One of the world’s greatest children’s writers and illustrators, Beatrix Potter created some of the most recognisable characters in English literature, including Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck and Benjamin Bunny.
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Everything was romantic in my imagination. The woods were peopled by the mysterious good folk. The Lords and Ladies of the last century walked with me long the overgrown paths, and picked the old fashioned flowers among the box and rose hedges of the garden.
Born in 1866, Beatrix Potter spent most of her early life in London. Her father was a barrister by profession but was also an excellent amateur photographer. He made sure the young Beatrix and her younger brother Bertram received private painting tuition alongside their other lessons. Beatrix loved to read; in particular fairy tales. Two of her childhood favourites were Alice in Wonderland (she poured over John Tenniel’s illustrations and even tried her hand at her own) and the nonsense verse of Edward Lear.
The family were passionate about the natural world, taking regular holidays in Scotland and the Lake District where the whole family would go out armed with sketchbooks to capture the world around them. The two Potter children also kept a variety of pets in the schoolroom including Peter the rabbit, a canary, a budgerigar and a frog called Punch. When Bertram went away to school he remembered to leave her with plenty of friends to entertain her, including gifting her a pair of unusual long-eared bats.
It was these early sketches that were to become the seeds of inspiration for her best-loved stories.
A Certain Little Rabbit Called Peter
Painfully shy, Beatrix was not a natural socialite, despite the urging of her family who were keen to see her married and settled. The Potters were wealthy and moved in elite circles; the young Beatrix was teased by John Everett Millais and attended parties frequented by some of the most notable literary and artistic figures of the day, including Oscar Wilde.
A talented amateur mycologist, a modern day Beatrix Potter might well have gone on to pursue a career in botany or natural sciences. The early 19th century offered her no such options. At 25, Beatrix was by any ordinary measure of the time, a failure. She was unmarried, with no prospect of being so, still in the nursery where she remained well into adulthood - a decided spinster.
To earn some money, Beatrix and Bertram successfully designed and sold their own greeting’s cards which Beatrix illustrated with the animal designs that were to become her trademark. However, the character destined to become her most famous creation came out of a little storybook she sent (accompanying one of her many ‘picture letters’) to entertain the children of her former governess, Annie Moore in 1893.
It took a further seven years for Beatrix’s story to reach print but finally, after much amendment, Warne’s publishers agreed to produce a modest print-run of her ‘little book’ (as Beatrix always referred to it) about a certain Mr Peter Rabbit.
Over the course of her writing career, Beatrix Potter went on to publish another twenty-two animal stories, introducing some of the most popular and recognisable children’s characters of all-time including: Jemima Puddle-Duck, Squirrel Nutkin and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle along with other stories and books on how to paint.
An astute and pioneering businesswoman, Beatrix was entirely involved with every facet of her books’ production and had almost endless ideas for toys and games to accompany them. She even came up with a prototype doll for Peter Rabbit and designed her own wallpaper.
It was in the Lake District where her heart truly belonged though and in she bought Hill Top Farm in Cumbria. She had intended to live there with Frederick Warne, the editor at her publishers who she had become engaged to that year, but tragically Warne died a month after they agreed to marry. Beatrix remained living in the nursery of her parent’s house until she met and married her solicitor William Heelis in 1913 and gave up writing altogether to concentrate on farming. She lived at Hill Top for the rest of her life and after her death the house and adjoining land were bequeathed to the National Trust. This is still the largest legacy ever left to the Trust in the North West, encompassing 4,000 acres and 15 farms.
Beatrix died in 1943 having devoted her later life to the countryside she loved so much, working as hard on her farms as she had at her writing, her ethos was always “I would rather keep going till I drop – early or late – never mind what the work is, so long as it is useful and well done.”
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