Beatrix Potter facts for kids
Helen Beatrix Potter (28 July 1866 – 22 December 1943) was an English writer, illustrator, mycologist and conservationist. She is famous for writing children's books with animal characters such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Potter was born in Kensington, London. Her family was quite rich. She was educated by governesses. She did not have many friends, but she had many pets, including Benjamin and Peter, two rabbits. She spent her holidays in Scotland and the Lake District. There, she began to learn to love nature, plants, and animals, which she carefully painted.
When she was around 30, Potter published The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It was very popular. She also became engaged to her publisher Norman Warne. Her parents became angry and separated with her because of this. They did not want her to marry someone who was socially lower than her. However, Warne died before he and Potter could marry.
Potter began writing and illustrating children's books full time. She did not have to ask her parents for money anymore because she had money from her books. In time, she bought Hill Top Farm and more land. In her forties, she married William Heelis, a local solicitor. She also began raising sheep and became a farmer, though she continued writing. She published 23 books.
Potter wrote about 30 books; the best known being her 24 children's tales. She died of pneumonia and heart disease on 22 December 1943 at her home in Near Sawrey at age 77, leaving almost all her property to the National Trust. She is credited with preserving much of the land that now constitutes the Lake District National Park. Potter's books continue to sell throughout the world in many languages with her stories being retold in song, film, ballet, and animation, and her life depicted in a feature film and television film.
Beatrix's father, Rupert William Potter (1832–1914), was educated at Manchester College by the Unitarian philosopher Dr. James Martineau, an ancestor of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. He then trained as a barrister in London. Rupert practised law, specialising in equity law and conveyancing. He married Helen Leech (1839–1932) on 8 August 1863 at Hyde Unitarian Chapel, Gee Cross. Helen was the daughter of Jane Ashton (1806–1884) and John Leech, a wealthy cotton merchant and shipbuilder from Stalybridge. Helen's first cousin was Harriet Lupton (née Ashton) – the sister of Thomas Ashton, 1st Baron Ashton of Hyde. It was reported in July 2014 that Beatrix had personally given a number of her own original hand-painted illustrations to the two daughters of Dr Arthur and Harriet Lupton, who were blood cousins to both Beatrix and the Duchess of Cambridge.
Beatrix's parents lived comfortably at 2 Bolton Gardens, West Brompton, where Helen Beatrix was born on 28 July 1866 and her brother Walter Bertram on 14 March 1872. Both parents were artistically talented, and Rupert was an adept amateur photographer. Rupert had invested in the stock market and by the early 1890s was extremely wealthy.
Potter's family on both sides were from the Manchester area. They were English Unitarians, associated with dissenting Protestant congregations, influential in 19th century England, that affirmed the oneness of God and that rejected the doctrine of the Trinity.
Beatrix was educated by three able governesses, the last of whom was Annie Moore (née Carter), just three years older than Beatrix, who tutored Beatrix 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 Potter's delightful picture letters. It was Annie who later suggested that these letters might make good children's books.
She and her younger brother Walter Bertram (1872–1918) grew up with few friends outside their large extended family. Her parents were artistic, interested in nature, and enjoyed the countryside. As children, Beatrix and Bertram had numerous small animals as pets which they observed closely and drew endlessly. In their school room, Beatrix and Bertram 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. Beatrix was devoted to the care of her small animals, often taking them with her on long holidays. In most of the first fifteen years of her life, Beatrix spent summer holidays at Dalguise, an estate on the River Tay in Perthshire, Scotland. There she sketched and explored an area that nourished her imagination and her observation. Beatrix and her brother were allowed great freedom in the country and both children became adept students of natural history. In 1887, when Dalguise was no longer available, the Potters took their first summer holiday in the Lake District, at Wray Castle near Lake Windermere. Here Beatrix met 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 who was to have a lasting impact on her life.
At about the age of 14, Beatrix began to keep a diary. 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, decoded and transcribed by Leslie Linder in 1958, 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 Potter'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.
Scientific illustrations and work in mycology
Beatrix Potter's parents did not discourage higher education. As was common in the Victorian era, women of her class were privately educated and rarely went to university.
