1866 – 1943
Beatrix Potter is probably best known for her charming, beautifully illustrated, children’s stories about animals, but this achievement was only a small part of this extraordinary woman’s life. Beatrix was also a natural scientist, writer, illustrator, professional sheep farmer and conservationist.
On 28 July 1866, at 2 Bolton Gardens, Kensington, London, Helen Beatrix Potter was born into a wealthy and extremely well-connected Unitarian family. Both of Beatrix's parents lived on inheritances from the cotton trade and, though qualified as a barrister, her father, Rupert, focused much of his time on his passion for art and photography.
He and his wife, Helen, enjoyed an active social life among a group of writers, artists and politicians and the family included many connoisseurs and practitioners of art. Helen herself was a fine embroiderer and watercolourist and Edmund Potter, Beatrix’s paternal grandfather, was co-founder and president of the Manchester School of Design.
As befitted a daughter of the Victorian upper-middle class, Beatrix had a typically restricted and often lonely childhood. She rarely spent much time with her mother and father, and, being educated at home by private governesses, had very few opportunities to meet other children.
With her bright blue eyes, Beatrix was an inquisitive, highly intelligent and very observant little girl. Her solemn expression belied a mischievous sense of fun , a vivid imagination and a witty way of expressing herself. She craved the company of other children and eased her loneliness by keeping a large collection of pets.
Her father treated her to trips to the South Kensington Museum (the original name of the V&A), the Natural History Museum and the Royal Academy, as well as to visits to his notable friends. He also inspired and encouraged Beatrix's extraordinary artistic talent, and by the age of eight, she was filling home-made sketchbooks with drawings of animals and plants.
When Beatrix was six, another child joined the family. her brother, Walter Bertram, was born on 14 March 1872. Another child in the family transformed Beatrix’s life especially as Beatrix's love of animals was shared by ‘Bertie’. The children spent hours watching and sketching the menagerie of pets that lived in their schoolroom.
Their collection included frogs, a tortoise, salamanders and even bats, and was added to by occasional catches from the garden such as mice, hedgehogs and rabbits that were smuggled into the house in paper bags.
The children's interest was deepened by annual holidays in Scotland and, later, in the Lake District. These holidays gave them the chance to roam freely in the countryside, and to observe, sketch, catch and even skin and dissect a wide variety of animals and birds.
They became great friends with Hardwicke Rawnsley, vicar of Wray and later the founding secretary of the National Trust, whose interest in the countryside and country life inspired the same in Beatrix and had a lasting impact on her life.
Beatrix was educated by three able governesses, the last of whom was Annie Moore (née Carter). Annie was only three years older than Beatrix, and tutored her in German as well as acting as lady's companion. She and Beatrix remained friends throughout their lives and Annie's eight children were the recipients of many of Beatrix Potter's delightful picture letters.
Whenever Beatrix went on holiday to Scotland or the Lake District, she sent letters to her young friends, illustrating them with quick sketches. Many of these letters were written to Annie’s children, particularly to her eldest son Noel who was often ill. In September 1893 , Beatrix was on holiday at Eastwood in Dunkeld, Perthshire. She had run out of things to say to Noel and so she told him a story about "four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter". It became one of the most famous children's letters ever written and the basis of Beatrix's future career as a writer-artist-storyteller.
It was Annie who later suggested that these letters might make good children's books.
Girls of Beatrix's social class had to be proficient at the genteel arts, including painting and drawing. To this end, between November 1878 and May 1883, Beatrix's parents arranged drawing lessons. They enrolled her at the new National Art Training School in South Kensington to sit her Second Grade Art Student certificate. She was awarded this Certificate in 1879.
Beatrix's generic student pieces from this period, including still life studies and exercises in design and perspective were competent and she was even awarded an 'Excellent' in her examinations. However, her still life drawings in particular conveyed a dark and listless formality that is at odds with the light humour and exuberance of her book illustrations.
Even in later life Beatrix remained sceptical about formal art training. She remarked “Painting is an awkward thing to teach except the details of the medium. If you and your master are determined to look at nature and art in two different directions you are sure to stick.”
Beatrix Potter’s Journal
Beatrix’s life changed once more when her beloved brother was sent off to boarding school, aged 8. Beatrix entered adolescence without her sibling and she spent her teenage years studying, painting and sketching.
At about the age of 14, Beatrix began to keep a secret diary – a habit that continued until she was 30 years old. It was written in a code of her own devising which was a simple letter for letter substitution. Her Journal was important to the development of her creativity, serving as both sketchbook and literary experiment: In tiny handwriting she reported on society, recorded her impressions of art and artists, recounted stories and observed life around her.
