Beatrix Potter (28 July 1866 – 22 December 1943) was a writer, illustrator and conservationist. She is best remembered for her best-selling childrens books, such as, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Stories that combined her love for both animals and the English countryside. In her later life, she bought a substantial amount of land in the Lake District and on her death donated it to the National Trust, helping to preserve a significant part of the Lake District national park.
Beatrix was born in Kensington, London to middle-class, Unitarian parents. Her father, Robert was a distinguished lawyer, and her mother the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Her parents were also artistic and this artistic talent was passed on to Beatrix.
She spent much of her early life in her own company; she rarely saw her brother Ewan, who was sent to boarding school. Having little social contact with children of her own age, Beatrix began to be drawn into her own world of creating her own stories, based on animals. Beatrix was a naturally gifted artist, and with some art lessons she also learnt the technical side of drawing. She later wrote:
During her childhood, and especially in the Lake District, she looked after many animals, such as; rabbits, frogs, and even bats. She drew these animals throughout her childhood, gradually improving the standard of her drawings. Beatrix was also interested in natural history; she would spend many hours drawing wildlife such as fungi and flowers. At one time she had aspirations to develop this scientific interest professionally. An uncle tried to help her become a student at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, but she was rejected because of her gender. Nevertheless, she later became respected for her contribution to mycology – the study of fungi.
In her early 20s, Beatrix’s parents tried to arrange a suitable partner for Beatrix to marry. Many suitable suitors were found, however for each prospective marriage partnership Beatrix turned them down. She was a fiercely independent woman, and she disliked the idea of being tied down to an uneventful domestic life of staying at home and bringing up children. Thus, unusually for the late Victorian time period, Beatrix remained single and stayed at home.
In her 20s that she sought to try and get her children’s book and drawings published. Her initial attempts proved unsuccessful, but she persevered and eventually it was taken on by Frederick Warne & Company. The first book was published in 1902, when Beatrix was 36. The publishers did not have much hope it would sell many copies; they actually gave the project to their youngest brother, Norman, as a kind of test for his first project. However, Norman proved to be a good choice. He warmed to both the book and Beatrix. He was determined to make a success of the book and developed a good working relationship with Beatrix as they pored over the individual details of the book. It was Norman who insisted that each drawing of Peter Rabbit would be in colour. Beatrix insisted that the book remain small, so that it would be easy for children to hold. By the end of the year, 28,000 copies were in print.
Beatrix also had a good business sense. As early as 1903, she patented a Peter Rabbit doll. These spin offs provided a good source of additional income, enabling her to become wealthy.
The relationship between Norman and Beatrix blossomed, and eventually they became engaged in 1906. However, Beatrix’s parents disapproved. They felt it wrong for Beatrix to marry a tradesman. However, they eventually relented, but insisted Beatrix live apart for 6 months; giving her time to change her mind. Tragically, before the wedding could take place, Norman passed away, dying of pernicious anaemia. Beatrix was devastated, she wrote a letter to his sister, Millie, saying; “He did not live long, but he fulfilled a useful happy life. I must try to make a fresh beginning next year.”
After his death, Beatrix moved to the Lakeland. In 1905, she bought Hill Top farm, in Sawry, Cumbria. She lived here for the remainder of her life. Due to failing eyesight, Beatrix later stopped writing her children books; instead, she devoted her time to the breading of sheep and helping the conservation of Lakeland farms. She was particularly interested in the breeding and raising of local Herdwick sheep, and she became one of the major Herdwick sheep farmers of the area. She felt very much as home in the local agricultural shows:
She married William Heelis in 1913, when she was 47. The couple were childless, though Beatrix played an active role in William’s extended family, such as his many nieces of his brothers and sisters. In this later period, her writing tailed off. She only wrote and drew a small quantity, mostly for her own interest. Her life was taken up with farming, conservation and looking after her family.
Due to proceeds from her very successful books and later her inheritance, Beatrix was able to buy many working farms. On her death she left over 4,000 acres to the National Trust. It is one of the biggest legacy’s ever made.
Potter wrote 23 books. Some of her best know titles include:
• The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902)
• The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903)
• The Tailor of Gloucester (1903)
• The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904)
• The Tale of Two Bad Mice (1904)
• The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (1905)
• The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan (1905)
• The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906)
• The Story of A Fierce Bad Rabbit (1906)
In 2007 a film Miss Potter was released, starring Renée Zellwege. It focused mainly on the events surrounding her early publications, and romance with Norman Warne.