of these designs involved mice and rabbits, which attracted the attention of the greetings card company, Hildesheimer and Faulkner, who commissioned several drawings from her to illustrate verses by the author and lyricist Frederic Weatherly (1848-1929). Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96), a friend of her father, also made observations about Beatrix’s artistic talents.
Whenever Beatrix holidayed in Scotland, she drew cards or illustrated letters to send to her friends. She had remained in contact with one of her former governesses, Annie Carter Moore, and often sent drawings and cards to her children, particularly Noel who was often unwell. Since she wrote to Noel regularly, she ran out of things to tell him and began writing stories instead, for instance, a tale about “four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter”.
In 1900, Beatrix revised her story of the four rabbits and sent it to several publishing houses. Unfortunately, it was rejected but her friend Hardwicke Rawnsley (1815-1920), an Anglican priest in Westmorland, had great faith in her work and resubmitted it to the publishers. Frederick Warne & Co, who had previously dismissed Beatrix’s work, agreed to publish the “bunny book”, as it was then known. Originally, Beatrix’s illustrations were black and white but the company persuaded her to add colour. Thus, on 2nd October 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published, marking the beginning of a long relationship between Beatrix and the publishers.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by Beatrix’s pet rabbit Peter Piper, who she made up stories about to entertain the poorly Noel Moore. As time went on, she introduced other characters to the stories and her former governess proposed the suggestion that they would make great book characters. After revising the tale several times, the final story followed the mischievous Peter who sneaked into the garden of Mr McGregor to steal some of the gardener’s lettuces. Whilst Peter was snacking, Mr McGregor spotted him, so the young rabbit ran away but soon discovered he was hopelessly lost. Eventually, Peter found his way out of the garden and home to his mother, having learnt a valuable lesson.
When publication began in October 1902, 8,000 copies of the book were produced, however, by November, a further 12,000 were printed followed by another 8,200 in December. Beatrix Potter was astonished at the popularity of her story. “The public must be fond of rabbits!” It is now considered one of the most popular children’s stories of all time, having sold over 40 million copies worldwide.
The following year, Frederick Warne & Co published two more of Beatrix’s stories based on characters she had invented for Noel and his siblings. The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, published in August 1903, tells the story of a naughty squirrel and his family who travelled to Owl Island to collect some nuts. Squirrel Nutkin taunted the resident Old Brown Owl with silly songs and riddles, however, Old Brown ignored him. Eventually, Old Brown was so fed up with the silly squirrel that he pounced upon Squirrel Nutkin who was lucky to survive, albeit with a little of his tail missing.
The Tailor of Gloucester, published in October 1903, involved a nasty cat called Simpkin who was sent out by the tailor to buy food and fabric. While the cat was away, the tailor discovered a family of mice that had been trapped under some teacups by Simkin. The tailor released them, much to the disgust of Simpkin on his return. Unfortunately, the tailor then fell ill and was unable to finish his work. Grateful for saving their lives, the mice returned during the night and finished the tailor’s work while he recovered in bed.
Beatrix Potter continued to publish two or three books a year up until the First World War. Although they were written less frequently, she continued to write after the war, amassing a total of 23 by 1930.
The year 1904 saw the publication of The Tale of Benjamin Bunny and The Tale of Two Bad Mice. The Tale of Benjamin Bunny is a sequel to The Tale of Peter Rabbit in which Peter returns to Mr McGregor’s garden with his cousin Benjamin to retrieve the clothes he left there when he made his hasty exit. The Tale of Two Bad Mice was inspired by the two mice Beatrix rescued from her cousin’s trap, who she named Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca. In the story, these naughty mice wrecked the interior of a little girl’s dollhouse. Feeling sorry for what they had done, Hunca Munca vowed to sweep the floor of the dollhouse every morning, whilst Tom Thumb put a sixpence in the doll’s stocking on Christmas Eve.
The much-loved Mrs Tiggy-Winkle appeared in 1905, as did The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan. The Tail of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle was slightly different from Beatrix Potter’s previous books in that the main character was a human. Lucie, a young girl staying in the countryside, happened across a hedgehog dressed up as a washerwoman. Mrs Tiggy-Winkle did not speak but her eyes went “twinkle, twinkle” whilst she went about her housework. At the end of the story, some people think Lucie fell asleep and dreamt the whole thing, however, the narrator knows better. The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan, on the other hand, involves two anthropomorphic characters: a cat called Ribby and a dog called Duchess.
Jeremy Fisher is another well-known character, who appeared in 1906 along with Miss Moppet and a fierce bad rabbit. The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher is about a frog who lived in a “slippy-sloppy” house at the edge of a pond. Jeremy vowed that if he caught five minnows in the pond he would invite his friends for tea, however, fishing with a rod was much harder than he expected and he went home empty-handed. Nonetheless, he still invited his friends for tea: Sir Isaac Newton the newt and Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise.