The Journal does not provide an intimate record of her personal life, but it is an invaluable source for understanding a vibrant part of British society in the late 19th century. It describes Beatrix's maturing artistic and intellectual interests, her often amusing insights on the places she visited, and her unusual ability to observe nature and to describe it.
Started in 1881, her journal ends in 1897 when her artistic and intellectual energies were absorbed in scientific study and in efforts to publish her drawings. Precocious but reserved and often bored, she was searching for more independent activities and wished to earn some money of her own whilst dutifully taking care of her parents, dealing with her especially demanding mother, and managing their various households.
A Self-taught Naturalist
Through her 20s, Beatrix developed into a talented naturalist. She made studies of plants and animals at the Kensington museums, and learned how to draw with her eye to a microscope.
Beatrix reached the age of 21 having had little real education. Like many adult daughters of the rich, she fell into the role of 'household supervisor' which left her with enough time to indulge her interest in the natural sciences.
She became particularly interested in the lifecycle of gilled funghi. Curious as to how fungi reproduced, Beatrixr began microscopic drawings of fungus spores and in 1895 developed a radical theory of their germination.
Through the connections of her uncle Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe, a chemist and the vice-chancellor of London University, she consulted with botanists at Kew Gardens. She managed to convince funghi specialist, George Massee, of her theory of hybridisation, and of her ability to germinate spores.
Rebuffed by the Director at Kew, because of her sex and her amateur status, Beatrix wrote up her conclusions and submitted a paper entitled On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae, to the Linnean Society in 1897. It was introduced by Massee because, as a female, Beatrix could not attend proceedings or read her paper.
She subsequently withdrew it, realising that some of her samples were contaminated, but continued her microscopic studies for several more years. Nevertheless, the sexist insult and the rejection of her theories were probably what led Beatrix to focus more on drawing and painting.
Her paper has only recently been rediscovered, along with the rich, artistic illustrations and drawings that accompanied it. Her work is only now being properly evaluated.
Beatrix later gave her other mycological and scientific drawings to the Armitt Museum and Library in Ambleside, where mycologists still refer to them to identify fungi. In 1967, the mycologist W.P.K. Findlay included many of Potter's beautifully accurate fungus drawings in his Wayside & Woodland Fungi, thereby fulfilling her desire to one day have her fungus drawings published in a book.
In 1997, the Linnean Society issued a posthumous apology to Ms Potter for the sexism displayed in its handling of her research.
The young Beatrix was self-taught. She copied from nature or from books and drawing manuals, and studied the works of Constable, Gainsborough and Turner in the Royal Academy exhibitions. Grateful that her education was largely neglected, she said “...it would have rubbed off some of the originality.”
Her artistic and literary interests were deeply influenced by fairies, fairy tales and fantasy. She and her brother were brought up on a steady diet of classical fairy tales, stories from the Old Testament, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrims Progress, Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland etc.
Beatrix paid particular attention to how the stories were illustrated and was greatly influenced by the work of Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott. When she started to illustrate, she chose first the traditional rhymes and stories, but most often her illustrations were anthropomorphic fantasies featuring her own pets - mice, rabbits, kittens, and guinea pigs.
Beatrix was particularly lucky to know the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir John Everett Millais very well. Millais recognised Beatrix's talent of observation and became her mentor. Although Beatrix was aware of art and artistic trends, her drawing and her prose style remained uniquely her own.
As a way to earn money in the 1890s, Beatrix and her brother began to print Christmas cards of their own design, as well as cards for special occasions. Mice and rabbits were the most frequent subjects of her fantasy paintings.
Publication of her work started slowly in 1890 when the firm of Hildesheimer and Faulkner bought several of her drawings of her rabbit Benjamin Bunny to illustrate a book of verse. Two more commissions followed over the next 4 years. Although Beatrix was delighted with her success, she was determined to publish her own illustrated stories.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit
In 1900, Beatrix revised her tale about the four little rabbits, and fashioned a dummy book. She chose a small format suitable for small hands to hold and turn the pages. Unable to find a buyer for the work, she published it for family and friends at her own expense in December 1901. It was drawn in black and white with a coloured frontispiece.
Family friend Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley had great faith in Beatrix's little story and recast it in moralistic verse before making the rounds of the London publishing houses. Frederick Warne & Co had previously rejected the tale but, eager to compete in the booming small format children's book market, reconsidered and accepted the "bunny book" as the firm called it.
