Beatrix Potter's Widespread Legacy
Updated: Sep 9
“Thank Goodness I was never sent to school. It would have rubbed off some of the originality.” So proclaimed Beatrix Potter, the 19th century illustrator commenting on her lack of formal education. I think her hugely famous character, Peter Rabbit, would agree.
Although Potter isn’t widely associated with London, she deserves a place in my blog as a powerful woman who shaped British history. This wonderful illustrator and storyteller was also a keen conservationist. And botanist. And scientist. And forward-thinking businesswoman. And, yes, perhaps what she would have been most proud of, sheep farmer. She was so many things and such an extraordinary woman.
A LASTING LEGACY
I’m guessing that when you ponder powerful Victorian women, Beatrix Potter might not come to mind. But her legacy leaves an impressive mark on the world. Her books have been published in 35 languages and The Tale of Peter Rabbit alone has sold more than 45 million copies. Although she is best known for her illustrated pocket-size books about animals, including, in addition to Peter, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin; The Tailor of Gloucester; and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, she made innovative contributions to the publishing world and to other fields. Her insistence on legal protection for her ideas and merchandise was ground-breaking.
With her scientific hat on, she influenced the study of fungi by producing important scientific research and illustrations. And as a conservationist, she protected large tracts of land in the Lake District and played an important role in conserving the rare breed of Herdwick sheep.
ARTISTIC FROM AN EARLY AGE
As a child, Beatrix sketched her pets and animals and plants she found in the garden. She also kept a bizarre menagerie in her bedroom which sometimes included wild mice and hedgehogs. If you imagine her bedroom with hedgehogs waddling around, you realise how Mrs Tiggy Winkle in her clean white apron came to be. Here's how Beatrix Potter introduces us to her delightful washerwoman.
Lily-white and clean, oh!
With little frills between, oh!
Smooth and hot – red rusty spot
Never here be seen, oh!
When she was in her early ‘20s, Beatrix and her brother, Bertram (who became a professional artist) submitted greeting card designs to publishers. The ensuing Christmas and New Year cards were Ms Potter’s first published works.
Perhaps there was a genetic leaning towards artistic endeavours. Beatrix’s mother was an embroiderer and watercolourist and her barrister father was a keen amateur photographer. Her grandfather ran a calico printing works and co-founded the Manchester School of Design.
Potter was keen to depict natural life from an early age. She drew insects, birds, animals and plant life in sketchbooks from about the age of eight. Her insect drawings are meticulous and form part of the collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum, although they are not always on display. That attention to detail makes her storybooks come alive. Peter Rabbit wanders through a botanically correct Mr MacGregor’s garden and Jemima Puddle-Duck poses by picture-perfect irises. Because she had the precise eye of an investigative scientist, Potter’s storybooks convey the awe of nature. Even so, she was modest about her artistic talent protesting that, “I can’t invent. I only copy.”
IT ALL BEGAN WITH A LETTER
As an adult, Beatrix Potter wrote frequently to the children of her former governess, Annie Carter Moore, sending stories and illustrations of four rabbits, a squirrel and a frog, Mr Jeremy Fisher. In 1900, Moore suggested she might write a full book and Potter devised the first version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit from these letters.
The animals themselves were based on her pets. She had a beloved rabbit called Peter Piper who apparently followed her everywhere and another one called Benjamin Bouncer.
One of the great delights of Potter’s illustrations is their perspective. I recently pulled out my childhood collection of animal tales and realized how tall the lettuces look and how huge the onions are – a vantage point I’d failed to appreciate as a child.
IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED
Like many authors, part of Potter’s success in publishing was down to perseverance. The rest of it was down to talent (both artistic and story-telling), hard work, and having a keen eye for the market. Hmmm… we’ve heard this story before.
She sent her illustrations and stories of the four bunnies around to publishers all of whom rejected the manuscript, including Frederick Warne. It wasn’t just the story that the publishers didn’t want – they also disliked Potter’s insistence that the books should be child-sized and affordable for children. So this determined, practical woman simply published the books herself with her own money. When they achieved success, the publisher Frederick Warne had a change of heart. By the next year, Warne had sold 20,000 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.”
EARLY MARKETING GENIUS
Ms Potter was ahead of her time in terms of clever marketing. Character merchandising already existed but Potter took it to the next level by insisting on patents and legal protection. In 1903, one year after Peter Rabbit was published by Frederick Warne and Company, she created the first Peter Rabbit stuffed toy and registered the patent immediately. This means in addition to being incredibly popular, Peter Rabbit is the world’s oldest licensed literary character.
Potter was quick to patent because she’d already been burned. When her Peter Rabbit books were published in the USA, Warne failed to secure an American copyright. This meant that any American publisher could print unauthorized versions of her books. And they did, costing Potter an untold amount of lost revenue.
