“Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.”*
Helen Beatrix Potter was born on this day in South Kensington, London in 1866. Today is the 146th anniversary of her birth.
Beatrix and her younger brother (Walter) Bertram were raised in London, but enjoyed long holidays in rural Scotland and the English Lake District. According to the web site for the Beatrix Potter Society she was educated by a governess at home and loved languages and literature especially fairy tales and folk tales. Her early talent for drawling and as a water colorist was encouraged and she illustrated several popular fairy tales for her family’s entertainment. She wrote stories about the family pets . The children kept “rabbits, a hedgehog, some mice and bats…” most of which would one day wind up in her stories.
She kept a journal — written in a code she invented herself (and which was not deciphered until 1958) — and a sketchbook. In her 20’s she “sold some of her artwork for greetings (sic) cards and illustrations” but she largely concerned herself with the study of natural history, giving special focus to mycology — the study of fungi. She produced beautiful and technically accurate watercolors of mushrooms and became an adept scientific illustrator. She wrote a paper on the reproduction of fungi. On April 1, 1897 the paper was presented by a male scientist since women weren’t allowed to attend, much less present at, The Linnean Society (“the world’s oldest biological society” has since changed their Men Only policy).
She also wrote delightful letters to children of her acquaintance that were wonderfully illustrated and told tales of little woodland creatures and pets. In 1901 she adapted some of those letters into The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Since she couldn’t get any commercial publishers to take on the book she self published the initial edition. But then Frederick Warne & Co. agreed print Peter Rabbit and Potter converted the black and white illustrations to color.
Norman Warne, the youngest son of the publishing magnet was assigned as Potter’s editor and the two brought twenty Potter books to market, usually at a rate of 2 or 3 a year. Potter also marketed stuffed animals, paint books and wall paper based on the characters in her books.
In 1905 Norman Warne proposed to Beatrix Potter. Her parents vehemently against the match because Warne was socially inferior and “from Trade.” Beatrix found this ironic since her grand parents had been engaged in the cotton trade. But ultimately their pressure won out and she kept the engagement a secret. It didn’t matter. Norman had lymphatic leukemia — a disease that was hard to diagnose at the turn of the century — he died within a month. Potter was summoned to the sick bed, but she arrived too late.
Beatrix bought Hill Top Farm in the Lake District in Lancashire as a sanctuary. She wanted to paint, write and learn about land management. Later she purchased Castle Farm across the road from Hill Top Farm. Her goal was to preserve land in the area from development.
In 1923 she bought and restored Troutbeck Park. The sheep at Troutbeck were disease-ridden and under her stewardship the Herdwick sheep were restored to health. She became very involved in the local community and joined several committees to help improve rural live including the founding of a nursing trust to improve local health care. In 1913 she married a local solicitor, William Heelis.In 1926 the semi-autobiographical The Fairy Caravan was published in the United States (it didn’t show up in England until after she passed away).
At her death Beatrix Potter Heelis left 4,000 acres, on 15 farms, in the Lake District to the National Trust.
The Beatrix Potter Society was founded in 1980 to promotes the appreciation of the life and works the author. Please see their web site and the excellent article by Linda Lear for more information on Potter.
The relationship between Beatrix Potter and Norman Warne is basis of the film Ms. Potter starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.
*Perhaps her teachers were forced to teach to the TEST!
AND Maggie would like you to know that Beatrix Potter is NOT Harry Potter’s Muggle cousin.