Early on the morning of April 1, 1897, the Linnean Society in London, England, gathered to hear a research paper by Miss Helen Beatrix Potter. The Linnean Society was the premier organization for the promotion of natural history. Its mandate included maintaining a research library and publishing scholarly papers. Beatrix Potter had submitted a research paper entitled, “On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae.” It was based on her examination of several types of mushrooms and the discovery of a new method of germinating spores. The paper was accompanied by her detailed and precise drawings. But the Linnean Society didn’t allow women members, nor did they permit women to present papers. So a man presented Potter’s research paper. Despite her thoroughness and exhaustive research, Potter knew that she and her work would not be taken seriously. Not surprisingly, a week after the presentation of the paper, the Minutes for the Council Meeting recorded that a proposal on the behalf of Miss Helen Potter to withdraw her paper was sanctioned. So Beatrix Potter packed up her work on fungi into portfolios and put it away.
Beatrix Potter was undeterred by this setback. She was determined to find something useful and meaningful to do with her talents and to gain personal and financial independence from her family. So she decided to focus her artistic skills on drawing and painting animals, something she had done since she was a young girl. Beatrix had sold a series of her paintings to a greeting card company in the early 1890s, so she knew that there was the possibility of earning her own money by selling her illustrations. While the actions of the Linnean Society quite possibly denied the world an outstanding naturalist and researcher specializing in the study of fungi, it created an author/illustrator whose books have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and have been translated in 35 languages.
Helen Beatrix Potter, known as Beatrix, was born on July 28, 1866, the first child of Helen and Rupert Potter. Her younger brother Bertram was born six years later. The Potters lived a very comfortable and privileged life in the fashionable neighborhoods of Kensington and Chelsea in London. Like many Victorian parents, Helen and Rupert Potter did not alter their lives because they had children. They felt that their children should be seen and not heard, and perhaps not even seen very o en. Beatrix and Bertram spent much time in their nursery at the top of the house. They both loved drawing and painting, and the subjects of their creations were usually their many pets, which included frogs, lizard, mice, snails, hedgehogs, rabbits and a bat.
When he was old enough, Bertram was sent away to boarding school, and Beatrix was on her own in the oppressive Potter house. To fill her time, she continued drawing and painting the animals in her menagerie. She also copied the drawings of plants, insects and animals that she found in her father’s books, working extremely hard to get the exact details right, whether it was a delicate mushroom, a shiny beetle, or a furry rabbit.
As was the custom in families of her class, Beatrix did not attend school, however she did take art classes at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum). A dedicated and eager student, she received grades of “excellent” in all her courses.
When she was 17, the Potters hired a governess to look a er their daughter. Beatrix was horrified. She felt she was old enough to look a er herself and didn’t need to be in anyone’s care. But Beatrix and her new governess, Annie Carter, became friends—the first real friend that Beatrix had ever had. Though Annie wasn’t much older than her charge, she had traveled as a student and lived in Germany. Beatrix began to see that there was a wide world beyond her own, and she wanted to find a way to take advantage of it. After only two years as governess, Annie Carter announced that she was leaving the Potter household to marry Edwin Moore. Beatrix was devastated, though she did visit the couple at their home in Wandsworth.
In September 1893, Annie Moore wrote Beatrix with the news that her son Noel was ill. Unable to visit the boy, Beatrix sent him a letter instead. “My dear Noel,” she wrote, “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, Cotton- tail, and Peter.” Beatrix accompanied her words with delicate and delightful line drawings of the four little rabbits. Little did she know she had just created what would become the most famous rabbit in the world.
After rejections by several publishers, Potter self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit in December 1901, and Frederick Warne & Co. bought the rights to publish it in October 1902. The following year, under the editorial guidance of Norman Warne, one of the three Warne brothers who ran Frederick Warne & Co., Beatrix created The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester. All were hugely successful, and she continued to create two to three books a year, finally achieving the financial independence she had hoped for.
The close working relationship between Beatrix and Norman grew to become deeply personal, and they were engaged in 1905. Tragically, Norman died of leukemia only one month later. Heartbroken, Beatrix retreated to the Lake District, where she and her family had spent several summers during her childhood. Income from her books allowed her to buy Hill Top Farm, which became her sanctuary. She continued to write and paint, and some of her best books reflect the joy she found in the farm itself and with rural life.
Beatrix eventually bought a total of fifteen farms in the Lake District. She took an active part in running them, and she was at her happiest when she was with the farm animals. In 1913, at the age of 47, Beatrix married William Heelis, a local solicitor who had helped her with her land purchases. The couple were devoted supporters of land conservation and the National Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving places of historic interest and natural beauty. Although her farms and farming had taken prominence in her life, Beatrix continued to write and illustrate books. But her failing eyesight meant that The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, published in 1930, was her last.
Beatrix Potter died on December 22, 1943, her enormous legacy undeniable. She left her 15 farms and over 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust, insuring that the public would continue to enjoy the Lake District she loved so much. And the 28 books she created have continued to delight, entertain and educate generations of readers around the world. “If I have done anything,” she wrote, “even a little, to help children on the road to enjoy and appreciate honest, simple pleasures, I have done a bit of good.” I think the world over would agree that Beatrix Potter has done much more than a bit of good.
Frederick Warne & Co.
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