Beatrix Potter (1866–1943) is still one of the world’s best-selling and best-loved children’s authors. She wrote and illustrated 28 books that have been translated into more than 35 languages and sold over 100 million copies. Born in Kensington, London, she later moved to Hill Top Farm in Cumbria and on her death bequeathed it, along with 13 other farms and over 4000 acres of land, to the National Trust.
Beatrix’s love of animals was shared by her brother Bertram. The children spent hours watching and sketching the menagerie of pets that lived in their schoolroom. Their collection included frogs, a tortoise, salamanders and even a bat, and was added to by occasional catches from the garden (mice, hedgehogs and rabbits) that were smuggled into the house in paper bags.
Potter, the only daughter of heirs to cotton fortunes, spent a solitary childhood, enlivened by long holidays in Scotland or the English Lake District, which inspired her love of animals and stimulated her imaginative watercolour drawings. On one of these holidays in Scotland, at age 27, she sent an illustrated animal story to a sick child of a former governess, about four bunnies named Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter. The illustrated letter was so well received that she decided to privately publish it as The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901). In 1902 it was published commercially with great success by Frederick Warne & Company, which in the next 20 years brought out 22 additional books, beginning with The Tailor of Gloucester (1903), The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903), and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904). The tiny books, which she designed so that even the smallest children could hold them, combined a deceptively simple prose, concealing dry North Country humour, with illustrations in the best English watercolour tradition.
Here are some of her best-known characters:
Flower painting was a conventional subject for a girl of Beatrix’s class. From a young age she drew inspiration from books such as John E. Sowerby’s British Wild Flowers, a lavish present from her grandmother, and Vere Foster’s popular drawing manuals. Mostly, however, Beatrix shared the Pre-Raphaelites’ passion for the ‘meticulous copying of flowers & plants’ from life. These drawings blend characteristics of botanical illustration, concerned with the accurate depiction and identification of plants, with those of flower painting, a genteel art celebrating the beauty of nature. Whether drawing for serious study or for enjoyment Beatrix combines scientific detachment with a keen sense of wonder and an expert appreciation of composition and design.