The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit was written at the request of the publishers who wanted a truly bad rabbit, not like Peter who seemed too good despite his adventures. The unnamed bad rabbit attacked a good rabbit eating a carrot but was spotted by a hunter who mistook him for a bird. As a result, the fierce bad rabbit was shot at, causing him to lose his tail and whiskers. The Story of Miss Moppet is about another naughty character, a cat, who decided to tease a mouse, “which is not at all nice of Miss Moppet.” She tied the mouse in a handkerchief and threw it around, not realising that it had a hole through which the mouse could escape.
Miss Moppet may have been the sister of Tom Kitten and Mittens who appear in The Tale of Tom Kitten. Their mother, Tabitha Twitchit, invited her friends to tea and instructed her children to make themselves presentable. Tom, however, had other ideas and proceeded to make mayhem. Tom Kitten was the only book published in 1907, however, two followed the next year.
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck features two of Beatrix Potter’s well-known characters: Jemima, a domestic Aylesbury duck and Mr Tod, a fox. Jemima wanted somewhere safe to lay her eggs where the farmer’s wife would not take them and Mr Tod, dressed as a charming gentleman, suggested she use his shed. Of course, Mr Tod had an alternative motive and began to prepare a feast in which Jemima would be the main dish. Fortunately, other animals on the farm found out Mr Tod’s plans and rescued Jemima.
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or The Roly-Poly Pudding is a story that involves several characters. Tom Kitten was still up to his old tricks, pestering his mother Tabitha Twitchit and her Cousin Ribby. Samuel Whiskers and his wife Anna Maria, two rats that lived under the floorboards, decided to teach the kitten a lesson. After catching the young Tom, the rats attempted to bake Tom in a pudding. Fortunately, he was found before he could be eaten.
In 1909, Beatrix revisited her first story about Peter Rabbit and its sequel featuring Benjamin Bunny. Using elements from the original plot, Beatrix published The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, who were the children of Benjamin Bunny and his cousin Flopsy. The young bunnies, six in total, fell asleep while raiding a sack of vegetables and were captured by Mr McGregor. Fortunately, Thomasina Tittlemouse, a woodmouse, was able to free the bunnies before they could come to any harm.
Peter Rabbit and other popular characters also appear in The Tale of Ginger and Pickles, a story about a village shop. Ginger, a yellow tomcat, and Pickles, a terrier, were kind animals who let their customers purchase goods on unlimited credit, however, they soon found themselves penniless as a result. Forced to close the shop, it took a kind-hearted villager, Sally Henny-penny, to help them reopen and convince the customers to pay with real money.
Thomasina Tittlemouse, who was the heroine of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, received a story of her own in 1910. The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse is a story about housekeeping, which reflects Beatrix Potter’s own sense of tidiness and hatred of insect infestations. Mrs Tittlemouse’s friends and the occasional arachnid were forever messing up her home but she was always determined to make it neat and tidy again.
In 1911, Beatrix Potter attempted to please her American fans by writing The Tale of Timmy Tiptoe, which featured a squirrel called Timmy and a chipmunk called Chippy Hackee. Unfortunately, Beatrix had never seen chipmunks, which are indigenous to North America, except for in books, therefore, her illustrations received a lot of criticism. Fortunately, she was able to redeem herself the following year with a story about a previous character, The Tale of Mr Tod.
The Tale of Pigling Bland was the last book published before the outbreak of the First World War. Aunt Pettitoes, an old sow, was fed up with her eight troublemaking children and decided to make them leave home. Pigling Bland and his brother Alexander decided to try their luck in the market but, due to Alexander’s bad behaviour, they found themselves in a lot of trouble.
After a break of four years, Beatrix Potter was back on the publishing scene with Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes, which opened with a rhyme about a mouse named Appley Dapply. “Appley Dapply has little sharp eyes, And Appley Dapply is so fond of pies!” The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse followed in 1918, which was loosely based on Aesop’s fable The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.
Beatrix Potter disappeared from the publishing scene for a few more years, reappearing in 1922 with another book of rhymes. Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes began with a rhyme about the titular rabbit but also included popular songs, such as Three Blind Mice.
In 1930, Frederick Warne & Co published Beatrix’s final tale, The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. Despite it being her last story, it was one of the first Beatrix had written, having begun it in 1883. It was intended as a prequel to Edward Lear’s (1812-88) poem The Owl and the Pussycat, for which she later produced illustrations in 1897.
Beatrix was inspired by the “Piggy-wig” who lived in “the land where the Bong-Tree grows.” He had a “ring at the end of his nose”, which the Owl and the Pussycat used as their wedding ring. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson explained how, in Beatrix Potter’s imagination, the Piggy-wig came to be there. Little Pig Robinson was sent to the market by his aunts Miss Porcas and Miss Dorcas but was kidnapped by a sailor who planned to cook and feed the poor pig to his men. With the help of the ship’s cat, Little Pig Robinson managed to escape on a rowing boat and made his way to “the land where the Bong-Tree grows”, where he later met the Owl and the Pussycat.