Beatrix Potter was interested in every branch of natural science save astronomy. Botany was a passion for most Victorians and nature study was a popular enthusiasm. Potter was eclectic in her tastes: collecting fossils, studying archeological artefacts from London excavations, and interested in entomology. In all these areas she drew and painted her specimens with increasing skill. By the 1890s her scientific interests centred on mycology. First drawn to fungi because of their colours and evanescence in nature and her delight in painting them, her interest deepened after meeting Charles McIntosh, a revered naturalist and amateur mycologist, during a summer holiday in Dunkeld in Perthshire in 1892. He helped improve the accuracy of her illustrations, taught her taxonomy, and supplied her with live specimens to paint during the winter. Curious as to how fungi reproduced, Potter began microscopic drawings of fungus spores (the agarics) and in 1895 developed a theory of their germination. Through the connections of her uncle Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe, a chemist and vice-chancellor of the University of London, she consulted with botanists at Kew Gardens, convincing George Massee of her ability to germinate spores and her theory of hybridisation. She did not believe in the theory of symbiosis proposed by Simon Schwendener, the German mycologist, as previously thought; rather she proposed a more independent process of reproduction.
Rebuffed by William Thiselton-Dyer, the Director at Kew, because of her sex and her amateur status, Beatrix wrote up her conclusions and submitted a paper, On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae, to the Linnean Society in 1897. It was introduced by Massee because, as a female, Potter 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. 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. Potter 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. There is also a collection of her fungus paintings at the Perth Museum and Art Gallery in Perth, Scotland, donated by Charles McIntosh. 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 Potter for the sexism displayed in its handling of her research.
Artistic and literary career
Potter's artistic and literary interests were deeply influenced by fairies, fairy tales and fantasy. She was a student of the classic fairy tales of Western Europe. As well as stories from the Old Testament, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, she grew up with Aesop's Fables, the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, the folk tales and mythology of Scotland, the German Romantics, Shakespeare, and the romances of Sir Walter Scott. As a young child, before the age of eight, Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense, including the much loved The Owl and the Pussycat, and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland had made their impression, although she later said of Alice that she was more interested in Tenniel's illustrations than what they were about. The Brer Rabbit stories of Joel Chandler Harris had been family favourites, and she later studied his Uncle Remus stories and illustrated them. She studied book illustration from a young age and developed her own tastes, but the work of the picture book triumvirate Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott, the last an illustrator whose work was later collected by her father, was a great influence. When she started to illustrate, she chose first the traditional rhymes and stories, "Cinderella", "Sleeping Beauty", "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves", "Puss-in-boots", and "Red Riding Hood". But most often her illustrations were fantasies featuring her own pets: mice, rabbits, kittens, and guinea pigs.
In her teenage years, Potter was a regular visitor to the art galleries of London, particularly enjoying the summer and winter exhibitions at the Royal Academy in London. Her Journal reveals her growing sophistication as a critic as well as the influence of her father's friend, the artist Sir John Everett Millais, who recognised Beatrix's talent of observation. Although Potter was aware of art and artistic trends, her drawing and her prose style were 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 subject of her fantasy paintings. In 1890, the firm of Hildesheimer and Faulkner bought several of her drawings of her rabbit Benjamin Bunny to illustrate verses by Frederic Weatherly titled A Happy Pair. In 1893, the same printer bought several more drawings for Weatherly's Our Dear Relations, another book of rhymes, and the following year Potter sold a series of frog illustrations and verses for Changing Pictures, a popular annual offered by the art publisher Ernest Nister. Potter was pleased by this success and determined to publish her own illustrated stories.
Whenever Potter went on holiday to the Lake District or Scotland, she sent letters to young friends, illustrating them with quick sketches. Many of these letters were written to the children of her former governess Annie Carter Moore, particularly to Moore's eldest son Noel who was often ill. In September 1893, Potter 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 Potter's future career as a writer-artist-storyteller.
In 1900, Potter revised her tale about the four little rabbits, and fashioned a dummy book of it – it has been suggested, in imitation of Helen Bannerman's 1899 bestseller The Story of Little Black Sambo. 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 Potter's tale, recast it in didactic verse, and made 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) following the recommendation of their prominent children's book artist L. Leslie Brooke. The firm declined Rawnsley's verse in favour of Potter's original prose, and Potter agreed to colour her pen and ink illustrations, choosing the then new Hentschel three-colour process to reproduce her watercolours.
On 2 October 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published, and was an immediate success. It 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, Potter 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. Although The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was not published until 1930, it had been written much earlier. Potter continued creating her little books until after the First World War, when her energies were increasingly directed toward her farming, sheep-breeding and land conservation.
The immense popularity of Potter's books was based on the lively quality of her illustrations, the non-didactic nature of her stories, the depiction of the rural countryside, and the imaginative qualities she lent to her animal characters.
Potter 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 Potter an independent income, as well as immense profits for her publisher.
