The beloved children’s author was also a talented scientific illustrator and conservationist.
(© Robert Neubecker)
July 28, 2016, marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of British Unitarian and author Helen Beatrix Heelis (1866–1943), better known as Beatrix Potter, creator of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and other children’s classics. Although Potter is famous for her “little books,” historians have brought belated attention to her achievements as an illustrator and conservationist.
Her parents, Rupert and Helen (Leech) Potter, hailed from wealthy Unitarian families in Manchester. Their London home was as starched as the Victorian clothing Beatrix was compelled to wear. The Potters’ friends included Unitarian theologian James Martineau, Unitarian minister the Rev. William Gaskell (husband of novelist Elizabeth Gaskell), and the painter John Everett Millais. Though British Unitarianism was associated with liberalism, Rupert and Helen were conservative by nature. Church was Beatrix’s parents’ domain, but biographer Linda Lear suggests that she may have drawn some of her self-reliance and streak of rebelliousness from Unitarianism.
In her parents’ shadow, she learned to read and draw skillfully at an early age. She and her younger brother Bertram kept a menagerie of pets, including rabbits, hedgehogs, and a lizard named Judy. These pets provided companionship in a lonely childhood. Release came during the family’s summer holidays in Scotland and the Lake District—landscapes that profoundly shaped her art.
Young Beatrix drew and painted obsessively, absorbing all she could from books and museums. Though eager to learn, she was protective of her native instincts, and chafed at the art lessons arranged by her parents: “I think and hope my self-will which brings me into so many scrapes will guard me here,” she wrote, “but it is tiresome . . . to be taught in a way you dislike and have to swallow your feelings.”
External pressures seemed to fuel rather than smother her spirit. In her twenties, she began studying, through observation and reading, the mushrooms and lichens that grew around Dunkeld, Scotland. Soon, Beatrix noticed an apparently undocumented process of fungi reproduction from spores. She presented her discovery to the Royal Botanical Society, whose members were annoyed that an amateur, and a woman, had the temerity to contradict the findings of Society members and—even more vexingly—to be right. Her discovery was largely ignored, but her extraordinary illustrations enjoyed a longer life, and are still used today. During this period Beatrix sold her first drawings and received a commission for a set of etymology illustrations. Aided by a microscope, she drew spiders, butterflies, and beetles in astonishing detail.
She often wrote “picture letters” to the children of family friends, including one about a rabbit named Peter. This became the basis for her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, published in 1902. It was soon followed by The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester. In all, she published twenty-three children’s books in under thirty years.
Marriage came late, and by a circuitous route. In 1905, her editor Norman Warne, whom she knew only formally, took the surprising step of proposing. Beatrix accepted, despite her parents’ objections. Norman’s death from leukemia just weeks before the wedding proved a turning point. That autumn, she purchased Hill Top Farm in Lancashire, and soon became a prominent landowner, known for her prize-winning Herdwick sheep. At age 49 she married William Heelis, a local lawyer, and they remained happily married until her death. Her readership (including many Boston Unitarians) grew as her artistic output slowed. When she died at 77, she bequeathed more than 4,300 acres of Lake District farmlands to the National Trust, one of the world’s first conservation organizations.
While some accounts of Beatrix’s life portray her as a droll eccentric, these do her little justice. Her business acumen and attention to detail earned her financial independence and professional respect. As an artist she was modern in her allegiance to her own tastes, yet she was a conservationist in the oldest sense of the word: a defender of tradition. Lear writes, “Potter brought nature back into the English imagination . . . when the plunder of nature was more popular than its preservation.”
Her admirers included author Maurice Sendak, who praised her ability to bring movement to the page. This skill came from her close study of how animals moved, ate, and slept, even how they appeared in death. In her fiction, nature is not toothless; Jemima Puddle-duck’s eggs are devoured, and Peter Rabbit’s father ends up in a pie. Yet with the stories’ frankness comes power. Her characters are more than mice in mob caps and frogs in galoshes; they are the mixed-up creatures we know ourselves to be: foolish and brave, selfish and principled, and often desperately hungry.
Her opinions were biting to the end. In January 1943, a reviewer compared her to several prominent painters, including John Constable. “Absolute bosh,” she responded.
Despite her insistence that she was not among the best artists of her time, she remains one of the most revered storytellers of any time. This was underscored in January when the Royal Mint announced its choice of two notable British authors to be featured on its 2016 coins: William Shakespeare and Beatrix Potter. And this fall, Potter fans anticipate a special treat: a new Beatrix Potter book, recently unearthed from her archives at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots will be released in September, with new illustrations by Quentin Blake.
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Kris Willcox is a contributing editor for UU World. She is a writer and Unitarian Universalist with roots in the mountain west and a home in the Boston area. She spends her days writing for universities and other nonprofit organizations. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Vela, Cimarron Review, Literary Mama, and other publications.