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Saturday, June 27, 2015

Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter, 2012, Olivia Waste
Once Upon a Time there
were four little rabbits,
and their names were--
Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail,
and Peter.
          --Beatrix Potter

So began the saga that made a proper young English miss, the J.K. Rowling of the first half of the 20th-century. Her name was Beatrix Potter (no relation to Harry). I think it would be safe to say that never was there a more unlikely literary and artistic success story than Miss Potter and her menagerie of fashionably dressed forest friends. In fact, her story is so unique to British literature it has been made into a movie by the same title, Miss Potter, dating from 2006 and starring Renee Zellweger (below) and Ewan McGregor. The film details her childhood, her scientific frustrations, and Potter's writing success, as well as the "Juliet and Romeo" love story which dealt her life a tragic turn on the heels of her publishing triumph.
Renee Zellweger outside Yew Tree Farm in the movie Miss Potter.

Peter Rabbit, first edition, 1902
The comparisons between Beatrix Potter and J.K. Rowling are as valid as they are numerous. Both had immediate success with their first writing efforts. Both wrote for children but found equal success with their appeal to parents and other adults. Both authors wrote fantasy stories in their childhood; both had younger siblings to whom they entertained by reading their stories. Beatrix's father was a successful Unitarian businessman turned amateur photographer, her mother was an amateur painter. Rowling's parents were both science oriented, her father an automotive engineer. Of course nearly a hundred years separates both success stories. Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit (left) was first published in 1902. Rowling's Harry Potter came on the publishing scene ninety-five years later in 1997. It's interesting to compare Peter Rabbit to Harry Potter as a measure of how far children's literature evolved in that time. If nothing else, such books have gotten much longer, and the financial rewards much greater. Rowling is estimated to have garnered a fortune of 560-million pounds from her six Potter books (including movie rights) plus four other novels written since then. Beatrix Potter's fortune from more than twenty books, though considerable for her time, was considerably less.
Potter's menagerie of storybook characters reflect her many childhood pets.
Potter's earliest professional illustrations
were botanical illustrations such as this.
Beatrix Potter was born in 1866. She grew up in a wealthy, culturally astute family in the South Kensington section of London. Beatrix's childhood education came at the hands of three governesses. As children, Helen Beatrix and her brother, Walter Bertram were taught to be nature lovers. In their school room the two children kept a variety of small pets, mice, rabbits, a hedgehog and some bats, along with collections of butterflies and other insects which they drew and studied. The place must have been a zoo! The family spent their summers in northern England near the Scottish border at Wray Castle in what's since come to be known as the Lake District. It was there, Beatrix Potter later spent much of her income from her books buying up farms during the 1930s in an effort to preserve the picturesque countryside around her own farm.

Fungi, 1890s, Beatrix Potter
As was common during the Victorian era of the late 19th-century, upper-class ladies seldom attended universities in seeking higher education. Thus the best and the brightest female minds were tutored on the periphery of the intellectual world by various experts in their field of interest. Beatrix was interested in science, particularly botany, archaeology, entomology, and mycology (above, the study of fungi). Her first illustrations were in various areas of these fields (above, right). Science then, and sometimes still today, was seen as a man's world. She was denied entry into this world because of her gender, even though her studies and illustrations were on a par with any presented by her male peers. Her botanical illustrations were, however, included in papers published by leaders in such sciences at the time. In 1997, more than a hundred years late, the Linnean Society (a natural science forum) issued a posthumous apology to Potter for the sexism displayed in its handling of her research.

A Beatrix Potter family reunion. That's Peter Rabbit, his mother, and siblings in the center.
Potter's first published hare was
Benjamin Bunny, who set the
mold for Peter Rabbit and all
her other furry friends.
Despairing of acceptance and success in the world of science, and still unmarried at the spinsterish age of thirty-four, around 1900 Beatrix Potter began to turn inward with her art, toward the world of fairy tales and fantasies she'd known as a child. Peter Rabbit (not Peter Cottontail) was the result. She had long studied the classic fairy tales of Western Europe. She knew well the stories from the Old Testament, The Pilgrim's Progress, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Aesop's Fables, the children's stories of the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen. When she decided to become an illustrator, Potter began with traditional rhymes and stories, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Puss-in-Boots, and Red Riding Hood. More often, however, her illustrations involved fantasies featuring her own pets: mice, rabbits, kittens, and guinea pigs (above).

An illustration from Peter Rabbit.
At first Beatrix's work was self-published (literally) as she drew, and her brother printed greeting cards, usually featuring mice and rabbits. Her first successful character, Benjamin Bunny (above, right), and several other forest creatures, were purchased and published in this form or as illustrations for other writers of children's books. But Peter Rabbit was not born as an illustration. He and his family were a part of a letter written to the sick son of her former governess. After some revisions and the addition of numerous illustrations, Potter put together a "dummy" book, presenting it to various publishers. Like J.K. Rowling nearly a century later, she was repeatedly turned down. So, being a woman of some means, she paid to have a limited number of copies published for friends and family. One of those family friends liked it so much he took it on another round to publishers. One of them, Frederick Warne & Co., had earlier rejected it. However, eager to compete in the booming children's book market, they reconsidered and accepted the "bunny book" (as they called it) following the recommendation of their leading children's book artist. The firm insisted that Potter color her pen and ink illustrations, choosing a then new three-color process to reproduce her watercolors.

Some of the original Peter Rabbit collectibles bring exceptional prices still today.
A Beatrix Potter tea set.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published late in 1902 in an addition of five-hundred, which immediately sold out. Working with the son of her publisher, Norman Warne, the firm quickly built on their success with the publication of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester the following year. During this time, the two fell in love. Like her father, Beatrix Potter was an astute entrepreneur. In 1903 she fashioned a Peter Rabbit doll, had it patented, then began selling them along with other "spin-off" merchandise (above) which, over the years, have included painting books, board games, wallpaper, figurines, baby blankets and china tea-sets (left). Like Rowling with her Harry Potter, both Beatrix and her publisher generated immense profits quite apart for the sale of books. However, when it came to their daughter becoming engaged to Norman Warne, Beatrix's parents objected vehemently. He was not their class. Eventually the settled upon a compromise in which the two would become betrothed, but the whole thing would be kept a secret for six months. A month later, Norman Warne died of Leukemia at the age of thirty-seven.

Potter's final children's book to be
published during her lifetime.
One of Potter's most popular
characters published in 1908.
Heartbroken and angry at her family, Beatrix Potter turned for solace in seclusion. She bought the Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey in the English Lake District. And in 1913, she married a lawyer named William Heelis. There she continued to write, paint, and publish, extending her cast of woodland creatures to include cats, rats, and mice as well as pigs, foxes, squirrels, ducks, chipmunks and of course, rabbits. Each new book, numbering one or two per year, contained new characters and new stories, spread over the years leading up to WW I. As she slipped gracefully into retirement, Beatrix Potter more and more turned her attention to farming, particularly the protection of the land and the preservation of Herdwick breed of Sheep. She purchased five additional farms bordering her own. Upon her death in 1943, Beatrix Potter left her wealth to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. She was eighty-seven. Today, the Lake District Parks mentioned earlier are the direct result of her generosity and love of the lands in which she grew up.

Beatrix Potter's Herdwick Sheep, as much one of her own as Peter Rabbit.



  1. A very nice and tidy little tribute to a great artist. I think Ms Potter would have approved. T/Y

  2. Thanks, Larry, I much appreciate your approval as well.