Beatrix Potter is best known for her children’s books – most famously, The Tale of Peter Rabbit – but there was more to this talented Victorian woman than bunny books. Before becoming a celebrated children’s author, Beatrix Potter was a serious fan of fungi and later in life became a sheep farmer.
Helen Beatrix Potter was born in July 1866 in South Kensington, which was then a semi-rural part of London. From childhood she was fascinated by nature. She had many pets including newts, frogs, salamanders, bats, mice, a snake, a tortoise and of course a rabbit or two.
All these animals served as models to satisfy Beatrix’s urge to draw. She described it as, “the irresistible desire to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye … I must draw, however poor the result!”
Fond of Fungi
When Beatrix was around 20 years old, the beautiful objects which caught her eye were fungi. Her first known watercolours of mushrooms date from the summer of 1887.
At first, she was just drawing and painting them because of their interesting shapes and colours. Then in 1892, on the family holiday to Scotland, she met Charles McIntosh. He was the local postman, but he was also known for his work with fungi. They found a common interest and had many a lively mushroom discussion.
Mr. McIntosh or Mr. McGregor?
For five years, Mr. McIntosh would send Beatrix different varieties of fungi through the post, and she would make drawings and paintings to send back to him. It was Mr. McIntosh who encouraged her to make her fungi drawings more scientific, by showing cross sections and spores.
Some have noted that Mr. McIntosh bears a resemblance to Mr. McGregor in Beatrix’s Peter Rabbit stories.
Beatrix became fascinated with the structure and reproduction of fungi. In 1896 her uncle, a noted chemist introduced her to the mycologist (that’s a fungi specialist) at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens. In no time, she was successfully germinating spores on glass plates and measuring their growth under a microscope.
She Wanted to Be Taken Seriously
She made many studies of fungi and more than 250 drawings to illustrate them. She was serious about her studies, and her experiments in germination led her to her write a paper entitled: On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae. With her uncle’s help, she had the essay read at a meeting of The Linnean Society in London, a natural history society. However, it had to be presented by someone else since women were not allowed to attend meetings.
The men at the Linnean Society didn’t think her paper had much merit, and all Beatrix’s research went nowhere. That must have been discouraging to her, because that marked the end of her work with mushrooms. Many of her paintings are now in the Armitt museum in Ambleside in the Lake District.
An Independent Woman
Beatrix wanted to be an independent woman and pay her own way in life. But Victorian women didn’t have many options. Since her mid-20s, she had been making a small income from designing greeting cards, but this wasn’t enough to live on.
When she realized that her mushroom studies weren’t going to support her, she didn’t know what to do. While she was trying to figure it out, she just continued to draw and paint the animals and nature that she saw around her.
Then in 1893 she wrote a letter to the five-year old son of a friend. He had been ill, and Beatrix was writing to cheer him up. She wrote, “Dear Noel, I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits, whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter…” She illustrated the letter with drawings of the bunnies.
In the following few years, Beatrix sent more “picture letters” to Noel and to his brother and sister. They contained more animal characters such as Squirrel Nutkin and Jeremy Fisher.
The First Book
In 1900, when Beatrix was 34, the children’s mother suggested that the stories in these letters might make good picture books. Beatrix thought this might be a way for her to finally be able to support herself. She gathered the stories and began to make them into little books.
At least six publishers refused Beatrix’s little books, so she printed them herself. Then the publisher, Frederick Warne, decided to print them. In October of 1902, Warne printed the first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and it was an instant success. It’s one of the best-selling children’s books of all time and has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. After Peter Rabbit’s success, Beatrix continued to release books for many years.
Her close working relationship with her editor, Norman Warne, led to a marriage proposal in 1905. Tragically, however, Norman died less than a month later, before they were able to marry.
A devastated Beatrix threw herself into renovating and running Hill Top Farm in the Lake District, a property she had bought with the profits from her books. Later, many of her books would be inspired by the farm and the surrounding area.
In 1909, Beatrix purchased her second Lake District property, which wasn’t far from Hill Top Farm. Through this transaction, Beatrix met local solicitor, William Heelis. She married him in 1913, at age 47, and settled permanently in the Lake District. Only four more books were published in the years after her marriage as she turned her energies more and more toward farming.
In 1923, at age 57, Beatrix bought a sheep farm, and began breeding the endangered Herdwick sheep. She employed the best shepherds, and soon her flocks were thriving. Between 1930 and 1938 she won a number of prizes at shows across Cumbria.
When Beatrix died in 1943 at age 77, she left more than 4,000 acres to the National Trust, and, as per her instructions, they all continue to graze Herdwick flocks.
Beatrix Potter was a woman of many talents. She was an artist, a naturalist, an author, and a farmer. She managed to make her own way at a time when it was quite difficult for women to have any kind of career. What an inspiration!
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