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,
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.