In 1905, Potter and Norman Warne became unofficially engaged. Potter's parents objected to the match because Warne was "in trade" and thus not socially suitable. The engagement lasted only one month until Warne died of leukemia at age 37. That same year, Potter used some of her income and a small inheritance from an aunt to buy Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey in the English Lake District near Windermere. Potter and Warne may have hoped that Hill Top Farm would be their holiday home, but after Warne's death, Potter went ahead with its purchase as she had always wanted to own that farm, and live in "that charming village".
The 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 sheep. Realising she needed to protect her boundaries, she sought advice from W.H. Heelis & Son, a local firm of solicitors with offices in nearby Hawkshead. With William Heelis acting for her she bought contiguous pasture, and in 1909 the 20 acres (8.1 ha) Castle Farm across the road from Hill Top Farm. She visited Hill Top at every opportunity, and her books written during this period (such as The Tale of Ginger and Pickles, about the local shop in Near Sawrey and The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse, a wood mouse) reflect her increasing participation in village life and her delight in country living.
Owning and managing these working farms required routine collaboration with the widely respected William Heelis. By the summer of 1912 Heelis had proposed marriage and Beatrix had accepted; although she did not immediately tell her parents, who once again disapproved because Heelis was only a country solicitor. Potter and Heelis were married on 15 October 1913 in London at St Mary Abbots in Kensington. The couple moved immediately to Near Sawrey, residing at Castle Cottage, the renovated farm house on Castle Farm, which was 34 acres large. Hill Top remained a working farm but was now remodelled to allow for the tenant family and Potter's private studio and workshop. At last her own woman, Potter settled into the partnerships that shaped the rest of her life: her country solicitor husband and his large family, her farms, the Sawrey community and the predictable rounds of country life. 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 life.
Rupert Potter died in 1914 and, with the outbreak of World War I, Potter, now a wealthy woman, persuaded her mother to move to the Lake District and found a property for her to rent in Sawrey. Finding life in Sawrey dull, Helen Potter soon moved to Lindeth Howe (now a 34 bedroomed country house hotel) a large house the Potters had previously rented for the summer in Bowness, on the other side of Lake Windermere, Potter continued to write stories for Frederick Warne & Co and fully participated in country life. She established a Nursing Trust for local villages, and served on various committees and councils responsible for footpaths and other rural issues.
Soon after acquiring Hill Top Farm, Potter became keenly interested in the breeding and raising of Herdwick sheep, the indigenous fell sheep. In 1923 she bought a large sheep farm in the Troutbeck Valley called Troutbeck Park Farm, formerly a deer park, restoring its land with thousands of Herdwick sheep. This established her as one of the major Herdwick sheep farmers in the county. 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 Potter and her Hill Top farm manager Tom Storey had made a name for their prize-winning Herdwick flock, which took many prizes at the local agricultural shows, where Potter was often asked to serve as a judge. In 1942 she became President-elect of the Herdwick Sheepbreeders’ Association, the first time a woman had ever been elected, but died before taking office.
Lake District conservation
Potter had been a disciple of the land conservation and preservation ideals of her long-time friend and mentor, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, the first secretary and founding member of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. She supported the efforts of the National Trust to preserve not just the places of extraordinary beauty but also those heads of valleys and low grazing lands that would be irreparably ruined by development. She was also an authority on the traditional Lakeland crafts, period furniture and stonework. She restored and preserved the farms that she bought or managed, making sure that each farm house had in it a piece of antique Lakeland furniture. Potter was interested in preserving not only the Herdwick sheep, but also the way of life of fell farming. In 1930 the Heelises became partners with the National Trust in buying and managing the fell farms included in the large Monk Coniston Estate. The estate was composed of many farms spread over a wide area of north-western Lancashire, including the Tarn Hows. Potter was the de facto estate manager for the Trust for seven years until the National Trust could afford to buy most of the property back from her. Her stewardship of these farms earned her wide regard, but she was not without her critics, not the least of which were her contemporaries who felt she used her wealth and the position of her husband to acquire properties in advance of their being made public. She was notable in observing the problems of afforestation, preserving the intake grazing lands, and husbanding the quarries and timber on these farms. All her farms were stocked with Herdwick sheep and frequently with Galloway cattle.
