TTLG Author/Illustrator Profiles

Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter was born in South Kensington, London, as the only daughter of Rupert Potter, a wealthy rentier. His father's property came from the Lancashire cotton industry as her wife's. Potter spent a sheltered childhood with her brother Bertram, who was five years younger. She amused herself by painting, using specimens from the Natural History Museum or sketching the nature in the Lake District, where the family spent summer holidays. Potter had also pets, including rabbits. Her London home she lated described as "my unloved birthplace". Potter never went to school, but was taught at home by a governess. She learned to read from Sir Walter Scott's novels and Maria Edgeworth's works. As a young woman she still lived at her parent's house. From the age of fifteen until she was past thirty, she recorded her everyday life in her own secret code-writing.

"Thank goodness, my education was neglected," Potter later wrote in an article, but actually she was much interested in science and spent much time in developing a theory of the germination of fungus spores. As a writer and artist Potter made her debut in the 1890s when she send to a sick child illustrated animal stories, which found their way to the publisher (Frederick Warne & Company) and made her famous. In 1890 she published under the signature H.B. P. a small book of animal drawings, A HAPPY PAIR, which was accompanied verses by Fredric Weatherley.

In 1893 Potter wrote a letter to a young friend, Noël Moore, the five-year-old son of a former governess. The text was illustrated with drawings of animals and contained the first version of THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT, the high-spirited bunny. Also some other charartes, such as Squirrel Nutkin, first appeared in Potter's letters. The book was privately printed in 1901, and then published by Frederick Warne and Co; the publishing company had first rejected it. Potter and one of the publishers, Norman Warne, engaged in 1905, but he died of leukemia only a month later. Potter turned back to her books as the one creative impulse left to her.

"If it were not impertinent to lecture one's publisher - you are a great deal too much afraid of the public, for whom I have never cared one tuppenny button. I am sure that it is that attitude of mind which has enabled me to keep up the series. Most people, after one success, are so cringingly afraid of doing less well that they rub all the edge off their subsequent work." (from The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane, 1978)

From the 1905 she spent her time on a farm in Sawrey in the Lake District. Since 1905 she had owned Hill Top Farm in Sawrey, but never lived there. The following years until 1913 were Potter's most productive. She published a number of children's books with watercolor illustrations, and oversaw the production and design. Later her works created an entire industry around them: pottery, tea-towels, soft toys, cartoon films. Her illustrations usually showed animal characters wearing human clothes, but otherwise Potter treated her characters, human and animal, without too much sentimentality. Betsy, the fisherman's wife from THE TALE OF LITTLE PIG ROBINSON (1930), has rheumatics, and Peter Rabbit is nearly caught by Mr. McGregor, who chases the frightened rabbit determinedly. It was important for her to write the stories both simple and direct. When an attempt to issue THE PIE AND THE PATTY PAN (1905) and THE ROLY-POLY PUDDING (1908) in a larger format did not gain success, the original small format of the book was found best and suitable for small hands.

At the age of 47 Potter married the solicitor William Heelis and stopped gradually writing. They met when she bought Castle Farm, and the purchase had been made through W. Heelis and Sons, an old-established family business. She bought while engaged a larger farmhouse in Sawrey. On her father's death, she received a substantial inheritance and in 1923 she bought a sheep farm, where she spent her last 30 years raising Herdwick sheep. Potter's marriage was happy. She continued the life she loved best - as a conservationist, landowner, solicitor's wife, and farmer. Her literary work deteriorated with her eyesight after 1918, diminishing gradually by 1930s. Tale of Little Pig Robinson was the only story of note to appear in her declining years. Potter told her husband little about her life before her marriage. In a letter to a friend a few years before she died, Potter wrote that "I am exceedingly sorry for my husband. You may have noticed I am the stronger half of the pair..."

Potter died in Sawrey, Lancashire on December 22, 1943. Her home in the Lake District is open to the public. She left several thousand acres of land, including Hill Top Farm, the setting of several of her books, to the National Trust. Potter's journal, which she kept from the age of fifteen and which was written in an elaborated code, was deciphered and published in 1964. From 1992 to 1995 an animated series based on Potter's characters, was broadcasted every Christmas and Easter around the world.