Beatrix Potter: history of the children’s author, farmer and conservationist

Our guide to the children's author, writer, illustrator, natural scientist and conservationist Beatrix Potter, looking at her life, her works and best places to visit in the Lake District.

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Just how good is your Beatrix Potter general knowledge? In our Beatrix Potter guide, author of the National Trust guidebook ‘Beatrix Potter’s Lake District’, Vivienne Crow, looks back on the author’s fascinating life.


1

Beatrix Potter often used her own pets as models for the illustrations in her books

To draw Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, for example, she dressed up her own pet hedgehog who would “yawn pathetically” if required to pose for too long. Various members of her menagerie – which included frogs, a bat and even a lizard called Judy – would accompany her on holidays with her parents until she was well into her 30s.

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A first edition of The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck by Beatrix Potter Credit: Getty Images
2

She was very scientific in her approach to the natural world

She carefully observing the behaviour of both animals and plants. In 1897, after some ground-breaking work on fungi spores, a paper she had written was presented on her behalf to London’s Linnean Society, an influential group of academics and enthusiasts involved in biological study. She couldn’t attend the meeting herself as women were not admitted to the society.

Fungi growing on a tree trunk
Fungi growing on a tree trunk/Credit: Getty Images
3

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was rejected by several publishers before Frederick Warne & Co took it on in 1902.

Probably Beatrix Potter’s best-known story, about a mischievous bunny whose father had ended up in a pie, went on to sell almost 50 million copies, making it one of the best-selling books of all time. Additionally, Beatrix went on to become engaged – against her parents’ wishes – to Norman Warne, one of the three brothers running the publishing company. Sadly, he died just one month into their engagement.

A drawing of Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton
A drawing of Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail/Credit: Getty Images
4

Peter Rabbit started life as one of the stars of a picture story that Beatrix created while writing a letter to Noel Moore, the young son of her former governess.

She’d heard that the five-year-old was ill in bed, so the story of Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-Tail and Peter was designed to cheer him up. Peter was inspired by one of her own pets: a rabbit called Peter Piper who was bought on the Uxbridge Road in Shepherds Bush.

A wild rabbit
A wild rabbit
5

Beatrix Potter wrote a journal in code

Like many teenagers and young women, Beatrix kept a journal. Unlike your average teenager though, she wrote it in code… a code that wasn’t deciphered until 15 years after her death.Why she felt the need to write in code, we’ll never know: it may have been to prevent her mother from reading about her private thoughts and feelings, or it may simply have been a game devised by her creative mind.

A women writing in her journal
A woman writing in her journal
6

Beatrix Potter produced her own Peter Rabbit merchandise

We tend to think of merchandising as a modern phenomenon, perfected by the likes of Disney, but Beatrix was putting this marketing tool to good use more than 100 years ago. The astute businesswoman had a Peter Rabbit doll patented, she designed a Peter Rabbit game, and her endearing animal characters appeared on jigsaw puzzles, stationary, tea-sets, even wallpaper and slippers.

Peter rabbit merchandise
Peter rabbit merchandise/Credit: Getty Images
7

Beatrix Potter’s writing career was concentrated into a relatively short period of her life

Most of Beatrix Potter’s books were published between 1902 and 1913.

After marrying Lake District solicitor William Heelis in 1913 – and until her death 30 years later – she dedicated most of her time to farming and conservation.  Many of her neighbours and fellow farmers knew her only as Mrs Heelis; they weren’t aware of her previous incarnation as a famous children’s author.

Unidentified clipping of British author/illustrator Beatrix Potter posing outside with herding dog, probably at her home Hill Top. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Unidentified clipping of British author/illustrator Beatrix Potter posing outside with herding dog, probably at her home Hill Top. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
8

Beatrix never won any literary awards – they simply didn’t exist in her day – but she was the proud recipient of many sheep-breeding prizes.

Beatrix Potter travelled to agricultural events all over the Lake District to show off her Herdwick sheep, and came away with many trophies and rosettes. Her shepherd, Tom Storey, said the awards made her ‘as proud as a dog with two tails’.

Herdwick sheep
Three Herdwick Sheep on Rocky Pathway in Langdale Pikes, Lake District, Cumbria, England
9

Beatrix never lived in the Lake District farm used as her home in the 2006 biopic Miss Potter, starring Renée Zellwegger

The building in the film is actually Yew Tree Farm, just north of Coniston. Beatrix lived a few miles away in Near Sawrey, but she bought Yew Tree for the National Trust in 1930. In accordance with the writer’s wishes, it remains a working farm today, but holiday-makers can rent part of the farmhouse as self-catering accommodation.

Renee Zellwegger
Renee Zellwegger, the actress who plays Beatrix Potter in the film ‘Miss Potter’/Credit: Getty Images
10

After her death, Beatrix Potter left the National Trust 15 farms in the Lake District

When she died at the age of 77 in 1943, Beatrix Potter left the National Trust more than 4,000 acres of land. She was keen for farming traditions to be kept going ‘so far as possible’ on her properties after her death. In particular, she wanted the landlord’s sheep stocks to be maintained as ‘pure Herdwick breed’, and the National Trust today requires tenants on its relevant properties to run a flock of these hardy, native sheep.

Yew Tree Farm which was once owned by Beatrix Potter. (Photo by: Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images)
Yew Tree Farm which was once owned by Beatrix Potter. (Photo by: Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images)
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Vivienne Crow is the author of the National Trust guidebook ‘Beatrix Potter’s Lake District’, due to be published in March 2016.