Art & Culture

Wild About Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter was a mycologist, an illustrator, a breeder of Herdwick sheep, and a fierce advocate for the protection of the Lake District. She also wrote children’s stories about a bunny named Peter Rabbit.

Far and away, Beatrix Potter is best known for her whimsical stories featuring the adventures of a variety of anthropomorphic animals such as Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggywinkle, and Jemima Puddle-duck, all of which continue to be published and loved more than a hundred years after they were first published. But Peter Rabbit and friends are only the beginning of the story of a remarkable woman who left a considerable impact on the British landscape.

A watercolor illustration of a brown bunny sitting on his hind legs. He is wearing a blue jacket.
Illustration of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, public domain.

Born in 1866 to upper-middle-class parents, Beatrix was well-educated, but grew up isolated from other children. Her mother, by all accounts, was a demanding woman, and Beatrix found joy in her menagerie of pet animals and in an intense interest in the natural world, which she sketched extensively. 

Beatrix’s first professional forays into drawing were not only of woodland creatures in cute frocks, but were of scientific illustrations of mushrooms. More than an illustrator, Beatrix wrote her observations about fungi into a scientific paper On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae. Likely because of her gender, the Director of Kew Gardens rejected it, and Beatrix withdrew it before it could be submitted elsewhere. 

A vintage illustration of a red and orange mushrooms drawn from a variety of angles.
Beatrix Potter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Beatrix was 16, her family rented a summer house in the Lake District, in northern England. The family returned to the area regularly; it was a decision that would impact the rest of Beatrix’s life. 

A photograph of a hilly, pastoral landscape, taken from the top of a hill. The landscape rolls downwards to where a small village is nestled along the banks of a large lake that is surrounded by hills.
The Lake District, Diliff, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It was during one of her trips to the Lake District that Beatrix sent a letter to the son of a friend telling the story of a naughty rabbit named Peter. Having already sold some of her watercolors, both as greeting cards and to publishers as illustrations for other authors, in 1900, she took her illustrated story of Peter Rabbit and pitched it to numerous publishers. Her book was widely rejected until it was reviewed a second time by F. Warne and Company who finally published it. 

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was an immediate success and Beatrix published more books in quick succession. A romance and engagement to Norman Warne, her publisher, promised freedom from the demands of her family. Tragically, a month after their engagement, Norman died suddenly. Later that same year, using the proceeds from her books and related merchandise, Beatrix completed the purchase of Hill Top, a small farm in the Lake District. It’s unknown how involved Norman was in the purchase of Hill Top Farm, but it seems likely they had planned to build their lives there together. With his death, Beatrix continued those plans on her own. 

A black and white photograph of a woman standing in the doorway of a cottage. She is wearing a full length skirt and is holding a straw hat in her hands.
Beatrix Potter at Hill Top by Charles King, circa 1913 via Wikimedia Commons

Hill Top became Beatrix’s refuge from London and her family. Besides her writing and painting, she dedicated herself to learning about local agriculture, and in particular, to the breeding of Herdwick Sheep, a local breed that was on the verge of dying out. Beatrix’s attention to the breed re-established it in the Lake District and she won many awards for her sheep. 

A grey, two story cottage is surrounded by gardens. Wisteria covers one wall and a bench sits beside the front door.
Hill Top by Richerman, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It was through the acquisition of Hill Top, that Beatrix met a local solicitor, Will Heelis, who she married in 1913. Both Beatrix and Will were advocates for the preservation of the Lake District and its rural, agricultural way of life. Together, they purchased thousands of acres of land and gifted it to The National Trust, ensuring that the character of the Lake District remains to this day.

A vintage black and white photograph of a couple. He is wearing a suit and is seated in a chair. She stands at his shoulder, wearing a full skirt and jacket with a large floral hat.
Beatrix Potter and her husband, Will Heelis by Rupert Potter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Although she wasn’t a founder of The National Trust, Beatrix’s legacy cemented the organization in Britain. Today, it stewards hundreds of natural and historic properties, protecting them and making them available to the public. In 2005, The National Trust built a new head office in Swindon and named it ‘Heelis’ to honour Beatrix and Will. Today, Hill Top is one of the most beloved National Trust sites, and thousands of visitors come to celebrate the magic of Peter Rabbit.

Peter Rabbit’s legacy lives on in bookshops around the world. In total, Beatrix published 35 illustrated children’s books which are much-loved to this day.

A watercolor illustration of a mouse sitting on top of a spool of pink thread. The mouse has spectacles and is reading a newspaper. Scissors and a thimble are tucked behind.
Illustration from The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If you’d like to learn more about Beatrix Potter, this biography by Linda Lear is an excellent place to start. 


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