Potter continued to write stories and to draw, although mostly for her own pleasure. Her books in the late 1920s included the semi-autobiographical The Fairy Caravan, a fanciful tale set in her beloved Troutbeck fells. It was published only in the US during Potter's lifetime, and not until 1952 in the UK. Sister Anne, Potter's version of the story of Bluebeard, was written especially for her American readers, but illustrated by Katharine Sturges. A final folktale, Wag by Wall, was published posthumously by The Horn Book Magazine in 1944. Potter was a generous patron of the Girl Guides, whose troupes she allowed to make their summer encampments on her land, and whose company she enjoyed as an older woman.
Potter and William Heelis enjoyed a happy marriage of thirty years, continuing their farming and preservation efforts throughout the hard days of World War II. Although they were childless, Potter played an important role in William's large family, particularly enjoying her relationship with several nieces whom she helped educate, and giving comfort and aid to her husband's brothers and sisters.
Potter died of complications from pneumonia and heart disease on 22 December 1943 at Castle Cottage, and her remains were cremated at Carleton Crematorium. She left nearly all her property to the National Trust, including over 4,000 acres (16 km2) of land, sixteen farms, cottages and herds of cattle and Herdwick sheep. Hers was the largest gift at that time to the National Trust, and it enabled the preservation of the land now included in the Lake District National Park and the continuation of fell farming. The central office of the National Trust in Swindon was named "Heelis" in 2005 in her memory. William Heelis continued his stewardship of their properties and of her literary and artistic work for the eighteen months he survived her. When he died in August 1945 he left the remainder to the National Trust.
Potter left almost all the original illustrations for her books to the National Trust. The copyright to her stories and merchandise was then given to her publisher Frederick Warne & Co, now a division of the Penguin Group. On 1 January 2014, the copyright expired in the UK and other countries with a 70-years-after-death limit. Hill Top Farm was opened to the public by the National Trust in 1946; her artwork was displayed there until 1985 when it was moved to William Heelis's former law offices in Hawkshead, also owned by the National Trust as the Beatrix Potter Gallery.
Potter gave her folios of mycological drawings to the Armitt Library and Museum in Ambleside before her death. The Tale of Peter Rabbit is owned by Frederick Warne and Company, The Tailor of Gloucester by the Tate Gallery and The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies by the British Museum.
The largest public collection of her letters and drawings is the Leslie Linder Bequest and Leslie Linder Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In the United States, the largest public collections are those in the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the Cotsen Children's Library at Princeton University.
In 2015 a manuscript for an unpublished book was discovered by Jo Hanks, a publisher at Penguin Random House Children's Books, in the Victoria and Albert Museum archive. The book The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, with illustrations by Quentin Blake, was published 1 September 2016, to mark the 150th anniversary of Potter's birth.
There are many interpretations of Potter's literary work, the sources of her art, and her life and times. These include critical evaluations of her corpus of children's literature, and Modernist interpretations of Humphrey Carpenter and Katherine Chandler. Judy Taylor, That Naughty Rabbit: Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit (rev. 2002) tells the story of the first publication and many editions.
Potter’s country life and her farming has also been widely discussed in the work of Susan Denyer and by other authors in the publications of The National Trust.
Potter's work as a scientific illustrator and her work in mycology is highlighted in several chapters in Linda Lear, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, 2007; Beatrix Potter: The Extraordinary Life of a Victorian Genius. 2008, UK.
Adaptations and fictionalisations
In 1971, a ballet film was released, The Tales of Beatrix Potter, directed by Reginald Mills, set to music by John Lanchbery with choreography by Frederick Ashton, and performed in character costume by members of the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House orchestra. The ballet of the same name has been performed by other dance companies around the world.
In 1982, the BBC produced The Tale of Beatrix Potter. This dramatisation of her life was written by John Hawkesworth, directed by Bill Hayes, and starred Holly Aird and Penelope Wilton as the young and adult Beatrix, respectively. The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends, a TV series based on her stories, which starred actress Niamh Cusack as Beatrix Potter, has been released on VHS by Pickwick Video and later Carlton Video.
In 2006, Chris Noonan directed Miss Potter, a biographical film of Potter's life focusing on her early career and romance with her editor Norman Warne. The film stars Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor and Emily Watson.
Potter is also featured in Susan Wittig Albert's series of light mysteries called The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter. The first of the eight-book series is Tale of Hill Top Farm (2004), which deals with Potter's life in the Lake District and the village of Near Sawrey between 1905 and 1913.
In 2017, The Art of Beatrix Potter: Sketches, Paintings, and Illustrations by Emily Zach was published after San Francisco publisher Chronicle Books decided to mark the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter's birth by showing that she was "far more than a 19th-century weekend painter. She was an artist of astonishing range."
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