Helen Beatrix Potter
(1866—1943)
Beatrix Potter was considered an amateur artist by some because of her lack of training, but her natural affection for animals and rich imagination made up for any deficiencies she may have had and manifested themselves through her illustrations. Although many of mice, rabbits, kittens and hedgehogs wore clothing, they still exhibited their specific animal traits while still reflecting on the life of children. Her illustrations  are just as appealing today as they were ninety years ago. 

Childhood

Helen Beatrix Potter was born on July 28, 1866 in Kensington Square, London, England to Rupert Potter and Helen Leech, but the name Helen was dropped so as not to confuse her with her mother. Both parents having an inheritance from the cotton trade, life in the Potter household was easy and in want for nothing. Rupert Potter was a non-practicing barrister and amateur photographer with influential friends such as Sir John Millais. 

Potter was virtually raised and educated by nurses and governesses with little interaction by her parents. She was relegated to the third floor nursery where she learned to cope with solitude by drawing and painting. Rupert Potter always had an interest in art and, on occasion, he would bring her to the museum or exhibits at the Royal Academy. The little creatures that she was allowed to keep became her only companions until her brother Bertram was born six years later.
 

Bertram shared her love for animals and nature, and together, they would draw and study them. At times they would even skin and dissect dead animals to further understand their skeletal structure. During the summer, the Potters would rent a house in the Scottish highlands or the Lake District of northern England. This was a time of great exploration and freedom for the Potter children, roaming the countryside, gathering plants, rocks, fossils and insects, to study and further their scientific knowledge. When Bertram was old enough, he was sent away to boarding school, leaving Potter as lonely as she had ever been. Sleepless nights were spent memorizing the plays of Shakespeare.

At age fifteen, she started to keep a journal written in a secret code known only to her. The small script, which could only be read with a magnifying glass, took years to crack and translate. Her thoughts, scraps of conversations and political events all found their way into her journal, however, there was nothing found in the translation that would explain it’s secretive nature. This unusual habit continued on for fifteen years.

Education

Potter never received a formal education although she did take private art classes for several years from Miss Cameron. She eventually earned an Art Student’s Certificate from the Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education for becoming proficient in freehand and model drawing, linear perspective and flower painting. In 1883, she took a 12 lesson course in oil painting. Although she learned some figure drawing in her lessons, she expressed regret in her later years that she had never thoroughly studied human anatomy.

Potter was somewhat critical of her teachers. Although she was grateful to them for their help, she knew that only the technical side of art could be taught. She knew that any stylistic preferences that they may have had could be discarded once she was on her own.
 

Her solitary studies of plants and animals contributed to her education more than any textbook could have. There came a time when Potter no longer needed governesses. Since the Potters lived in an area of London within walking distance of the Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert) and the British Museum of Natural History, Potter spent many afternoons there alone sketching, trying to get up enough courage to ask the attendants questions.  From her trips to the museums, she learned how specimens were mounted and how microscopic plates were prepared. She learned how to draw with her eye to the microscope. 

Her interests in entomology, geology and paleontology were only surpassed by her interest in mycology, the study of fungi. For years she collected specimens, identified  and dissected them, painted them in minute detail and even developed theories on mold spores and lichens. Her uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe, was a notable chemist and helped her in her quest to have her work published. In 1896, they met with the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens and other botanists, but they regarded Potter as an amateur and did not take her work seriously. Encouraged by her uncle, Potter wrote a paper about the spores of molds that was delivered to the Linnaean Society of London, but not by Potter because women were not allowed to attend their meetings. Even so, this was a small consolation for the criticism of her fungi projection.

Professional Career

In 1890, encouraged by her friend Canon Rawnsley, she created six sample greeting cards and sent them off to Hildesheimer & Faulkner in Germany. To her surprise, not only did they buy them for £6 but they also requested more. Her first commission was around 1893 for children’s verses by Frederic E. Weatherly called A Happy Pair from Hildesheimer & Faulkner. It included illustrations of rabbits and other animals. 

It was about this same time that she began to write picture letters to the children of her former governess. Noel Moore had been sick with scarlet fever so Potter wrote him, “I don’t know what to write you, so I shall tell you the story about four little rabbits, whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter . . .” Seven years later, Potter decided that it would make a good book for children and asked Noel if he still had the letter. Indeed he had and was happy to lend it to her.
 

