26 November 2013

Beatrix Potter: artist, photographer, writer and farmer

Like most children on the planet, I was read Beatrix Potter books as a child. But why did a grown woman dedicate herself to animal stories?

Beatrix Potter was born in London in 1866, to two independently weathly parents. She was educated at home by governesses and grew up isolated from other children. Beatrix had many pets and, through holidays spent in the country, found she loved flora, fauna (rabbits, frogs etc) and their habitat. She sketched everything that moved, developing her talents from an early age. 

Her dad Rupert took up photography in the early days of that medium, the 1860s. A skilled amateur, he was el­ect­ed to the Photographic Soc­iety of London in 1869 and participated in their exh­ib­itions. Young Beatrix loved to accompany her father on photographic ex­p­editions where he instructed her about composition, light and subjects.

Every summer, Rupert Potter would rent a country house; firstly Dal­guise House in Perthshire for the summers of 1871-81 where Beatrix wrote letters decorated with drawings that she later used for her characters Peter Rabbit and Jeremy Fisher. Then later they went to Lin­deth Howe in the English Lake District where Beatrix illust­r­at­ed The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes and Pigling Bland. Scotland and the Lake District were clearly her key formative locations.

Beatrix Potter and William Heelis' engagement photo,
December 1912

When Potter came of age, her parents appointed her as their house-keeper and discouraged any notion of personal freedom. They did not want her to go out with men, get married or have babies of her own. So she dutifully obeyed, and recorded her everyday life in a journal, written in code.

Beatrix’s uncle wanted to introduce her as a student at the Royal Bot­an­ic Gardens at Kew, but she was rejected because she was female. As the only way to record microscopic images then was by painting them, Potter made endless draw­ings of lichens and fungi. As the result of her observations, she became widely respected across the scientific world as a fungi expert. Needless to say, the Royal Society refused to publish her technical papers.

She sent her black and white picture letters to six publishers, but was turned down by all of them. In Sept 1901, she decided to self-publish and self-distribute cop­ies of her book The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Later that year, because the colour printing blocks were mak­ing other children’s books popular, she finally landed a publisher. The contract was signed June 1902 and the books were printed.

Tale of Peter Rabbit has generated licensed merchand­ise since its first commercial publication. Potter registered the pat­ent for a Peter Rabbit doll in Dec 1903, and the following year designed a Peter Rabbit board game. Even Wedgwood agreed to create tea sets illustrated with Potter’s characters. Finally the royal­t­ies rolled in. This smart lady now had an independent income from the sales.

Tale of Peter Rabbit
first published in 1902

Hav­ing become financially independent of her controlling parents, she was able to buy Hill Top Farm in the Lake District in 1905. She visited as of­ten as she could, sket­ching the house, garden, countryside and animals for her new books. Her cottage garden at Hill Top was designed in the vernacular gardening style popularised by Gertrude Jekyll; it combined traditional materials, informal and dense plantings, and a mixture of ornalmental and edible plants.

In 1909 she bought another farm opposite Hill Top, Castle Farm, which became her main Lakeland base. Much later she used her inherit­ance to buy the farm at Monk Coniston Estate.

Potter busied her­self writing even more books, eventually reaching a total of 23 succ­esses. With the steady stream of royalties from her books, she began to buy pieces of land under the close guidance of the handsome, young solicitor William Heelis. FINALLY her parents stopped barring her marriage and in October 1913, she and William Heelis were married. Alas her parents’ decades of interference had ensured the couple were too old to have children.
Beatrix Potter Gallery, Hawkshead in Cumbria
It had been William Heelis' law office.

Beatrix died at Castle Cottage in Sawrey in Dec 1943, leaving most of her property to the National Trust: land, cott­ages and farms, all within the Lake District National Park. The V & A holds a large coll­ection of Potter's drawings, letters, original manuscripts, photog­raphs etc in the Beatrix Potter Showcase. The Birnam Institute is in the village of Birnam in Perthshire, SW of Dundee. Part of the building is given over to a Beatrix Potter exhibition inside and to the Beatrix Potter Garden outside. Beatrix Potter Gallery, a National Trust gallery in an old town­house in Hawkshead in Cumbria now disp­lays her original book illustrations. Appropriately this building had been used as the office of Beatrix's husband William Heelis.

Since Beatrix Potter actively supported the National Trust during her own adulthood and bequeathed Hill Top to the Trust in her will, it made sense for the Trust to open Hill Top to the public in 1946. This lovely farmhouse is not huge (6 rooms) but it has become a firm favourite with British and overseas travellers on a literary pilgrimage.

17th century farnmhouse at Hill Top, Ambleside
photo credits: National Trust (front) and Discover Britain Magazine (first floor landing)

I recommend a new book called Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children's Tales, written by Marta McDowell and published by Timber Press in 2013.


Mandy said...

I have to wonder what my fellow train passengers thought of me when I read this post. My brow was furrowed in a deep frown and I kept opening and closing my mouth in dismay. Poor Beatrix who inspired millions of children (and adults) around the world was so badly treated!

I visited Hawkshead, Coniston and other towns around the Lake District and loved seeing all of the important Beatrix Potter sites.

Hermes said...

The film gave a good flavour I thought. Her Father obviously had an artistic eye going by his photos which have been rather neglected

Hels said...


I wonder how Beatrix Potter got up the courage to get engaged to her first fiance, Norman Warne, in 1905. The poor sod died within 4 weeks of their engagement, so she was certainly very miserable for ages :(

So she didn't see another man until late 1912. And even then, she was afraid to tell her parents about the engagement to Heelis! For a woman born in 1866, she was certainly obeying her parents for a VERY long time.

Her mother died in 1931!

