Beatrix Potter

Peter Rabbit's Creator

Beatrix Potter, 1890s
Beatrix Potter, 1890s. Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Beatrix Potter Facts

Known for: writing and illustrating classic children's stories, featuring anthropomorphic country animals, often-sophisticated vocabulary, unsentimental themes often dealing with danger. Less well-known: her natural history illustrations, scientific discovery and conservation efforts.
Occupation: writer, illustrator, artist, naturalist, mycologist, conservationist.
Dates: July 28, 1866 - December 22, 1943
Also known as: Helen Potter, Helen Beatrix Potter, Mrs. Heelis

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Helen Leech
  • Father: Rupert Potter
  • Siblings: Bertram
  • Birthplace: Bolton Gardens, South Kensington, London, England
  • Religion: Unitarian

Education:

  • privately educated

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: William Heelis (married 1913; solicitor)
  • children: none

Beatrix Potter Biography:

After an isolated childhood, and for much of her life controlled by her parents, Beatrix Potter explored scientific illustration and investigation before giving up in the face of exclusion from scientific circles. She wrote her famous children's books, then married and turned to sheep herding and conservation.

Childhood

Beatrix Potter was born the first child of wealthy parents, both heirs to cotton fortunes. Her father, a non-practicing barrister, enjoyed painting and photography.

Beatrix Potter was raised mainly by governesses and servants. She lived a quite isolated childhood until the birth of her brother Bertram 5-6 years after her own.

Eventually he was sent to boarding school and she was back to isolation other than during summers.

Most of Beatrix Potter's education was from tutors at home. She became very interested in nature on summer trips for three months to Scotland during her earlier years and, starting in her teen years, to England's Lake District.

During these summer trips, Beatrix and her brother Bertram explored the outdoors.

She became interested in natural history, including plants, birds, animals, fossils and astronomy. She kept many pets as a child, a habit she continued later in life. These pets, often adopted during summer trips and sometimes taken back to the London house, included mice, rabbits, frogs, a tortoise, lizards, bats, a snake and a hedgehog named "Miss Tiggy." A rabbit was named Peter and another Benjamin.

The two siblings collected animal and plant specimens. With Bertram, Beatrix studied animal skeletons. Fungus-hunting and collecting samples was another summer pastime.

Beatrix was encouraged in her developing interest in art by her governesses and her parents. She began with flower sketches. In her teens, she painted accurate images of what she saw with a microscope. Her parents arranged for private instruction in drawing when she was aged 12 to 17. This work led to a certificate as an art student from the Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education, the only educational certification she ever achieved.

Beatrix Potter also read widely. Among her reading were Maria Edgeworth stories, Sir Walter Scott Waverley novels and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Beatrix Potter wrote a diary in code from ages 14 to 31, which was deciphered and published in 1966.

Scientist

Her drawing and nature interests led Beatrix Potter to spend time at the British Museum of Natural History near her London home. She drew fossils and embroidery, and began also studying fungi there. She connected with a Scottish fungi expert, Charles McIntosh, who encouraged her interest.

Using a microscope to observe fungi, and getting them to reproduce at home from spores, Beatrix Potter worked on a book of drawings of fungi. Her uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe, brought the drawings to the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, but he showed no interest in the work. George Massee, the assistant director at the Botanical Gardens, did take interest in what she was doing.

When she produced a paper documenting her work with fungi, "The Germination of the Spores of Agaricinaea, George Massee presented the paper at the Linnaean Society of London.

Potter could not present it there herself, because women were not permitted to enter the Society. But the all-male Society showed no further interest in her work, and Potter turned to other paths.

Illustrator

In 1890, Potter offered some illustrations of fanciful animals to a London card publisher, thinking they could be used on Christmas cards. This led to an offer: to illustrate a book of poems by Frederick Weatherley (who may have been a friend of her father). The book, which Potter illustrated with pictures of well-dressed rabbits, was titled A Happy Pair.

While Beatrix Potter continued to live at home, under fairly tight control of her parents, her brother Bertram managed to move out to Roxburghshire, where he took up farming.

Peter Rabbit

Beatrix Potter continued drawing, including drawings of animals included in letters to children of her acquaintance. One such correspondent was her former governess, Mrs. Annie Carter Moore. Hearing that Moore's 5-year-old son Noel was ill with scarlet fever, on September 4, 1893, Beatrix Potter sent him a letter to cheer him up, including a little story about Peter Rabbit, complete with sketches illustrating the story.