Potter extended the original story and redrew the black and white images in preparation for publication. She submitted the manuscript to six different publishers, all which showed no interest. Having a modest sum of money in the bank, she decided to publish it herself. She believed that books for children should be easy for little hands to hold therefore small in size, printed on sturdy paper and should have a picture every time a page was turned. By December of 1901, 250 copies of Peter Rabbit had been published. It sold so well, even Conan Doyle had bought a copy for his children, that three months later, she had another 250 copies printed. 

Potter decided that it wouldn’t hurt to submit her book again to a publisher. She chose Frederick Warne & Co. because their rejection letter was more courteous than the others. They offered to publish Peter Rabbit if she would produce colored illustrations instead of the black and white ones. By the summer of 1902, it had been published and pirated copies soon appeared in America. Since she was 36 years old and still living with her parents, she was elated at finally accomplishing something and having an income of her own. 

Over the next ten years, she illustrated twenty more books. What had started out as a congenial working relationship with Norman Warne, the youngest of the Warne brothers, soon turned to one of mutual respect. He encouraged her creative style and helped her to edit her stories judiciously. In Norman, she found a friend who took a personal interest in her little books. Only to him, was she able to confide that she had secretly purchased a piece of property in Sawrey. Their daily correspondence had not gone unnoticed by her parents and was the cause of much unpleasantness. Publishers, in their eyes, were simple tradesmen and beneath their station in life. Yet, by the summer of 1905 while the Potters were on summer vacation, there came a marriage proposal by post. It was accepted but, sadly, the betrothal lasted less than a month. Norman had suddenly taken ill and died of leukemia while she was still away.

Distraught, Potter took solace in her latest book that she and Norman had planned together. Book sales were doing well and she decided to buy a farm in Sawrey, called Hill Top Farm, which she had fallen in love with years ago. Her desire was to live there someday but she told her parents that it was merely an investment. She found any excuse to go and visit there and feverishly worked on her books in order to afford repairs to the farm. 

In time, she became involved in the affairs of the village and the farm finding less and less time to sketch. Since she needed the income of the books to support the farm, she included the farm and its surrounding landscape in as many pictures as she could. This helped to keep it enjoyable for her. Many of the villagers, their pets and their cottages also made appearances in her books, which caused much amusement amongst them. 
 

During the summer of 1909, while purchasing the neighboring farm, Castle Farm, she met Mr. William Heelis, the solicitor that drew up the contract for the property transfer. They became friendly and by the autumn of 1912, he had proposed. The fact that he was a ‘country solicitor’ did not sit well with the Potters and the argument that ensued wore down Potter until she fell ill with pneumonia. Bertram appeared home about this time, spending most of his time in Scotland now. He supported her by finally announcing to his parents that he himself had been married for the past eleven years. She gradually regained her health and spirit and the Potters grudgingly relented. By the spring of 1913, at the age of forty-six, Potter considered herself engaged. 
Potter’s last little book was published just as she was becoming Mrs. William Heelis of Sawrey on October 15, 1913. She had become a new and independent woman, no longer under the constant scrutiny of her controlling parents. The fantasies that she created were no longer necessary for her as she was no longer lonely. A few more books were put together in later years, but because of failing eyesight, they were pieced together from sketches and drawings done years earlier and sent off to America to be published with orders for them to never be published in England during her lifetime. She always kept rabbits on her farm so little children wouldn’t be disappointed, and told them that the rabbits were descendants of the real Peter Rabbit.

Life on the farm commanded her attention and sheep breeding, specifically her prized Herdwicks, became her passion. She continued to acquire more land and farms in hopes to preserve the Lake District and it’s way of life for future generations. In April of 1939, Potter was admitted to the Women’s Hospital in Liverpool for a hysterectomy. A weakened heart caused by childhood rheumatic fever made her susceptible to flues and colds. The fall of 1943 was particularly hard on Potter and she died on December 22, 1943 at her Castle Farm home, at the age of 77 years old; William followed her two years later. She willed her farm and over 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust, to be preserved for all time.Many of her original drawings are still preserved there at Hill Top Farm.

Six of the little books have been translated into Braille while many of them have been translated into French, Japanese, Dutch, Afrikaans, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, German, Welsh, Latin, Italian and Spanish. Many of her books have never been out of print and the merchandising of ‘Peter Rabbit’ items is still thriving.

Influences

“When I was young it was still the fashion to admire the Pre-Raphaelites; their somewhat niggling but absolutely genuine admiration for copying natural details did certainly influence me.”
Millais, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement,  expressed a general interest in her artwork saying, “Plenty of people can draw, but you and my son John have observation”.  He would occasionally ask about her artwork and she was always grateful for his encouragement. Millais lived nearby and she would accompany her father on occasion when he would visit him. She greatly admired his painting ‘Ophelia’ and described it as “probably one of the most marvelous pictures in the world.” 