Hels said...


her father had an _excellent_ eye and was a very good teacher. The two of them loved spending time together on their trips out into the countryside.

Do you have a reference to Rupert Potter's photos? I have not seen them.

Anonymous said...

There is something a bit rude about Beatrix Potter china. I heard about it years ago but I have never checked. Is it something you are aware of?

Hels said...


Squirrel Nutkin and Peter Rabbit were both very naughty little animals, that is true. But if you mean there is animal pornography on the children's cereal bowls, no I don't think I have heard of that.

Anyhow, I don't think Beatrix saw many naughty bits herself until she was giving 50 a nudge.

Hermes said...


Hels said...


brilliant, thank. I will add a link in the post.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Beatrix Potter had a lot of interesting facets to her personality that I was aware. A knowing accuracy in the botanic elements adds considerably to the particular charm of Potter's illustrations, and now we know why.

Her parents don't seem abusive or particularly strict--perhaps they just had higher aspirations for their daughter. Perhaps to modern ears that sounds more negative than it did then.

g5creativegroup said...

Professional commercial photographers are able to conjure with different types of objects. Whether it is a corporate brochure or a firm marketing report, they are proficient enough to come up with high-quality images so that the viewers are left spellbound. One of the most common fields in which these photographers can outshine is architectural Photography as it requires an artful portrayal of interiors and exteriors. In contrast to as effortless as it sounds, it demands a lot of expertise to get the preferred results. Commercial photography can depict anything-right from buildings, products, and office parks to new construction sites in an imaginative way.

Hels said...


Potter's parents had no worse aspirations for their daughter than many families. My own father and his four brothers got married, had babies and visited their parents once a week - their only sister had to stay home and be her parents' house keeper. The five boys supported her financially, as their quid pro quo.

But there are two extra points to consider. Beatrix's delight in her farm and the pleasure she got from having annual holidays at Hill Top, caused her parents to become very very distressed.

And in 1902 Bertram Potter secretly married in Edinburgh. Although the parents did not cut Bertram off, they were not well pleased with his independent decision making.

Hels said...


Are you alluding to Rupert Potter's photography?

Hels said...


found this that might interest you:



Hels said...


I read your document... many thanks.

"All the photographs from the Millais collection held in the Witt were taken by Rupert Potter. The Potter family were good friends with the Millais family and often spent summer holidays together in Perthshire".

So Rupert wasn't just a barrister taking the odd holiday snap... he was seriously well connected.

Leon Sims said...

You have inspired me to pull out "Miss Potter" with Renee and Ewan tomorrow night for our champagne friday night movie. I might even take out my Beatrix Potter Cash's framed woven pictures to look at.
I worked at Cash's for some years and have a small collection hiding in a wardrobe somewhere. I wonder if I should put them on eBay? Great reading as always.

Hels said...


Love your comment :) Beatrix Potter's characters certainly made a _huge_ impact on our young lives... in text, images and decorative objects for the house.

I wonder if that is true for the new generation of children - do they know Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle Duck at all? Do they know Mickey Mouse better? Do they not read about animals at all and go straight to Star Wars?

Hels said...

I have added a reference to Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children's Tales, written by Marta McDowell. I loved the use of Arts and Crafts style materials and labour.

Britain|The 2014 Guide said...

The Tale of Tom Kitten clearly takes place in the house at Hill Top. Visitors today can wander the vegetable patch with its neat rows of lettuce and cabbage, and can explore inside the house itself too.
The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher is set on nearby Esthwaite Water, a lovely 280-acre lake.

Hels said...

Thank you. I hope visitors take the opportunity to travel around. I, for example, know Hill Top well, but have never seen Esthwaite Water.

Discover Britain Magazine said...

Hill Top is something of a time capsule illustrating the author's personality; the herb, flower and fruit garden (kept as it was during Potter's day) is irresistible for garden enthusiasts and the likes of Peter Rabbit.

Jan/Feb 2015

Hels said...

Many thanks. I agree that the garden was and is a reflection of Potter's personality. Yes the vernacular gardening style was popularised by Gertrude Jekyll, but the cottage garden at Hill Top was REALLY important to a woman who had not been taken seriously as a botanist.

Train Man said...

In todays lecture on Potter, I was very interested in the Lake District, a place I have never visited. It must have been important to her writing and garden work.

Hels said...

Train Man

one of the questions we have to answer about all of these writers and artists is why did they choose to leave the big smoke and live in remote and small villages and rural surroundings? John Ruskin may have had the answer in general (avoiding industial filth and degradation etc) but Potter had her particular reasons. She was fascinated by natural history, conservation and serious farm usage.

Discover Britain Magazine said...

From the first-ever National Trust book festival, to guided walks through Beatrix Potter’s beloved Lake District countryside, 2016 will mark 150 years since her birth and will be a year to remember. See original artwork exhibitions, a choice of two showcase tours and celebratory birthday picnics.

A] Realism and Romance: Beatrix Potter, a life inspired by nature
Beatrix Potter Gallery, Hawkshead
13th February to 30th October 2016
Explore Beatrix’s lifelong passion for the natural world, how it inspired her art work and led to the protection of her beloved Lake District.

B] Two Bad Mice: the mischief in Beatrix Potter’s tales
Wordsworth House and Garden, Cockermouth
12th March to 30th June 2016
Revisit the magic of childhood with Beatrix’s best-loved characters. Enjoy her dark humour and the glorious chaos of naughty mice and curious kittens breaking the rules.

Hels said...

Discover Britain

thanks for letting me know in enough time to make plans for next year. I hope the 150th anniversary year goes very well.

Hels said...

Beatrix Potter, 1866-1943: The Artist and her World was first prepared to accompany an exhibition at Tate Britain. It was written by Judy Taylor et al and published by The National Trust in 1987.