Beatrix Potter

Beloved children's book illustrator

Created date

May 9th, 2018
The Tale of Peter Rabbit, one of the best selling children's books of all time, was written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Peter Rabbit, one of the best selling children's books of all time, was written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter

The name Beatrix Potter is synonymous with classic children’s literature. Besides writing timeless works like The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), Potter made history as one of the best literary illustrators of the twentieth century.

Helen Beatrix Potter was born into an upper-class British family in Kensington, London, in 1866.

A child of means, she had at her disposal anything a young girl could possibly want.

Her grandfather was owner of England’s largest calico printing operation. Her father was a London-based barrister who had earned a fortune in the stock market; her mother, the daughter of a wealthy shipbuilder and cotton merchant.

Diverse childhood interests

Educated by governesses, Potter was precocious and extremely intelligent, her family’s money offering intellectual opportunities that many could only dream of. By all accounts, her interests were impressively diverse: she studied and spoke German; she loved animals and kept pets, ranging from mice and rabbits to bats and hedgehogs; she loved insects and fungi, which she collected and sketched like a seasoned naturalist.

In her teens, Potter recorded these pursuits in a diary. Encoded through a simple system of letter substitution, the journal contained her impressions of art and science.

She particularly enjoyed drawing and painting strange and colorful fungi she encountered throughout the English countryside, where her family owned large tracts of land. Scientific illustration was her first love and a training ground for her career as a professional artist.

Given her primary artistic influence, it’s not surprising that mushrooms were her fungus of choice. Illustrator Sir John Tenniel, best known for his highly imaginative drawings of strange plants, animals, and forest growth for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), had a tremendous impact on Potter’s style.

Attracted to the colors and shapes of these wild specimens, she threw herself into the field of mycology. By the 1890s, she devoted much of her time to painting spores, molds, and fungi that, to this day, botanists and mycologists herald for their accuracy.

Fantasy’s influence

But Potter had another side to her—one enamored with fantasy. While she worked tirelessly in the natural sciences, she also enjoyed nursery rhymes and fairytales such as Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, all of which involved animals in some capacity.

In her mid 20s, she began painting greeting cards adorned with her artwork, often featuring distinctly human rabbits and mice. Among these characters was Benjamin the rabbit, drawings of which publisher Hildesheimer and Faulkner purchased to illustrate a collection of Frederic Weatherly’s verses, A Happy Pair (1890).

Pleased with her work, Hildesheimer and Faulkner bought more drawings for a second Weatherly title, Our Dear Relations (1893). A year later, Potter sold a series of illustrations (this one featuring a frog) to the art publication Changing Pictures.

The science enthusiast was now building a career in children’s literature. Slowly but surely, Potter gravitated in this direction.

During her summers in the English countryside or vacations in Scotland, she would keep in touch with friends, regularly writing letters. If they had children, she wrote notes just for them, always illustrated with her trademark animal characters, of course.

On one such holiday in fall 1893, she wrote to her former governess and lifelong friend Annie Moore. When it came time to address Moore’s son Noel, Potter realized she hadn’t anything to say, so she wrote him a story about four rabbits named Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.

A literary masterpiece was born.

The ‘bunny book’

In 1900, Potter adapted the piece to book form but, unable to find a buyer, wound up publishing it with her own money. Then a family friend intervened and gave the book another go with the London publishers, striking gold with Frederick Warne & Co., who reluctantly decided to print the “bunny book.”

The book included Potter’s original prose along with colored illustrations. Released in 1902, she entitled it The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

Potter chased this book’s huge success with The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903) and The Tailor of Gloucester (1903), both of which had originated as picture letters to Moore’s son Noel. These stories would ultimately become part of Potter’s artistic and literary legacy, known collectively as The 23 Tales.

From 1902 to 1930, she crafted a succession of books accompanied by warm, wholesome illustrations of human-like animal characters who have served as bedtime fixtures for millions of children.

Her extensive family inheritance not withstanding, Potter had amassed a fortune of her own at a time when women remained largely dependent on dowries and men. Through her own talent and ingenuity, she made her mark as an individual and, in the process, left a trove of entertainment and inspiration for kids everywhere.