The work of Randolph Caldecott was greatly admired by Potter and for a time, she tried to copy him. Some of his original drawings that graced the walls of her nursery room were bought by her father at a sale after Caldecott’s death. She claimed: 

“. . . the greatest admiration for his work—a jealous appreciation; for I think that others, whose names are commonly bracketed with his, are not on the same plane at all as artist-illustrators. For instance, Kate Greenaway’s pictures are very charming, but compared with Caldecott she could not draw.”
From her journal, on Richard Doyle:
“I have always from a little child had a great admiration for his drawings in the old Punches . . . I consider his designs as good and sometimes better than Leech’s.’
And on Gustave Doré:
“ I consider Doré one of the greatest artists in black-and-white.”
She was also known to admire the work of Thomas Bewick, the famed wood engraver/illustrator, and Turner, calling him “the greatest landscape painter that ever has lived.”

Technique and Style

She did her sketching in pencil or pen and ink. For her finished pieces, she worked mostly in watercolor adding pen and ink where it seemed necessary. Occasionally, she would touch up her watercolors with white oil paint to bring out some highlights. Her delicate pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations are charming but it is her studies in her sketchbook that show her true draftsmanship. Her sense of perspective was impeccable and her affinity for detail is evident in her nature studies. 

Potter would write out her stories in an exercise book, paste in a few watercolors and a number of pen-and-ink sketches and then would present it as a gift to a favored child. In this way, she was able to try out her books on real children first. She would then borrow the little book back while working on the finished illustrations. She was not always able to capture the charm of her original sketch and at least on one occasion, the original sketch was used instead of the newer one.

Raison d’Être

In her private journal, she wrote:

“It is all the same, drawing, painting, modeling, the irresistible desire to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye. Why cannot one be content to look at it? I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result.”
So it would seem that that she was compelled to draw, that she could no more stop drawing than she could stop breathing. Yet in her later years, this need waned. Sheep-breeding and gardening filled those former empty hours. Considering how she blossomed after her she declared her independence, it seems that her art had provided her with a means to that independence and the void in her in her life was no longer there.

Again from her journal:

“Latter-day fate ordains that many women shall be unmarried and self-contained, nor should I personally dream to complain, but I hold an old-fashioned notion that a happy marriage is the crown of a woman’s life.”


Books Written and Illustrated by Beatrix Potter

Sketches and Studies by Beatrix Potter

The Peter Rabbit Website
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The Illustrators Project: Helen Beatrix Potter(1866-1943)
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The Beatrix Potter Trail
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Frontispiece to The Tale
of Pigling Bland, London,
Frederick Warne, 1913.
The Tale of Jeremy
Fisher
,
London,
Frederick Warne,

1906.
The Tale of Jeremy
Fisher
,
London,
Frederick Warne,

1906.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit,
London, Frederick Warne,
1902.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit,
London, Frederick Warne,
1902.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit,
London, Frederick Warne,
1902.
The Tale of Benjamin
Bunny, London, Frederick
Warne, 1904.
The Tale of  Mr. Tod,
London, Frederick Warne,
1912
The Tale of Tom Kitten,
London, Frederick Warne,
1907.
Endpapers for her little
books.
The Tale of Pigling Bland,
London, Frederick Waren, 1913.
Sources
Dalby, Richard, The Golden Age of Children's Book Illustration, New York, Gallery Books, 1991.
Hedblad, Alan, editor, Something About the Author, volume 100, Detroit, Gale Publishing, 1999.
Jay, Eileen, Noble, Mary and Hobbs, Anne Stevenson, A Victorian Naturalist, London, Frederick Warne, 1992.
Meyer, Susan E., A Treasury of The Great Children's Book Illustrators. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1983.
Lane, Margaret, The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter, London and New York, Frederick Warne, 1978.
Linder, Enid and Leslie, The Art of Beatrix Potter,  London, Frederick Warne, 1955, revised edition 1972.
Taylor, Judy, et al., Beatrix Potter 1866-1943, The Artist and Her World, Frederick Warne, 1987, reissued 1995.

© 1999–2002 Denise Ortakales

Frederick Warne & Co. is the owner of all rights, copyrights and trademarks in the Beatrix Potter character names and illustrations. www.peterrabbit.com

This page last updated on 24 August 2002.

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