English Children's Writer and Illustrator Beatrix Potter and "Peter Rabbit"
Another English children's writer I was introduced to by my paternal grandmother, was Beatrix Potter. Her charming and quaint animal stories entertained me during my childhood years. The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901), Potter's first book and illustrations, is the charming and quaint tale read to children all over the world, especially at Easter time.
Her little animal stories of rabbits, mice, frogs and other charming little animals have been capturing the imaginations of children since the early 20th century. Her stories and illustrations are looked forward to by children all over the world.
I have enjoyed her stories and read them many times to my niece and nephews as they were growing up.
Not only did Potter's stories entertain and enchant her readers, Potter was also a saavy and canny entrepreneur as she designed and created the merchandise from her stories. Potter created painting books, board games, wall-paper, figurines, baby blankets, china plates and drinking mugs, and china tea sets. She was one of the first to create all the merchandising behind her stories.
As a child, I drank my hot chocolate in the morning out of a Peter Rabbit mug my grandmother especially kept for us at her house. What a treat it was to eat breakfast at grandma's and drink our hot chocolate or eggnog out of our breakfast Peter Rabbit mugs. Life was always beautiful and imaginative at grandma's house.
Grandma bought us live bunny rabbits and live chicks at Easter time so we would have 'little critters' of our own to love as pets just like Beatrix Potter did as a child.
Potter's love of the English Lake District and all the animals it encompassed were the characters for her imaginative and creative stories as well as the backdrop and setting for all her stories. She loved the country life and brought it to life for us all to enjoy as children.
She made sure her beloved Lake District was preserved from land and building developers by willing the four thousand acres of land she owned there to the National Trust in England. We have Potter to thank for preserving one of the 'jewels' of the English landed gentry and countryside.
Her love and working knowledge of her Hill Top Farm there has been preserved as a tribute to her and is open to the public. It is a popular place and Potter was a popular author and illustrator and land conservationist in England.
Beatrix Potter 1866 - 1943
Helen Beatrix Potter was born in 1866 to parents Rupert and Helen (Leech) Potter, at Bolton Gardens, Kensington, in London. Six years later a brother was born, Walter Bertram, and the two of them grew up there in London.
The children grew up in a typical Victorian family and were taken care of by a nanny during the day and only saw their parents at bedtime.
Beatrix Potter is best known today as an English author and illustrator of her imaginative children's books featuring the animals she had as pets during her childhood. She was also a natural scientist and land conservationist.
She was born into a wealthy family and educated at home by governesses until the age of eighteen. She and her brother became quite close because they grew up with few friends outside the family.
Potter was encouraged to draw as a child by her artistic parents who were interested in nature and the countryside and so influenced Potter and her brother in this direction.
Potter studied languages, literature. science and history and she was a bright and eager student. She also was given private art lessons and quickly developed her drawing and painting style. She painted in watercolors and drew small animals.
Her art was influenced by the summer holidays her family spent in Scotland and in her teens in the Lake District of England. Potter had strong powers of observation and illustrated not only animals but flowers, plants and fungi.
Potter is well known in the scientific world for her keen observations and illustrations of the different fungi found in England and Scotland. And, her mycological illustrations and research became well known and of interest to the English scientific world.
Potter brought home numerous small animals as pets which she observed and drew at home in London also.
Also during her childhood, Potter had been deeply influenced by tales of fairies, fairy tales and fantasy. She read and was influenced by the folk tales and fairy tales of the German Romantics, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. She also read the Brer Rabbit stories by Joel Chandler Harr
She was most influenced by the trio of English children''s illustrators: Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott. As a result, Potter began as a child illustrating tradition rhymes and fairy tales such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood and Puss in Boots.
A friend of Potter's father, Sir John Everet-Millais recognized her talents of observation and drawing and encouraged her illustrations.
By the 1890's as a way of earning money she began illustrating and printing Christmas cards of her own design.
One day, she learned news of a friend's son who had taken ill. She wrote him a letter to cheer him up and told the story of "four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy. Cottontail and Peter,"
Potter later revised her rabbit tale about the four rabbits and created a dummy book for her family and friends to read. She illustrated it herself, and in 1901,at her own expense, Potter privately published her book.
A friend of the family, Hardwicke Rawnsley, took the book around to publishing houses, and Frederick Warne and Company published her book as the children's book market was flourishing. When, this company published it in 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was an immediate success and a publishing partnership was forged between the two for the rest of Potter's life.
Potter continued writing and illustrating her children's tales and books until after WWI when her energies and interests went toward farming, sheep-breeding and land conservation.
Some of her favorite children's books and best-sellers were:
- The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1902)
- The Tailor of Gloucester (1902)
- Cecily Parsley's Nursury Rhymes (1922)
- The Tale of Little Pig Robinson (1930)
Potter's lifelong connection with Frederick Warne and Company, her publishing company, was strengthened further when she became unofficially engaged to her editor, Norman Warne in 1905. They had worked together on her first few Peter Rabbit books. Her parents, strict Victorians and Unitarians, disapproved of the marriage because he was part of the 'merchant class' but Potter and Warne were determined to go forward with their marriage.
Tragically, he died a month after their engagement of leukemia, but it caused Potter to split with her family. With money from her published books and a legacy from an aunt, Potter bought Top Hill Farm in the Lake District of England in 1905. It was here that she wrote most of her children's books and drew the accompanying illustrations.
Over the next several decades she bought up fifteen farms around her and took an active part in caring for them. In 1903, Potter had made and patented a Peter Rabbit doll as part of her spin-off merchandising and all the merchandise she created provided her an independent income and so she was able to put her money into buying more Lake District land.
The original tenant farmer on Hill Top Farm remained to manage the farm for her. Potter eventually bought farming livestock: cows, sheep, pigs and chickens.
She also later met and married in 1913 at age 47, William Heelis, a local land solicitor from Hawkshead. They both shared a love of the English Lake District and in preserving this land. Potter became a prize-winning breeder or Herdwick sheep, and Heelis helped her with all of this.
After purchasing Hill Top Farm, she purchased Castle Cottage Farm across the road and this is where she and Heelis lived. In 1943, she became the first woman to be elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeder's Association.
When, she died in 1943, Potter left almost all her original illustrations for her books to the National Trust of England. She left the copyright of her stories and merchandise to her publishers, Frederick Warne and Company, now a division of the Penguin Group.
Hill Top Farm has been open to the public by the National Trust since 1946.
Her watercolor paintings are now housed in the Beatrix Potter Gallery located in the Lake District and have been since 1985.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit is owned by Frederick Warne and Company. The Tailor of Gloucester is owned by the Tate Gallery and The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies by the British Museum.
In 2006, a film about the relationship between Potter and Norman Warne was made starring Renee Zellweger as Potter and Ewan McGregor as Warne.
Presently, a film entitled Benjamin and Nutkin, is being made based on two of Potter's books: The Tale of Benjamin Bunny and The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.
Beatrix Potter and her stories and illustrations have brought joy, entertainment, and whimsy to generations of children throughout the world. Her legacy is a happy one given to us from her love and observation of English nature and country life.