Beatrix became involved in work with the National Trust, to preserve open land for future generations. She worked with Canon H. D. Rawnsly, who convinced her to create a picture book of her Peter Rabbit story. Potter then sent to book to six different publishers, but found no one willing to take her work. So she published the book privately, with her drawing and story, with about 250 copies, in December 1901. The next year one of the publishers she'd contacted, Frederick Warne & Co., took up the story, and published it, substituting water color illustrations for the earlier drawings. She also published The Tailor of Gloucester privately that year, and later Warne reprinted it. She insisted that it be published as a small book, small enough for a child to easily hold it.

Independence

Her royalties began to give her some financial independence from her parents.

Working with the youngest son of the publisher, Norman Warne, she became closer to him, and over her parents' objections (because he was a tradesman), they became engaged. They announced their engagement in July, 1905, and four weeks later, in August, he died of leukemia. She wore her engagement ring from Warne on her right hand, for the rest of her life.

Success as Author/Illustrator

The period from 1906 to 1913 was her most productive as an author/illustrator. She continued writing and illustrating books. She used her royalties to buy a farm in the Lake District, near the town of Sawrey. She named it "Hill Top." She rented it to the existing tenants, and visited often, though she continued to live with her parents.

She not only published books with her stories, she oversaw their design and production. She also insisted on copyrighting the characters, and she helped promote products based on the characters. She herself oversaw production of the first Peter Rabbit doll, insisting it be made in Britain. She supervised other products to the end of her life, including bibs and blankets, dishes and board games.

In 1909, Beatrix Potter bought another Sawrey property, Castle Farm. A local solicitors' firm managed the property, she she planned improvements with the help of a young partner at the firm, William Heelis. Eventually, they became engaged. Potter's parents disapproved of this relationship, too, but her brother Bertram supported her engagement -- and revealed his own secret marriage to a woman their parents also considered below their station.

Marriage and Life as a Farmer

In October 1913, Beatrix Potter married William Heelis in a Kensington church, and they moved to Hill Top. Although both were notably shy, from most accounts she dominated the relationship, and also enjoyed her new role as a wife. She published only a few more books. By 1918, her eyesight was failing.

Her father and brother both died soon after her marriage, and with her inheritance, she was able to buy a large sheep farm outside Sawrey, and the couple moved there in 1923. Beatrix Potter (now preferring to be known as Mrs. Heelis) focused on farming and land conservation. In 1930 she became the first woman elected as president of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders' Association. She continued to work with the National Trust to preserve open lands for posterity.

By that time, she was no longer writing. In 1936, she turned down an offer by Walt Disney to turn Peter Rabbit into a film. She was approached by a writer, Margaret Lane, who proposed writing a biography; Potter rudely discouraged Lane.

Death and Legacy

Beatrix Potter died in 1943 of uterine cancer. Two more of her stories were published posthumously. She left Hill Top and her other land to the National Trust. Her home, in the Lake District, became a museum. Margaret Lane was able to pressure Heelis, Potter's widow, into cooperating on the biography, which was published in 1946. That same year, Beatrix Potter's home was opened to the public.

In 1967, her fungi paintings -- initially rejected by the London Botanical Gardens -- were used in a guide to English fungi. And in 1997, the Linnaean Society of London, which had refused her admittance to read her own research paper, hnorored her with an apology for her exclusion.

Beatrix Potter's Illustrated Children's Books

  • The Tale of Peter Rabbit. 1901, 1902.
  • The Tailor of Gloucester. 1902, 1903.
  • The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. 1903.
  • The Tale of Benjamin Bunny. 1904.
  • The Tale of Two Bad Mice. 1904.
  • The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. 1905.
  • The Pie and the Patty-Pan. 1905. As The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan. 1930.
  • The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher. 1906.
  • The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit. 1906.
  • The Story of Miss Moppet. 1906.
  • The Tale of Tom Kitten. 1907.
  • The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. 1908.
  • The Roly-Poly Pudding. 1908. As The Tale of Samuel Whiskers; or, The Roly-Poly Pudding. 1926.
  • The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. 1909.
  • Ginger and Pickles. 1909.
  • The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse. 1910.
  • Peter Rabbit's Painting Book. 1911.
  • The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes. 1911.
  • The Tale of Mr. Tod. 1912.
  • The Tale of Pigling Bland. 1913.
  • Tom Kitten's Painting Book. 1917.
  • The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse. 1918.
  • Jemima Puddle-Duck's Painting Book. 1925.
  • Peter Rabbit's Almanac for 1929. 1928.
  • The Fairy Caravan. 1929.
  • The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. 1930.
  • Wag-by-Wall, Horn Book. 1944.
  • Yours Affectionately, Peter Rabbit: Miniature Letters by Beatrix Potter, edited by Anne Emerson. 1983.
  • The Complete Tales of Peter Rabbit: And Other Favorite Stories. 2001.

