Biography

  

Nature's schoolroom
 
Born Helen Beatrix Potter on 28th July 1866 at 2 Bolton Gardens, in Kensington, London to a wealthy family, both Beatrix's parents living on inheritances from the cotton trade. Although qualified as a barrister, Beatrix's 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.
Being born 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 a governess, had very few opportunities to meet other children. Beatrix's brother, Bertram, born six years after his sister, was a close companion. Potter was particularly close to her father and it was he who first encouraged her artistic talent.

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 visit his notable friends, including the Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais. By the age of eight, Beatrix was filling home-made sketchbooks with drawings of animals and plants.

Beatrix's love of animals was shared by her brother. 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 a bat, and was added to by occasional catches from the garden (mice, hedgehogs and rabbits) that were smuggled into the house in paper bags. The children's interest was deepened by annual holidays in Perthshire and, later, in the Lake District. They gave Beatrix and her brother 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.

From rejection to a rabbit

Bertram was sent away to boarding school, so Beatrix spent most of her adolescence on her own, studying, and painting and sketching. Another outlet for her creativity was a diary, in which she used a miniaturised secret code to record daily thoughts and observations (a habit that continued until she was 30). Although she got her Art Student's Certificate for drawing, Beatrix reached the age of 21 having had little real education. Like many adult daughters of the rich, she was appointed 'household supervisor' - a role that left her with enough time to indulge her interest in the natural sciences.

Through her 20s, Beatrix developed into a talented naturalist. She made studies of plants and animals at the Cromwell Road museums, and learned how to draw with her eye to a microscope. She became particularly interested in funghi, and wrote a paper called 'On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae' (gilled funghi) that in 1897, with the help of her uncle, notable chemist Sir Henry Roscoe, was presented by the Assistant Director of Kew on Beatrix's behalf to the (all male) Linnean Society. But, being an amateur and, probably more significantly, being a woman, her efforts were not taken seriously - and her theories were rejected.

This slight was probably what led Beatrix to focus more on drawing and painting, abilities that had already begun to earn her a modest income (in 1890 a commission from a greetings card company had led on to a range of other illustration jobs). She had also begun to write illustrated letters to the children of her former governess, Annie Moore. Peter Rabbit was born in a letter she wrote in September 1893 to Annie's son, Noel. Seven years later, Beatrix asked to borrow the letter back, and copied the illustrations to produce a rough version of what was to become The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

Drawn into the future

In 1901, after the idea was rejected by six publishers, Beatrix defiantly published her own edition of the rabbit story. Having seen a copy, Frederick Warne decided to publish Peter Rabbit, and within a year had already had to produce six editions to meet demand. This success marked the start of a life-long relationship between Beatrix and Warne's. It also brought Beatrix friendship with and then love for Norman Warne, her editor, who sent her a marriage proposal in 1905. Although she accepted him - defying her parents, who saw that being 'trade', a publisher was an unthinkable match for their daughter - Norman unexpectedly died less than a month later, of pernicious anaemia (a now-treatable blood disorder).

 Beatrix was devastated but nevertheless able to make plans for her future, buying Hill Top Farm in Sawrey in the Lake District less than a year after Norman's death. Although she was unable to live there full time because she was expected to take care of her parents in London, 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. In 1909, through purchasing another Cumbrian property near to Hill Top, she met and then befriended a local solicitor, William Heelis. After a period of having to battle her parents' objections to her relationship with 'a country solicitor', Beatrix married William in 1913.

Time to expand

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. Beatrix also became an expert in breeding Herdwicks, a type of sheep indigenous to Cumbria. 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. 

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 founder 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. Weakened by bronchitis, Beatrix died, aged 77, on 22nd December 1943. In her will, she left 14 farms and over 4,000 acres to the National Trust, land that it still owns - and protects against development - today.
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