Potter went on to produce a board game, drawing kits, tea sets, wallpaper and even bedroom slippers. But her publisher was not initially onboard. Warne felt that these “sideshows,” as Potter termed them, were in poor taste. But once again, when she went ahead on her own, the publisher quickly got on board.
It might sound disappointingly commercial, but actually Potter had her characters' best interests at heart. She insisted that all reproductions remain true to the original drawings. With the first Peter Rabbit doll, she took great care to get the physique just right by sewing the prototype herself and painstakingly crafting the whiskers and expression. Her characters were very much a part of her soul.
AND THEN THERE’S THE SCIENTIST BEATRIX
As imaginative and playful as Potter was with animal characters, it seemed she might have been destined for a career in science. Victorian sexism took care of that. Although she had no formal education, Beatrix was interested in archaeology, entymology and ultimately mycology, the study of fungi. She frequently visited Kew Gardens during the late 1800s where she studied and drew sketches and watercolours of fungi. Her interest led to experimentation.
She studied the life processes of fungi and developed an independent theory about the reproduction of fungi spores which ultimately was presented in 1897 at the Linnean Society of London, the world’s oldest active biological society. According to the rules of the Victorian age, Potter wasn’t even allowed to attend the meeting, let alone present her own work. Although her paper was not published, scientists later recognized her findings were true. Unfortunately, her theories were later credited to a male German scientist.
The Linnean Society issued a posthumous apology to Potter for the sexism she encountered. But during her lifetime, the lack of support from within the scientific community could be what drove her away from conducting further research. Sad for science and womankind but good news for Peter Rabbit and his friends.
RURAL LIFE AT LAST
Childhood summers spent in Scotland and the Lake District with her family fostered Beatrix Potter’s love of nature. With money earned from her successful children’s stories, she was able to purchase Hill Top Farm, near Sawrey in the Lake District in 1905. This was undoubtedly a sad time of life for her because her editor and fiancé, Norman Warne had died suddenly, only a month after they became engaged in 1905.
The Lake District became an escape for her now that her prospects for independence had diminished and she assumed full responsibility for her parents’ care. (It was very common in the Victorian age for unmarried daughters to be beholden to their parents.) Despite coming back to London to look after her parents, Beatrix’s focus became the Lake District where she learned farm management and happily sketched her surroundings. She continued to write her storybooks from here, allowing her imagination to wander free amidst her lettuce beds and flower gardens.
LINKS TO THE NATIONAL TRUST
She gradually bought more farms and land with the objective of preserving the area from development. In 1913, she married William Heelis, her solicitor and financial adviser who assisted her with property purchases.
In her teens, Beatrix had befriended Hardwicke Rawnsley, a vicar in the Lake District, who became one of the three founders of the National Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving historic and natural sites. When she died, Beatrix donated 4000 acres of land to the National Trust which today are included in the Lake District National Park.
The National Trust has preserved her home, workplace and gardens at Hill Top and it’s a must-see visit for Potter fans. Although there is an inevitable commercial element, I loved wandering through her house and imagining how she was inspired by the wildlife surrounding her home.
WHERE TO SEE BEATRIX POTTER IN LONDON
Helen Beatrix Potter was born in Kensington, London in 1866 and lived at 2 Bolton Gardens throughout her childhood. The house where she grew up was destroyed during WWII but there is a plaque on the wall outside the Bousfield Primary School on Brompton Road marking the site.
Brompton Cemetery is only about one-half mile away so it’s feasible that Potter gained inspiration while strolling here. The cemetery burial register shows that a Jeremiah Fisher, an Angus McGregor and many members of the Nutkins family are buried here. Following a plot locater map, I have scoured the gravesites (respectfully of course) and have only been able to find the headstone of Susannah Nutkins which is conveniently located just off the main pathway in between the two grand colonnades on the south side of the cemetery. But her dates are a bit late, so perhaps Potter found a memorial to another Nutkins family member and named Squirrel Nutkin accordingly.
There are many other links to Beatrix Potter in London:
The best place to encounter Beatrix Potter in London is at the Victoria and Albert museum which holds the world's largest collection of Beatrix Potter's drawings, watercolours, literary manuscripts, correspondence, and photographs. You can find them at the archives at Blythe House in Olympia where you need to apply for permission to see the collection.
Beatrix also came to the Kensington Museum (as the V&A was known until 1899) to sketch costumes. So when you visit the Fashion gallery here, imagine how Miss Potter envisioned her characters.
Natural History Museum: Follow in Beatrix Potter’s footsteps amidst the preserved wildlife here which she regularly came to study and sketch.
Kew Gardens: Beatrix initially came here to sketch plants and became entranced by fungi. Her scientific drawings now form part of the Kew Archives collection.
St Mary Abbot’s Church, Kensington W8: Beatrix married William Heelis here in 1913.