Rhymes / Verse

  • Appley Dapply's Nursery Rhymes. 1917.
  • Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes. 1922.
  • Beatrix Potter's Nursery Rhyme Book. 1984.

Illustrator

  • F. E. Weatherley. A Happy Pair. 1893.
  • Comical Customers. 1894.
  • W. P. K. Findlay. Wayside and Woodland Fungi. 1967.
  • Joel Chandler Harris. Tales of Uncle Remus.
  • Lewis Carroll. Alice in Wonderland.

Written by Beatrix Potter, Illustrated by Others

  • Sister Anne. Illustrated by Katharine Sturges. 1932.
  • The Tale of the Faithful Dove. Illustrated by Marie Angel. 1955, 1956.
  • The Tale of Tuppenny. Illustrated by Marie Angel. 1973.

More by Beatrix Potter

  • The Art of Beatrix Potter: Direct Reproductions of Beatrix Potter's Preliminary Studies and Finished Drawings, Also Examples of Her Original Manuscript. Leslie Linder and W. A. Herring, editors. 1955. Revised edition, 1972.
  • The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881 to 1897, transcribed from her code writing by Leslie Linder. 1966.
  • Letters to Children, Harvard College Library Department of Printing and Graphic Arts. 1967.
  • Beatrix Potter's Birthday Book. Enid Linder, editor. 1974.
  • Dear Ivy, Dear June: Letters from Beatrix Potter. Margaret Crawford Maloney, editor. 1977.
  • Beatrix Potter's Americans: Selected Letters. Jane Crowell Morse, editor. 1981.
  • Beatrix Potter's Letters. Judy Taylor, introduction and selection of letters. 1989.

Books About Beatrix Potter

  • Margaret Lane. The Tale of Beatrix Potter. 1946. Revised edition, 1968.
  • Marcus Crouch. Beatrix Potter. 1960, 1961.
  • Dorothy Aldis. Nothing Is Impossible: The Story of Beatrix Potter. 1969.
  • Leslie Linder. A History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter including Unpublished Work. 1971.
  • Leslie Linder. The History of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit". 1976.
  • Margaret Lane. The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter. 1978.
  • Ulla Hyde Parker. Cousin Beatie: A Memory of Beatrix Potter. 1981.
  • Deborah Rolland. Beatrix Potter in Scotland. 1981.
  • Elizabeth M. Buttrick. The Real World of Beatrix Potter. 1986.
  • Ruth MacDonald. Beatrix Potter. 1986.
  • Judy Taylor. Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman. 1986.
  • Elizabeth Buchan. Beatrix Potter. 1987.
  • Judy Taylor. That Naughty Rabbit: Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit. 1987.
  • Judy Taylor, Joyce Irene Whalley, Anne Hobbs and Elizabeth M. Buttrick. Beatrice Potter 1866 - 1943: The Artist and Her World. 1987, 1988.
  • Wynne Bartlett and Joyce Irene Whalley. Beatrix Potter's Derventwater. 1988.
  • Alexander Grinstein. The Remarkable Beatrix Potter. 1995.
  • Elizabeth Buchan, Beatrix Potter and Mike Dodd. Beatrix Potter: The Story of the Creator of Peter Rabbit (World of Beatrix Potter). 1998.
  • John Heelis. Tale of Mrs. William Heelis - Beatrix Potter. 1999.
  • Nicole Savy and Diana Syrat. Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit. 2002.
  • Hazel Gatford. Beatrix Potter: Her Art and Inspiration (National Trust Guidebooks). 2006.
  • Linda Lear. Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature. 2008.
  • Annie Bullen. Beatrix Potter. 2009.
  • Susan Denyer. At Home with Beatrix Potter: The Creator of Peter Rabbit. 2009.
  • W.R. Mitchell. Beatrix Potter: Her Lakeland Years. 2010.

Exhibitions of Beatrix Potter Drawings

Some of the exhibitions of the drawings of Beatrix Potter:

  • 1972: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  • 1976: National Book League, London.
  • 1983: Abbott Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria.
  • 1987: Tate Gallery, London.
  • 1988: Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.