Beatrix Potter: Illustrator, storyteller, farmer, and ... scientist?

© Victoria and Albert Museum (l.) and Armitt Museum and Library Centre (r.)
Beatrix Potter is the author of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit" and other children's books.
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Beatrix Potter’s life revolved around the natural world, according to the new book “Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature.” In her 20s, she developed a specialty in mycology – the study of mushrooms – and intended to make a career out of creating scientific illustrations. But as a woman, she found her contributions were not taken seriously. 

A friend urged her to consider publishing the “picture letters” Potter wrote to entertain children, which were filled with sketches of rabbits and other animals. When no publisher would accept her manuscript, she published it herself with black-and-white drawings. 

Why We Wrote This

A passion for nature can lead in unexpected directions. When Beatrix Potter was told she could not become a scientific illustrator because of her gender, she channeled her artistic skills into children’s books.

Potter’s persistence paid off, and a publisher finally picked up “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” She would go on to write and illustrate more than 20 books featuring a lively cast of animal characters. 

Her love of nature also included efforts to preserve the open space of England’s Lake District, where Potter and her husband bought a farm. By the time she died in 1943, the couple owned 4,000 acres, which became the core of the Lake District National Park. 

For Potter, nature provided inspiration, whether captured in the pages of a children’s book, or preserved as parkland for future generations.

Over her lifetime, Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) kept more than 90 creatures as pets, and she drew most of them. Her children’s books, starting with “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” demonstrate her skills at depicting animals. But what’s less well known is her passion for botany and the role that mushrooms indirectly played in the publication of her first book. 

In “Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature,” a gorgeous new book packed with examples of Potter’s sketches and watercolors, author Annemarie Bilclough and other contributors underscore the love of nature that informed Potter’s work. 

Helen Beatrix Potter was born into a large, close-knit family of privilege and her early childhood was spent in London. On the one hand, the city was “gritty and gray” to her young eyes, but on the other hand, it had advantages: Gardens, museums, libraries, and a zoo were places of discovery for this “shy and insatiably curious girl,” as she’s described in the book. 

Why We Wrote This

A passion for nature can lead in unexpected directions. When Beatrix Potter was told she could not become a scientific illustrator because of her gender, she channeled her artistic skills into children’s books.

She and her brother, Bertram, were educated at home as young children. The nursery-cum-schoolroom became a science lab where they studied butterflies, beetles, and other insects. Outdoors, they spent time with dogs and horses. And, significantly, they kept a succession of rabbits. Bertram apparently favored wilder species, including salamanders, a frog, and a bat. He later graduated to birds. He kept, among others, a jay, a falcon, and “an owl that hooted all night.”

"Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature" by Annemarie Bilclough, Rizzoli Electa, 216 pp.

Her first sketchbook was done at age 8. Her parents, recognizing her talent, arranged art lessons starting when she was 12 years old. As was usual with their socioeconomic set, the Potters left London for extended stays in rural settings. Eventually her family purchased a summer home in Britain’s bucolic Lake District, an area that was to provide lasting inspiration for Potter.

Around 1885, Potter began drawing fungi. This led to a post at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London, where she produced faithful, detailed renderings, largely of mushrooms and toadstools. With the aid of a microscope, suddenly a new world of gills and spores opened up. According to the book, one of the reasons she chose mycology was that botanical artists of the day had given short shrift to the species.

While working at Kew, she wrote a paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae.” She had her heart set on persuading the esteemed Linnean Society of London to publish her study, but the all-male panel rejected her paper. It was a setback, but fortuitous in one regard: Except for that rejection, the book argues, perhaps there would have been no Peter Rabbit.  

The idea for a children’s book grew from a series of what Potter called “picture letters” that she wrote to Noel Moore, the son of a former governess, in the early 1890s. It was suggested that Potter submit her drawings to a publisher. Her first book idea, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” was repeatedly rejected, so she self-published it.

Courtesy of Princeton University Library
A "picture letter" by Beatrix Potter sent to Noel Moore from Heath Park, Birnam, Scotland, Aug. 21, 1892. Ink over pencil on paper.

Editors at Frederick Warne & Co. saw her book, recognized its quality, and gave her a contract. In 1902, Warne published “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” which, along with Potter’s subsequent books, was scooped up by an enchanted public.

Books inspire universal affection

Potter had a deep understanding of children, although she had none of her own. She created characters with an emotional honesty that children can appreciate, as she “is not obviously always on the side of the Goody-Goody-Two-Shoes,” according to Libby Joy of the Beatrix Potter Society, in an online article. Peter Rabbit returns to Mr. McGregor’s garden, even though his mother has forbidden him to do so. Children can relate. At the same time, the plots have vitality and pace that hold their attention. 

Potter also recognized children’s love of language. “At its best, Potter’s prose has the sound and rhythm of poetry,” says one of the book’s contributors.

Potter’s books have what one might call aesthetic integrity: Some of her rabbit sketches call to mind the work of 15th-
century German artist Albrecht Dürer. She also had a fondness for hedgehogs. This is clear in a series of artworks depicting them in a style not unlike the small, deft strokes of sumi-e, the Japanese genre of black ink painting. But her drawings are far funnier.

She could be delightfully silly. For instance, she once quipped, “It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific.’ I never felt sleepy, but then I am not a rabbit.”

Courtesy of © Tate
"The Tailor of Gloucester" artwork, 1902. Watercolor, ink and gouache on paper by Beatrix Potter.

Her books “have an underlying interest that a lot of children’s books don’t necessarily have for adults,” according to Joy. Potter’s art, she says, is “realistic, compared with many children’s book illustrations.” This fidelity to nature builds on Potter’s years of drawing from life, including her depictions of fungi.

Land stewardship

Such was Potter’s success with her books that she was able to buy Hill Top Farm in the Lake District. In her late 30s, she married William Heelis, a British barrister. Hill Top would become another turning point in her life. (“It is in here where I go to be quiet and still with myself,” she wrote.) 

By 1913, Potter had stopped writing books to embrace farming as her profession. Along with Heelis, she managed a herd of prizewinning Herdwick sheep, enlarged her holdings, and worked to protect open lands in the Lake District from development. Over time, she acquired 4,000 acres. The property was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017, and is now open to the public.  

Potter’s contributions to land preservation are widely recognized, and her beautiful and accurate drawings of mushrooms eventually received their due. Her illustrations were used in the 1967 book “Wayside & Woodland Fungi,” and in 1997 the Linnean Society offered a posthumous apology for its sexist treatment of her research.  

Her knowledge of plants and animals, and her skill at rendering both, give Potter’s drawings a liveliness and realism that continue to appeal to readers young and old.

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