The firm declined Rawnsley's verse in favour of Beatrix's original prose, and she agreed to colour her pen and ink illustrations, choosing the then new Hentschel three-colour process to reproduce her watercolours.
On 2 October 1902, Frederick Warne & Co published The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It was so successful that within the first year, they had published six editions to meet demand. This success marked the start of a life-long relationship between Beatrix and the Frederick Warne Company.
Success At Last
‘Peter Rabbit’ was followed the next year by The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester, which had also first been written as picture letters to the Moore children.
Working with Norman Warne as her editor, Beatrix published two or three little books each year - 23 books in all. The last book in this format was Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes in 1922, a collection of favourite rhymes.
Failing eyesight, particularly from 1920 onwards, meant that she did less and less creative work – increasingly, her books had to be pieced together from sketches and drawings done years earlier. Her last major work, The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, was published in 1930 from much earlier drawings.
Beatrix was also a canny businesswoman. As early as 1903, she made and patented a Peter Rabbit doll. It was followed by other "spin-off" merchandise over the years, including painting books, board games, wall-paper, figurines, baby blankets and china tea-sets. All were licensed by Frederick Warne & Co and earned her an independent income, as well as immense profits for her publisher.
Beatrix invested her money in real estate in her beloved Lake District, purchasing fell farms and land in order to preserve the native sheep and a traditional way of life.
Frederick Warne & Co appointed the youngest brother in the family, Norman, to be Beatrix’s editor. They became great friends and love blossomed. Norman proposed marriage in 1905and Beatrix accepted, much to the horror of her parents who considered a publisher not a suitable match for their daughter. They classed publishing as a ‘trade’.
Beatrix’s parents disapproved of their children having anything to do with people in a ‘trade’. In fact, her brother secretly married into a ‘trade’ family, and it was six years before his parents found out!
Mr and Mrs Potter forbade Beatrix’s engagement to Norman and sent her away to stop her from seeing him. Norman suffered from vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia which made him susceptible to illness. Unfortunately, less than a month after their separation, Norman fell fatally ill and she never saw him again.
Beatrix was devastated at Norman’s death but she dutifully turned her attention to looking after her parents and running their households. Meanwhile she had decided she would like a home in the tiny Lake District village of Near Sawrey. Less than a year after Norman’s death she bought Hill Top Farm.
Hill Top Farm
After Beatrix’s purchase of the property in 1905, Hill Top’s tenant farmer, John Cannon and his family, agreed to stay on to manage the farm for her while she made physical improvements and learned the techniques of fell farming and of raising livestock, including pigs, cows and chickens; the following year she added Herdwick sheep to her stock.
Hill Top remained a working farm but the house was remodelled to accommodate her tenant farmer and his family, and to provide a private studio and workshop for Beatrix.
Although she was unable to live there full time because she was busy running her parents’ households, she stayed as often as possible, and began to learn the business of running a farm. She also carried on writing, producing one or two new 'little books' each year for the next eight years.
At last her own woman, Beatrix settled into the partnerships that shaped the rest of her life - her country solicitor husband and his large family, her farms, and the Sawrey community. She established a Nursing Trust for local villages, and served on various committees and councils responsible for footpaths and other rural issues.
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck and The Tale of Tom Kitten are representative of Hill Top Farm and of her farming life, and reflect her happiness with her country existence.
Hill Top is now owned by the National Trust and preserved as it was when she lived there. Her increasing delight in country living and participation in village life is reflected in the books written at Hill Top. The Tale of Ginger and Pickles is about the local shop in Near Sawrey and The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse is about a woodmouse.
When Beatrix bought Hill Top, her father's legal colleagues had acted as her agents. Only after the fact did she discover that she had been poorly represented. In 1908, realising she needed to protect her boundaries with the purchase of adjoining land, she sought the advice of W. H. Heelis & Son, a local firm of solicitors.
One of the partners at the Hawkshead office where she went was William Heelis of Appleby. Heelis was then 38 years old, five years younger than she, and highly regarded in the community.
He was a tall, quiet, rather handsome man with an athletic build and an easy manner. He first advised her on some enclosures of pasture and woodland that she bought at a good price.
When Castle Farm, a 20 acre property nearly opposite the Hill Top farmhouse came on the market, William acted as her solicitor when she purchased it and the farmhouse known locally as Castle Cottage.
The farm buildings needed improvements and William advised her on these, and soon became Beatrix's principal legal adviser and unofficial property manager when she was back in London.
