Books, Culture and Society

Beatrix The Lady Behind The Books

Helen Beatrix Potter (28 July 1866 - 22 December 1943) was an English author, illustrator.

Beatrix The Lady Behind The Books

Sally’s Cottages looks at the Lady behind the books

Helen Beatrix Potter (28 July 1866 – 22 December 1943) was an English author, illustrator, mycologist and conservationist best known for children’s books featuring anthropomorphic characters such as in The Tale of Peter Rabbit which celebrated the British landscape and rural lifestyle.

Born into a privileged household, Potter, along with her younger brother, Walter Bertram, grew up with few friends outside her large extended family. As children they had numerous pets and spent holidays in the south of England, in Scotland, and in the English Lake District. There she developed a love of the natural world which she closely observed and painted from an early age. Her parents were artistic and interested in nature and the out of doors. While Beatrix was happily never sent off to boarding school, her education in languages, literature, science and history was broad and she was an eager student.

Although she was provided with private art lessons, Beatrix preferred to develop her own style, particularly favouring watercolour. In her twenties, she concentrated on the study of fungi mycology, of ancient artefacts archaeology, and of geology, and achieved a measure of respect from the scientific establishment for her reproduction of fungi spores and her scientific illustrations. In her thirties, Potter published the highly successful children’s book The Tale of Peter Rabbit publishing it privately, and then in 1902 as a small, three-colour illustrated book with Frederick Warne & Co. Between 1902 and 1918 she published over twenty popular children’s books.

With the proceeds from the books and a small legacy from an aunt, Potter bought Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey, a tiny village in the English Lake District near Ambleside. Over the next several decades, she purchased additional farms to preserve the unique hill country landscape. In 1913 at the age of 47 she married William Heelis, a respected local solicitor from Hawkshead. Potter became a prize-winning breeder of Herdwick sheep and a prosperous farmer keenly interested in land preservation.

She continued to write and illustrate children’s’ books for Warne after her marriage until the duties of land management and diminishing eyesight made it difficult to continue. Beatrix Potter published over twenty-three books, the best are those written between 1902 and 1918. Potter died on 22 December 1943 at Castle Cottage, Near Sawrey, leaving almost all of her property to National Trust. She is credited with preserving much of the land that now comprises the Lake District National Park.

Potter’s books continue to sell throughout the world, in multiple languages. Her stories have been retold in song, film, ballet and animation.
Potter’s paternal ancestors were Unitarians from Glossop in Derbyshire. Her father, Rupert William Potter (1832-1914), son of the industrialist and Member of Parliament, Edmund Potter, was educated in Manchester and trained as a barrister in London. He married Helen Leech (1839-1932), the daughter of a cotton merchant, at Gee Cross on 8 August 1863. The couple settled in London, living on inherited wealth. They bought a home in Bolton Gardens South Kensington, where Helen Beatrix was born on 28 July 1866.

Beatrix was educated at home by several private governesses with occasional excursions to public gardens, markets, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. A brother, Walter Bertram, was born in 1871.

On childhood holidays in rural Scotland and the north of England, she sketched and kept small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians as pets, sometimes taking them from the wild and contributing to their deaths by disregarding their needs. Some were boiled and their skeletons reconstructed. Ruth MacDonald writes, “This willingness to capture wild animals, either on paper or in a cage, is characteristic of Potter’s frame of mind … to intrude herself on nature was a part of her need to master her surroundings, to exert what little power and possession she could, given that her parents were determined to keep her powerless and impoverished.”

MacDonald observes that later in life, Potter “could admire nature without intruding herself upon it or destroying it. But until that point in her life where she felt herself in control, the reader of her journal and the student of her work notes this willingness to destroy, by dissection or disruption, the nature she found around her, to sacrifice it in the pursuit of her art or ownership.” Potter matured into a spinsterish young woman whose parents groomed her to be a permanent resident and housekeeper in their home.

Potter’s parents discouraged higher education, but Potter longed to lead a life independent of her parents and considered mycology as career, inspired perhaps by her acquaintance with Charles McIntosh, a Scottish mycologist she met while summering in Perthshire. Her uncle tried to introduce her as a student at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, but she was rejected because she was a woman. Potter was later one of the first to suggest that lichens were a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae. As, at the time, the only way to record microscopic images was by painting them, Potter made numerous drawings of lichens and fungi. As the result of her observations, she was widely respected throughout England as an expert mycologist. She also studied spore germination and life cycles of fungi. Potter’s set of detailed watercolours of fungi, numbering some 270 completed by 1901, is in the Armitt Library, Ambleside.

In 1897, her paper “On the Germination of Spores of Agaricineae” was presented to the Linnean Society by her uncle Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe, as women were barred from attending meetings. (In 1997, the Society issued a posthumous official apology to Potter for the way she had been treated). The Royal Society also declined to publish at least one of her technical papers. She lectured at the London School of Economics several times.

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