A Brief History
On December 16, 1901, British artist and conservationist Beatrix Potter self-published the book that would launch her literary career, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, a book that would sell 45 million copies (Note: Number of copies sold and ranking among various best selling lists vary by source. The initial success of the book led to it being published by an established publisher a year later.) Peter Rabbit would end up as perhaps the 10th best selling Children’s Book of all time, and around the 35th best selling book of any type in history. Ah, but Potter was much more than just a writer of Children’s Books, as this article will demonstrate!
Born in the Kensington district of London, England in 1866, Potter was the daughter of a successful barrister (lawyer) and was from a well off family (her father had scored well in the stock market) with political and industrial connections. Beatrix remained a resident of the same house she had been born into until her marriage later in life at the age of 47 in 1913. (This house was destroyed by German bombing during World War II.) A Plaque on the school building that occupies the site of the Potter home commemorates the past location of the house. In the fashion of rich English girls of the day, Beatrix was educated by a series of governesses.
As she grew up largely away from the public, Beatrix maintained a series of pets on which she practiced her artistic ability by creating paintings and drawings of the animals. Her ability as an artist served her well as she was the illustrator of her books that came later. Potter also was a noted artist depicting various fungi and her illustrations of those fungi were well received by scientists in the field of mycology, the study of fungi (mushrooms and the like). She enjoyed painting and drawing all sorts of natural subjects, animals, plants and outdoor things and developed a love of the outdoors and all things natural. As a teenager Beatrix developed her own code by which she wrote and kept a diary which she called her Journal. This Journal was decoded and published in 1958, and proved to be not an insight into the private life of Beatrix but rather more her observations on events and society as well as practice writings and sketches. This window into British upper-class life ended in 1897 when Beatrix became too busy to continue keeping the diary.
Potter’s breakthrough as a writer came in 1901, with the rousing success of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and in 1905 she bought a farm in which to enjoy her love of natural landscapes and other natural subjects. She went on to write a total of 23 Children’s Books which became her main claim to fame, but she also excelled at animal husbandry, raising award winning Herdwick sheep, and agriculture, running a profitable farm while using conservation techniques. Not only an excellent writer and illustrator, Potter astutely managed a line of spin-off products based on her Children’s Books, including dolls, blankets, paintings, tea sets and figurines. (A business model taken to heart by modern publishers and movie makers.)
Potter studied a wide range of scientific subjects through private education instead of university study, especially natural sciences and particularly mycology of which she studied and published a paper on, though her gender precluded normal acceptance of her scientific work. Her work is much better appreciated today, and the drawings and writings she donated to the Armitt Museum and Library are being studied by modern researchers. In recognition of her work that was once rebuffed and is now admitted being of scientific value, the Linnean Society published an apology in 1997 for their previous failure to accept Potter’s scientific contributions. Her illustrations of various fungi remain some of the most respected depictions of fungi and are found in art museums.
Potter found literary influence in fairy tales and simple fiction, sources such as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Aesop’s Fables, and the work of writers such as Hans Christian Anderson and Lewis Caroll, among others. Beatrix turned her illustrating talents to other works of Children’s Books, such as the Uncle Remus stories, traditional fairy tales, and even Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Her fascination with art led her to visit art museums and make notations in her Journal that mark her as an astute critic of art. Her art can also be found on the Christmas cards produced by Beatrix and her brother in the 1890’s, as well as a variety of other special occasion cards. Her illustrations were prolific and found many different applications including other people’s books and magazines.
It was Potter’s work managing her farm that brought her to her husband, a mere country solicitor in the eyes of her parents who actually disapproved of her marriage plans despite her advanced age (47). Her farm was the inspiration for some of her literary work, including The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck and The Tale of Tom Kitten. The farming practiced by Potter was of a conservation nature, using techniques such as “fell farming.” Beatrix supported conservation measures in the Lake District in which her farm was located, and she sought to preserve the natural state of the countryside. She subsequently bought a series of farms on which to practice her brand of farming and animal raising.
Potter died of pneumonia compounded by heart disease in 1943, at the age of 77 (her death preceding that of her husband). She left her original illustrations to the National Trust, a foremost British conservation society. Beatrix left her merchandising rights to her publisher (now under the Penguin Books publishing umbrella). Her original farm, called Hill Top, was also left to the National Trust and was opened to the public in 1946. Some of her other manuscripts, drawings, paintings, and other memorabilia was left to museums. Needless to say, her stories and characters have appeared in numerous other cultural adaptations such as television, cartoons, movies and the like. Even an asteroid was named in her honor in 2017, the so called “13975 Beatrixpotter.”
Beatrix Potter is best remembered for her literary work that has entertained children for several generations now, but she was much, much more than just a writer of books for kids. A remarkable woman and a remarkable person, Beatrix Potter deserves to be remembered for all her accomplishments and her legacy of natural conservation.
Questions for Students (and others): Have you read any of the Beatrix Potter books? Did you know Beatrix Potter had a scientific side? Who is your favorite author of Children’s Books? Why do you think the scientific papers submitted by Beatrix Potter and other female researchers were rejected?
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For more information, please see…
Lear, Linda. Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016.
McDowell, Marta. Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales. Timber Press, 2013.
Potter, Beatrix. A Beatrix Potter Treasury. Warne, 2007.
Zach, Emily. The Art of Beatrix Potter: Sketches, Paintings, and Illustrations. Chronicle Books, 2016.
The featured image in this article, a cover of the first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) by Beatrix Potter (1866–1943) from Aleph-bet Books, is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923. The author died in 1943, so this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.