Happy Birthday, Beatrix Potter

28 July 1866 – 22 December 1943

We know her as the creator of Peter Rabbit, but Helen Beatrix Potter was also a talented illustrator, natural scientist and conservationist.

Life-long lovers of animals, as children she and her brother Bertram – who grew up to become an artist in his own right – kept a menagerie ranging from mice to bats to hedgehogs to – no surprise – rabbits. The two were sheltered growing up, only each other as playmates, educated at home by governesses. Similar to the Brontë children in their insularity breeding expressions of creativity, the two spent summer holidays at Dalguise House (Perthshire) in Scotland and, later, the Lake District of England (Cumbria).

Dalguise House, Perthshire, Scotland.

Fascinated by the natural world, they happily sketched and scribbled alongside their artistically gifted parents.

Origin of Peter Rabbit, letter to Noel Moore, 1893.
Noel Moore.

Though not published in book form until the early 1900s, Peter Rabbit’s origin lies in letters written from Potter to the children of her former governess, Annie Carter Moore. The letters began when Annie’s son, Noel, was recovering from scarlet fever. To cheer him, Beatrix sent a story based on a rabbit she’d had as a child, a Belgian buck called Peter Piper.

Many more “picture letters” followed, telling the adventures of Peter and friends. Annie Moore suggested Beatrix put the stories in book form for publication. Twenty-three books later, the Tales of Peter Rabbit were complete.

Despite the fact so much of her life was devoted to children’s literature, Beatrix and her husband had no children. She was, however, a doting aunt, as well as godmother to Beatrix Moore, daughter of Annie.

“If I have done anything, even a little, to help small children enjoy honest, simple pleasures, I have done a bit of good.” 

– Beatrix Potter

A few more interesting bits about Beatrix Potter:

  1. The inspiration for her characters unknown, in 2001 the names Nutkins, McGregor, Peter Rabbett and Jeremiah Fisher were discovered in burial records for Brompton Cemetery, London – the city where Potter grew up. Sounds like more than a coincidence, doesn’t it, especially considering she lived only a short walk away from 1863 – 1913.

Grave of Susannah Nutkins.

2. As a child, budding artist Beatrix was taken by her father to the Natural History Museum in London, as well as the Victoria & Albert, where she practiced sketching.

Accurately detailed watercolors of fungi made her well-respected in the world of mycology, and she created paintings of other flora and fauna, as well. Not content with just drawing them, Potter educated herself in the ways mushrooms reproduced, even conducting her own experiments. What stopped her from pursuing her interest further was the fact women were barred from scientific societies.

Who knows what she’d have achieved in the scientific world.

Lepitoa procera (Armitt Museum and Library) by Beatrix Potter
Drawings of caterpillars by Beatrix Potter, V&A, London

3. Previously rejecting her manuscript, Frederick Warne & Co. agreed to publish a trade edition of Peter Rabbit in 1902. By the end of the year the book had sold 28,000 copies.

Other children’s literature published that year included: L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, Kipling’s Just So Stories and E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It.

Norman Warne, son of publisher Frederick and also Beatrix’s editor, became smitten by the writer after an increasingly flirtatious exchange of letters about characters from her book Two Bad Mice. Upon their engagement, her parents objected saying Norman Warne was not her social equal. She defied them but, sadly, Warne died unexpectedly of undiagnosed leukemia before they could marry.

Out of town when he died, Beatrix didn’t make it back in time for the funeral. He was 37.

The 2006 film Miss Potter tells the sad story of Beatrix and Norman Warne. Writing about Beatrix Potter’s love of him, Sara Glenn, curator of the Warne archives states:

“Reading Beatrix’s letters, I was surprised to find that her love for Norman never died. We think of Beatrix Potter as a strong, private woman, but these letters show her intense loneliness.”

Norman Warne and his nephew Fred, ca. 1900

Having dreamt of sharing her life with Norman at Hill Top Farm in the village of Near Sawrey in the Lake District, Beatrix purchased the house and land the autumn after his death.

The flowers love the house, they try to come in. … but nothing more sweet than the old pink cabbage rose that peeps in at the small paned windows.

– Beatrix Potter, on Hill Top Farm

Ironically, Beatrix’s brother Bertram made a match that would have horrified his parents, as well, marrying Mary Welsh Scott, a former mill worker. He was astute (and confoundingly clever) enough to keep the union secret for a decade.

His father’s response when his son finally told him of his marriage? He wrote Bertram out of his will.

Difficult to like that man, isn’t it.

Beatrix, Bertram and doggo Potter.

4. Later in life, as president of the Herdwick sheep association she won prizes for Herdwick ewes at shows around Cumbria. Upon her death she bequeathed 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust, for the express purpose of sheep grazing.

Beatrix and shepherd Tom Storey, with one of her favorite Herdwick ewes, Water Lily.
Herdwick ewes!

5. On 13 October 1913, Beatrix Potter married William Heelis, a property attorney who helped her purchase land in the Lake District of England, located within the county of Cumbria, on which she would raise her beloved sheep.

In their 70s at the time of their engagement, her parents didn’t approve of this match, either. Beatrix and William married despite them, and by all accounts were happy.

Take that, mum and dad.

Beatrix Potter and William Heelis

6. Potter’s father, Rupert William Potter, was an amateur photographer and sketch artist specializing in portraits and landscapes. Photographs provided to his friend, noted landscape painter John Everett Millais, served as inspiration for the famous artist’s work. He also took photos of Millais’s sitters and portaits, which the painter used to aid him.

Though educated as a barrister, a fortune inherited from his father Edmund’s business, Dinting Vale Calico Printing Works , meant he never had to practice.

The Lake District, photo by Rupert Potter.

It was inherited money that made Beatrix’s father feel she was too good for any man. Not land and titles, but her grandfather’s inventiveness in mechanizing the manufacture of previously handmade, labor-intensive calico. Edmund Potter also believed in education for all, building the Logwood Mill School and providing a reading room and library for his factory workers.

Beatrix Potter and Alice Crompton Potter by Rupert William Potter

7. Her mother, Helen Leech Potter, was likewise no slouch as an artist.

Hilltop, Cumbria by Helen Leech Potter
Helen Leech and Beatrix Potter

Helen also kept a scrapbook of cards sent to her daughter from various relatives and friends of the Potter family, compiled between 1872 and 1878 – an invaluable collection of ephemera relating to a beloved writer.

8. Beginning at age 14, Beatrix Potter kept a coded journal. It would not be decoded until Leslie Linder, a superfan of the author who later donated an extensive collection of materials by and about the writer to the V&A Museum, cracked the code after 13 long years.

In 1966, the journal was published for the first time by Frederick Warne Ltd, the same company that had published Peter Rabbit decades ago.

Potter’s diary is full of hints at her future as an artist and writer. “I can’t settle to anything but my painting, I lost my patience over everything else,” she wrote at the end of one particularly agitated page. Plenty of entries close with the name of a book she had recently finished, or contain one of her signature, detailed, occasionally brutal art reviews.

Atlas Obscura

I admit I didn’t have much interest in Beatrix Potter until I read the dozen or so articles and online sources from which I extracted information for this post. Though we had a miniature set of the Tales of Peter Rabbit when my kids were small, the stories were too slow-moving for them.

I couldn’t have imagined she led such a fascinating life, and there are loads of books about her. I recommend you visit Amazon to check them out.

Happy Birthday, Beatrix Potter.

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