Buying Castle Farm was a significant event. It protected and expanded her existing farm boundaries, provided increased grazing and pasture lands for her sheep and cattle, and gave her an added presence as a significant landowner in the village of Near Sawrey.
Beatrix and William got on extremely well whether it was working on her tax papers or at a meeting of the local landowners' association to which Beatrix had been elected and Heelis was legal advisor. They shared the same interests and had similar ideas.
In the winter of 1911 she made an unusual visit to Hill Top when William learned that two other small pieces of land bordering her farm would soon come on the market. Beatrix and William tramped through the snow in the cold, making certain of the property lines and fences. Once again he acted as her agent.
In June of the following year, after she had exhausted herself caring for her aging parents while finishing The Tale of Mr. Tod, William asked Beatrix to marry him. She accepted and they became secretly engaged.
Beatrix had fallen in love with William in much the same way as she had with Norman Warne: slowly and companionably. But she knew her parents would not approve of a country solicitor for the same reasons they had rejected a publisher.
She had loved Norman for his imagination and his humour, and she similarly delighted in William's love of nature, his knowledge of the countryside and his zest for being out in it.
By the autumn of 1912 their secret engagement was affecting Beatrix’s health and emotional well-being. At the age of 47 she made a momentous decision to leave her controlling parents and pursue personal happiness.
William and Beatrix were married on 15 October 1913 in London at St Mary Abbots in Kensington. They immediately left London and moved to the Lake District, living in Castle Cottage in Near Sawrey. Beatrix spent the last 30 years of her life as Mrs Heelis, a happily married, independent woman.
Move to the Lake District
Marriage freed Beatrix to settle properly in the Lake District. She was finally able to throw herself fully into the role of lady farmer, enjoying physical, day-to-day tasks such as helping with hay-making and unblocking muddy drains.
- Sheep farming
Shortly after acquiring Hill Top, Beatrix had become keenly interested in the breeding and raising of Herdwicks, the Lakeland indigenous fell sheep. In 1923 she bought a former deer park and vast sheep farm in the Troutbeck Valley called Troutbeck Park Farm, restoring its land with thousands of Herdwick sheep.
This established her as one of the major Herdwick sheep farmers in the area. She was admired by her shepherds and farm managers for her willingness to experiment with the latest biological remedies for the common diseases of sheep, and for her employment of the best shepherds, sheep breeders, and farm managers.
By the late 1920s Beatrix and her Hill Top farm manager Tom Storey were known for their prize-winning Herdwick flock. They won many prizes at the local agricultural shows, where she was also often asked to serve as a judge.
In 1942 she was named President-elect of The Herdwick Sheepbreeders’ Association, the first time a woman had ever been elected to that office, but died before taking office.
Life in the Lake District
Although she looked after her tenant farmers well, installing electricity in their farm buildings, Beatrix was an incorrigible romantic refusing to instal modern conveniences at her home. Her only concession to modernisation was to use pressurised kerosene lamps.
Close friends would relate how she would prepare for William’s homecoming by cooking a delicious meal, laying the table and lighting the house with candles. Despite her obvious love for her fictional characters, she was an unsentimental woman, quite happy to eat rabbit stew and live off the livestock on her farm.
Beatrix’s father, Rupert Potter died in 1914 and, with the outbreak of World War I, she persuaded her mother to move to the Lake District.
Now a wealthy woman, Beatrix rented a property for her mother in Sawrey. The quiet life did not suit Helen Potter who found living in Sawrey very dull so she soon moved to Lindeth Howe, a large house the Potters had previously rented for the summer in Bowness, on the other side of Lake Windermere. (Lindeth Howe is now a 34-bedroom country house hotel.)
Helen Potter eventually died in 1932, aged 93. Both she and Rupert were buried in the Potter family vault at Hyde chapel, Gee Cross, Greater Manchester.
Apart from farming, Beatrix's major passion in the final part of her life was conservation, an interest inspired by her friendship with Canon Rawnsley, one of the founding members of the National Trust. Her expanding estate, funded by revenue from book sales, gave her the opportunity to fulfil an ambition to preserve not only part of the Lake District's unique landscape but the area's traditional farming methods.
Death & Legacy
Weakened by bronchitis, Beatrix died aged 77 on 22nd December 1943. In her will she left 14 farms and over 4000 acres to the National Trust, land that it still owns and protects against development today.
When enjoying the unspoiled landscape of the southern Lake District, it is worth remembering the energetic woman who saved it, Mrs Beatrix Potter Heelis.