Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)
English children’s book author and illustrator
Beatrix Potter at 15 with her dog Spot — used with permission Victoria and Albert Museum
Educated At Home
Helen Beatrix Potter was educated at home by a series of nurses and governesses, and even from a very young age, Beatrix had good observation skills and grew into a fine naturalist. She was raised in London but her family left the city twice a year to stay in the country in Scotland or in the Lake District of northern England, and it was here that Beatrix developed a love for nature and the small wild animals. She produced great quantities of drawings where she recorded the minutest details of the animals and plants which she observed. She kept a family of snails, all of them distinct and named, and was saddened by their accidental deaths. “I am very much put out….they have such a surprising difference of character!” Her parents, who were quite strict, allowed her to keep the assortment of animals she brought back home to London: newts, snails, frogs, a ring-snake, lizards, a tortoise, a hedgehog, rabbits, and mice. These creatures served as her models. The hedgehog did not care for posing.
So long as she can go to sleep on my knee she is delighted, but if she is propped up on end for half an hour, she first begins to yawn pathetically and then she does bite!
Beatrix needed these models as, it is said, she could not draw or paint anything from imagination. Over a six year period when she was young, Beatrix made an intensive study of fungi, creating over 250 paintings of her samples. She had a great appetite for detailed information about everything in nature, no matter how minute.
It is all the same, drawing, painting, modelling….the irresistible desire to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye. Why cannot one be content to look at it? I cannot rest, I must draw…
From age 12-17, Beatrix had drawing lessons with a Miss Cameron, with which she was reasonably happy. She learned “free-hand, model, geometry, perspective and a little watercolor flower painting.” She took twelve lessons from a Mrs. A…., which Beatrix hated. “I do wish these drawing lessons were over so that I could have some peace and sleep of nights!…” Beatrix worried that she would catch Mrs. A’s style but thought that her own “self-will which got me into so many scrapes will guard me here…” At age eighteen she wrote, “It [painting] cannot be taught, nothing after perspective, anatomy and the mixing of paints with medium…” “Thank goodness, my education was neglected…. The reason I am glad I did not go to school — it would have rubbed off some of the originality (if I had not died of shyness…).”
from The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies
Letter and Journal Writing
Over her lifetime, Beatrix wrote in excess of 1400 letters. At age 25 she began writing “picture-letters” to the children of friends, and these letters were the beginnings of her published books. Her first book The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was published when she was 36.
She started a daily journal at age thirteen and continued it until she was almost thirty years old. This journal was written in her own privately-invented miniaturized code and apparently even her closest friends knew nothing about it. We know of only one instance where it was mentioned and that was a brief mention of it in a letter to her cousin Caroline, written only five weeks before Beatrix died. Many years later, Leslie Lindner, a collector of Potter’s works, worked for twelve years to finally unlock and decipher the writing.
Leslie Linder — used with permission Victoria and Albert Museum
Leslie Linder — used with permission Victoria and Albert Museum
Beatrix relates what she believed inspired her to write children’s books:
1. Her ancestry of plain matter-of-fact folks.
2. Her having spent long stretches of time in the Scotland countryside with a Scottish nurse who told her stories.
3. Having a “precocious and tenacious memory.” She plainly remembered her life as a very small child — “not only facts, like learning to walk, but places and sentiments — the way things impressed a very young child…”
She “disliked writing to order; I write to please myself.” She would only illustrate her own text and would not consider working “to order.” Beatrix is one of the few artists who could also write stories. Very few could do both well. Beatrix painted in watercolours.
Beatrix memorized long passages from the Bible and from Shakespeare in order to keep her English style disciplined.
…My usual way of writing is to scribble, and cut out, and write it again and again. The shorter and plainer the better. And I read the Bible (unrevised version and Old Testament) if I feel my style wants chastening. There are many dialect words of the Bible and Shakespeare — and also the forcible direct language — still in use in the rural parts of Lancashire.
The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881 to 1897 by Leslie Linder
July 15, 1883
Toby, one of the lizards we brought from Ilfracombe, departed from this life in the staggers. I think he must have been very old, he was so stiff and had lost so many toes. I think the cause of death was incapacity to derive any benefit from his food. I never saw anything with so little stomach as he had after he died.
July 17, 1883
Last Latin lesson before holidays. Have finished Dr. Arnold, am doing Virgil, like it so much…..
July 19, 1883
….Judy the female lizard laid an egg which unfortunately died in a few hours. It was alive and wriggling with large eyes, tail curled twice, veins and bladder or fluid like a chicken, showing through the transparent brown shell about a quarter inch long, nearly as large as Judy’s head. The same day Bertram bought for I/6, at Princes, a pair of hideous little beasties — Sally and Mander. Spot not very well.
September 20, 1883
…Yesterday, 19th. we bought a little ring-snake fourteen inches long, it was so pretty. It hissed like fun and tied itself into knots in the road when it found it could not escape, but did not attempt to bite as the blind worms do. It smelled strongly when in the open road, but not unpleasantly. Blind worms smell like very salt shrimps gone bad….
September 21, 1883
A day of misfortunes. Sally and four black newts escaped overnight. Caught one black newt in school room and another in larder, but nothing seen of poor Sally, who is probably sporting outside somewhere….
December 15, 1883
…we went to the Dore Gallery, which I had never seen before. What a contrast! I consider Dore one of the greatest of artists in black-and-white, but I never had any idea of his pictures before, except that they were big, which some of them certainly are.
Books by Beatrix Potter
The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter
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)
The Story of Miss Moppet (1906)
The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907)
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908)
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or, The Roly-Poly Pudding (1908)
The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies (1909)
The Tale of Ginger and Pickles (1909)
The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse (1910)
Peter Rabbit’s Painting Book (1911)
The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes (1911)
The Tale of Mr. Tod (1912)
The Tale of Pigling Bland (1913)
Tom Kitten’s Painting Book (1917)
Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes (1917)
The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse (1918)
Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes (1922)
Jemima Puddle-Duck’s Painting Book (1925)
Peter Rabbit’s Almanac for 1929 (1928)
The Fairy Caravan (1929)
The Tale of Little Pig Robinson (1930)
Sister Anne (1932)
The Tale of the Faithful Dove (1955)
Beatrix Potter’s entire life was filled with observing, collecting, and recording nature — I imagine during those years which she studied fungi, making her 250 sketches, that perhaps math or Latin was neglected. She probably spent whole days immersed in her nature studies, getting back to academics again once a particular surge of creativity had passed.
Similar to Richard Doyle twenty years earlier, Beatrix Potter’s published works were a refinement of her illustrated letters which she sent to young friends, and her journal writing certainly must have been a further extension of the creative process.