Beatrix Potter was born on July 28, 1866 in Bolton Gardens, Kensington, in London, England.
Her family lived in a large house, had servants, and Beatrix was taken care of by a nanny. She spent most of her time in the top of the house in their large nursery. She would, on most days, only see her parents at bedtime.
When she was old enough to begin schooling the nursery was converted to a school room and she was taught by her governess. At this time it was not common for girls in her social class to attend regular school. Beatrix loved learning and was especially interested in languages and literature.
She loved classic folk and fairy tales, rhymes, and riddles.
“Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.”
It was discovered that she had a talent for drawing and painting. Beatrix's parents encouraged her art and hired special tutors to teach her art and take her to art galleries. She spent many hours drawing her pictures of animals and plants. She would draw realistic pictures of them as well as imaginative pictures with the animals wearing clothes and doing human chores.
She even drew her own versions of some of the fairy tales and stories that she was learning about like Cinderella and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
She also wrote about and drew her pets.
The family always had a pet dog. In addition to that the children kept rabbits, a hedgehog, some mice, frogs, snakes, snails, lizards, and a bat in their school room to observe. They also had a collection of insects that they identified, mounted, and drew.
Bertram, her younger brother, was born when Beatrix was six. They grew to be good friends and shared a love of painting, drawing, and animals.
(Bertram and Beatrix)
Her favorite time of year was summer.
Every year her father rented a large house in Scotland and they would take the dog, the servants, and even the carriage horses north by train. Sometimes Beatrix would also bring her little rabbits or mice along in boxes. The house they visited the most was Dalguise in Perthshire.
She and Bertram were able to explore the countryside to their hearts content and she used these times to observe and draw plants, insects, and animals.
(pages from Beatrix's sketchbook in 1876 when she was nine)
When she was fifteen Beatrix began to keep a journal but she wrote in a secret code that she invented (which was not deciphered until 1958). She said that when she read them back when she was older she sometimes found it difficult to understand! In her journals she would record her activities as well as her opinions about current events, society, art, and politics.
In her sketchbook she would practice drawing and in her journal she practiced writing.
Both of these skills would come in very handy as she grew older.
"There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they'll take you.”
When Beatrix was sixteen Dalguise House was not available for their summer holiday and so her family rented a house in the Lake District in England. This was her first visit to the Lake District and she fell in love with the countryside right away.
In the early 1890's, Beatrix first published some of her drawings.
Hildesheimer & Faulkner published her illustrations and greetings card designs for a booklet entitled "A Happy Pair".
("A Happy New Year To You", Greeting card published by Hildesheimer & Faulkner)
Most of her time she spent studying natural history. She loved learning about archaeology, geology, entomology, and mycology. She was very interested in fungi. Charles McIntosh, a Scottish naturalist, encouraged her to make her drawings of fungi more accurate. By 1896 Beatrix wrote a paper with her own theory on how fungi spores reproduced called 'On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae'. It was presented to the Linnean Society by one of their mycologists from the Royal Botanic Gardens in 1897. Beatrix, unfortunately could not present it herself as women could not attend Society meetings. The paper has since been lost.
Beatrix soon began to write picture letters to a child of her former governess that was recovering from scarlet fever and confined to bed. In 1901 she turned one of these letters into her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. She printed her own private edition of it.
The idea was then turned down by several publishers before Frederick Warne published it in 1902 when Beatrix agreed to redo her black and white illustrations into color.
Norman Warne, the youngest of the three brothers who ran the publishing firm of Frederick Warne & Co., was assigned to be Beatrix's editor for The Tale of Peter Rabbit. He and Beatrix got along well from the very first meeting. Beatrix would often take the carriage to the Warne offices in Bedford Square to discuss the book with Norman. It was not considered appropriate at the time time for a lady to visit alone so she always had to take a long a female friend as a chaperone.
The following year, under Norman's editorial supervision, Beatrix produced The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester. All three of her books were becoming huge commercial successes. Twenty more "little books", as she called them, followed these usually at a rate of two to three per year. In 1903 Beatrix registered a Peter Rabbit doll.
By 1904 Beatrix was preparing The Tale of Two Bad Mice for publication. Norman was fully involved in the creative process going as far as buying her doll's house furniture to use as props and inviting her to his brother's house in Surbiton to sketch a real doll's house he had made.
Her mother refused to let her go. She viewed the Warne family as unsuitable friends because they were "in trade".
Despite her mother's feelings on the matter, a romance was beginning between Norman and Beatrix.
They were never able to spend any time alone together but they were still able to become very close. Norman sent Beatrix a letter on July 25, 1905 proposing marriage.
Beatrix's parents forbade the marriage but eventually they agreed to Beatrix's compromise that she was allowed to wear her engagement ring but the engagement would not yet be made public.
They would give it a few months time before they announced it.
Sadly, Norman suddenly became ill with a fast moving form of leukaemia and he died only a month after his proposal. This was devastating to Beatrix and she threw herself into her work as a way to cope with her grief.
"I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result, and when I have a bad time come over me it is a stronger desire than ever."
She proceeded with her plans to buy Hill Top Farm, a small working farm in Near Sawrey in the Lake District. The farm became her sanctuary. It was a place she could go to paint and write and learn about farm management, although she never lived there full time.
Hill Top and the surrounding areas began to pop up in her books.
Beatrix spent as much time as she could in the Lake District and began to use her income from her books to buy farmland.
Four years after buying Hill Top Farm, she purchased Castle Farm just across the road from Hill Top.
The solicitor who helped her with her property dealings was a local man, William Heelis.
Over the years, as they worked together and shared in their interests of the countryside and conservation, a relationship began to grow gradually.
When their friendship grew to love, her parents again objected.
This time she ignored their wishes and married William in October 1913.
They remained happily married living in the Lake District in Castle Cottage until Beatrix's death in 1943.
“I hold an old-fashioned notion that a happy marriage is the crown of a woman’s life.”
Beatrix bought fifteen farms. She took an active part in caring for all of them. She would dress in clogs, a shawl, and an old tweed skirt and help with the hay-making. She searched the fells for lost sheep. She bred Herdwick sheep and won prizes with them at local shows. In 1943 she became the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders' Association.
She said she was at her happiest when she was with her farm animals and in the outdoors.
“Thank God I have the seeing eye,’ that is to say as I lie in bed I can walk step by step on the fells and rough lands seeing every stone and flower and patch of bog and cotton grass where my old legs will never take me again.”
In 1929, she wrote her longest story, The Fairy Caravan, which featured her own Herdwick Sheep. It was dedicated to an American boy, Henry Coolidge and was only published in America.
Beatrix is not only remembered for her wonderful "little books" but also for her conservation efforts. When she was sixteen and visiting the Lake District for the first time, a local vicar named Hardwicke Rawnsley made a strong impression on Beatrix with his views on the need to care for the environment. Hardwicke Rawnsley became one of the three founders of the National Trust and Beatrix supported the National Trust all of her life.
When she died she left her fifteen farms and over 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust.
She stated that they must keep Hill Top Farm exactly as it had been and today it receives thousands of visitors per year.
In 1925, when asked by the editor of The Horn magazine in Boston to write something about herself for her admirers in America, she wrote, "Beatrix Potter is Mrs. William Heelis. She lives in the north of England, her home is amongst the mountains and lakes she has drawn in her picture books. .. She leads a very busy contented life, living always in the country and managing a large sheep farm on her own land."
She indeed left behind quite the legacy.
“Believe there is a great power silently working all things for good, behave yourself and never mind the rest.”