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Biography of Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter was born in 2 Bolton Gardens, South Kensington, London, the only daughter of Rupert Potter, a wealthy rentier, and Helen Potter, whose sister Elizabeth Leech had married Rupert’s younger brother Walter. The property of the family came from the Lancashire cotton industry. Rupert’s friends included the photographer A. F. Mackenzie and the Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais, who frequently teased the shy Beatrix.

Potter spent a sheltered childhood with her brother Bertram, who was five years younger. Her mother, afraid of germs, did not allow her children to mix with other children than members of the family. Potter 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. She also became a proficient photographer. Her pets included at various times, rabbits,  a green frog called Punch, lizards, water newts, a tortoise, salamanders, mice, several bats, birds, guinea pigs, and other animals.

Potter lived in Bolton Gardens with her parenst for nearly fifty years, before she moved north to settle in the Lake District. Her secluded London home  Potter later described as “my unloved birthplace”. The daily rituals followed a schedule set by Helen. Rupert spent usually his afternoon at a club. During World War II, the house was destroyed in the air raids. Potter had more pleasant recollections of the home of her grandparents, Camfield Place near Hatfield in Hertfordshire. After her grandmother’s death she wrote a short essay, ‘Memories of Camfield Place’, to an imaginary correspondent called Esther.

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 Tales. Her favorites included Aesop’s Fables, fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin,  Charles Kingsley’s fantasy The Water-Babies, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. For her tenth birthday she received from her father Beatrix Jemina Blackburn’s Birds Drawn from Nature (1868) . “I kept it in the drawing room cupboard, only to be taken out after I had washed my grimy little hands …” Potter recalled.

From the age of fifteen until she was past thirty, Potter recorded her everyday life in her own secret code-writing. “Thank goodness, my education was neglected,” Potter later said in an article, but actually she was interested in science and spent much time in developing a theory of the germination of fungus spores. In 1881, she received an Art Student’s Certificate from the Science and Art Departmrent of the Committee of Council on Education.

Potter began to draw and paint already young, but as a writer and artist she 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 the English songwriter and lawyer Fredric Weatherley (1848-1929) – he wrote the songs ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Roses in Picardy’.

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, who has an insatiable hunger for carrot and cabbage. Also some other charartes, such as Squirrel Nutkin, first appeared in Potter’s letters. The little book was privately printed in 1901 in an edition of 250 copies, and then published by Frederick Warne & Co; the 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)

With the royalties from her books, Potter bought Hill Top, a seventeeth-century farm at Sawrey in the Lake District, paying nearly twice as much for the thirty-four-acre property as the previous owner. “My purchase seems to be regarded as a huge joke,” she wrote to Harold Warne, her editor, but actually she made an investment in personal freedom and independence. 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. By the time of her death, she had built up an estate of 4.000 acres. Potter’s work created an entire industry around them: pottery, tea-towels, soft toys, cartoon films.

Potter’s  illustrations usually showed animal characters wearing human clothes, but otherwise she 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 Tale of 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.

LITTLE Benjamin said,
“It spoils people’s clothes
to squeeze under a gate;
the proper way to get in,
is to climb down a pear tree.”

(from ‘The Tale of Benjamin Bunny’)

At the age of 47 Potter married the solicitor William Heelis and gradually stopped writing. He had acted for her in the purchase of Castle Farm; the purchase had been made through W. Heelis and Sons, an old-established family business. 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. In the Lake District, she was better known as Mrs. William Heelis.

Potter’s marriage was happy. She continued the life she loved best – as a conservationist, landowner, solicitor’s wife, and farmer. A few years before Potter died, she wrote in a letter to a friend, that “I am exceedingly sorry for my husband. You may have noticed I am the stronger half of the pair…” Potter told her husband little about her life before her marriage.  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. The Fairy Caravan (1929), written for American publication only, did not appear in England until 1952.

Potter died in Sawrey, Lancashire on December 22, 1943. She was cremated in Blackpool and her ashes were scattered somewhere on the fells above Near Sawrey. Potter’s 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. Her journal, which she kept from the age of fifteen and which was written in minuscule handwriting and elaborated code, was deciphered by Leslie Linder 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.

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Publication of Peter Rabbit Books

In her 20s that she sought to try and get her children’s book and drawings published. Her initial attempts proved unsuccessful, but she persevered and eventually it was taken on by Frederick Warne & Company. The book was published in 1902, when Beatrix was 36. The publishers did not have much hope it would sell many copies; they actually gave the project to their youngest brother, Norman, as a kind of test for his first project. However, Norman proved to be a good choice. He warmed to both the book and Beatrix. He was determined to make a success of the book and developed a good working relationship with Beatrix as they pored over the individual details of the book. It was Norman who insisted that each drawing of Peter Rabbit would be in colour. Beatrix insisted that the book remain small, so that it would be easy for children to hold. By the end of the year, 28,000 copies were in print.

Relationship with Norman Warne

The relationship between Norman and Beatrix blossomed, and eventually they became engaged. However, Beatrix’s parents disapproved. They felt it wrong for Beatrix to marry a tradesman. However, they eventually relented, but insisted Beatrix live apart for 6 months; giving her time to change her mind. Tragically, before the wedding could take place, Norman passed away, dyeing of pernicious anaemia. Beatrix was devastated, she wrote a letter to his sister, Millie, saying; “He did not live long, but he fulfilled a useful happy life. I must try to make a fresh beginning next year.”

After his death, Beatrix moved to the Lakeland. In 1905, she bought Hill Top farm, in Sawry, Cumbria. She lived here for the remainder of her life. Due to failing eyesight, Beatrix later stopped writing her children books; instead, she devoted her time to the breading of sheep and helping the conservation of Lakeland farms.

Beatrix Potter – Conservation in Lake District

Due to proceeds from her very successful books and later her inheritance, Beatrix was able to buy many working farms. On her death she left over 4,000 acres to the National Trust. It is one of the biggest legacy’s ever made.

Potter wrote 23 books. Some of her best know titles include:

· The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902)
· The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903)
· The Tailor of Gloucester (1903)
· The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904)
· The Tale of Two Bad Mice (1904)
· The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (1905)
· The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan (1905)
· The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906)
· The Story of A Fierce Bad Rabbit (1906)

Miss Potter – Film

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In 2007 a film Miss Potter was released, starring Renée Zellwege. It focused mainly on the events surrounding her early publications, and romance with Norman Warne.
Citation : Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Beatrix Potter“, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net 6 April. 2007

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