Despite producing so many books, Beatrix Potter’s life was much more than writing and illustrating. In 1905, the son of the publishing company founder, Norman Dalziel Warne (1868-1905) proposed marriage, which she readily accepted despite the protestations of her family. Unfortunately, Norman passed away a month later from pernicious anaemia, leaving Beatrix devastated. To distract herself from grief, Beatrix focused on renovating Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey near Windermere, which she had bought with her income. Due to her duties in London – both to her parents and the publishing company – Beatrix could not live there permanently, so employed a tenant farmer, John Cannon.
During her visits to Hill Top Farm, Beatrix taught herself the techniques of fell farming and raising livestock, such as pigs, cows, chickens and sheep. Needing to protect the boundaries of her farm, Beatrix sought advice from the solicitors W.H. Heelis & Son, who advised her to purchase Castle Farm, a pasture adjacent to Hill Top Farm, which would provide her with a further 20 acres of land. By 1909, the purchase had been made and Beatrix had grown close to William Heelis, who later proposed marriage in 1912. Despite her family disapproving of the match because he was “only a country solicitor”, they married on 15th October 1913 in Kensington and moved into the newly renovated Castle Cottage on Castle Farm.
After marriage, Beatrix felt she could finally settle down and began to focus more on sheep farming than writing. In 1923, she purchased Troutbeck Park where she became an expert Herdwick sheep breeder. During this time, however, her eyesight began to deteriorate, which meant any stories she wrote had to be pieced together through illustrations she had done in the past. Beatrix and William remained childless throughout their thirty-year marriage but had many nieces who enjoyed her stories.
As well as farming, Beatrix Potter was a keen conservationist, inspired by her old friend Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley who had co-founded the National Trust (for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty). Beatrix made it her ambition to preserve the Lake District’s unique landscape, of which a quarter is now owned by the National Trust. She used her income to purchase and save properties and preserve farmland. Beatrix served as the de facto estate manager for the Trust for seven years until they could afford to purchase the land from her.
When Beatrix Potter passed away from complications due to pneumonia and heart disease on 22nd December 1943, she left nearly all her property to the National Trust. This included over 4000 acres of land, sixteen farms, many cottages and herds of cows and sheep. This has been, to date, the largest gift to the National Trust and enabled the Lake District to be preserved.
Beatrix also left many of her original illustrations and books to the National Trust, which are on display at the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead, Cumbria – the same building that used to house her husband’s law office. The largest public collection of her drawings and letters, however, can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Beatrix Potter’s books are instantly recognised by her distinctive illustrations, however, she never thought of herself as much of an artist. “I can’t invent: I only copy.” Many of the scenes in her tales were based on places she had visited, such as South Devon, which featured in The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. She conceived the storyline while staying in Devon with her family in 1883. The tale takes place in a “pretty little town of Stymouth”, which Beatrix invented by mixing together scenes from the South Devon towns of Sidmouth and Teignmouth and Lyme Regis in Dorset.
Mr McGregor’s garden in The Tale of Benjamin Bunny was inspired by Fawe Park on the edge of Lake Derwentwater where the Potter’s stayed in 1903. Beatrix spent the holiday drawing the kitchen garden, greenhouse and potting shed, which she imagined a rabbit (or a certain Bunny) would find appealing.
After the sudden death of her fiance in 1905, Beatrix briefly found solace in Gwaynynog, Wales, with her two pet rabbits: Josey and Mopsie. Here she spent time relaxing and drawing in the “prettiest kind of garden, where bright old fashioned flowers grow amongst the currant bushes”, which became the setting for The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies.
The 17th-century farmhouse at Hill Top became the setting of The Tale of the Pie and the Patty Pan and The Tale of Tom Kitten. The kitchen, which contained old fashioned chairs and an oak dresser, provided the backdrop for scenes in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers.
Beatrix Potter’s tales and characters live on through reprints and branded merchandise. New generations have been introduced to characters, such as Peter Rabbit, through animated films, the latest released in 2018. When she died, Beatrix had some unfinished stories, which have now been published. The Sly Old Cat was written in 1906 but not published until 1971. Two years later, the unfinished Tale of Tuppeny was completed with illustrations by Marie Angel. Finally, Beatrix’s The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, whose publication was disrupted due to the outbreak of World War One, was published in 2016 with illustrations by Sir Quentin Blake (b.1932).
Beatrix Potter never thought she would become famous. She was surprised with the success of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and thought it was only popular because people liked rabbits and not because she was a talented illustrator and storyteller. Whilst Beatrix Potter is a worldwide name due to her many books, her involvement with the National Trust and the preservation of the Lake District is not as widely known. At the time of her death, women had only recently been given the right to vote and it would be some time before women were credited with their important achievements. As a result, Beatrix’s generous donation to the National Trust was only known in small circles until more recently.
Next time you see the naughty Peter Rabbit, take a moment to not only appreciate the illustration but to remember the woman who gave him life.
My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: Anchor, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Spotify.
If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!