This year marks the sesquicentennial of the birth of Helen Beatrix Potter -the noted English writer, illustrator, story teller, shrewd businesswoman, pioneering scientist, powerful landowner and conservationist. And the celebrations are building to a crescendo as we approach 28 July the date of her birth in 1866. More than two million Beatrix Potter books are sold somewhere in the world every year – that’s four books every minute – so Beatrix Potter is still a big deal.
It seemed Beatrix was always destined for a special life. Beatrix and her younger brother Walter Bertram loved to draw and paint, and sketch. Peterrabbit.com tells us while Beatrix did not ever attend school, her parents employed an art teacher and a number of governesses who nurtured her talents for artistic expression and the natural world. She loved to sketch her pet rabbits including Benjamin Bouncer, who enjoyed buttered toast and joined the Potter family on holiday in Scotland where he went for walks on a lead and Peter Piper, who had a talent for performing tricks.
Beatrix was also an accomplished naturalist and scientific illustrator who was invited to study fungi at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew. She produced several hundred paintings of mushrooms, boletes, jelly and other fungi, studying a number microscopically and experimenting with spore germination. This mycological aspect of her life had been largely ignored and like many women of the time, she received little of the scientific recognition she deserved.
Beatrix’s earliest artistic works were greeting-card designs – I knew I had an affinity with this lady! But it is Peter Rabbit that most of us associate Beatrix Potter with and Peter Rabbit who launched her career. Peter Rabbit was one of her earliest stories but rejected by several publishers, so entrepreneurial Beatrix decided to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit herself, with an initial print run of 250 copies. The book was a hit prompting the publishers Frederick Warne & Co. to do an about face on their original rejection and print it on the proviso that Beatrix re-illustrated it in colour. The rest is history.
Hot on the heels of the Peter Rabbit came The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester and then the now legendary and fabulously titled 23 original tales – including the Tales of Jemima Puddle Duck, Tiggy Winkle, Mrs Tittlemouse, Mr Tod, Johnny Town Mouse and Pigling Bland. I love the name Pigling Bland – I think I know a few Pigling Blands myself.
I love the fact that Beatrix was an astute business woman who was determined to license her illustrations and ideas. Makes the concept of Finding Dory Merchandise a bit yesterday doesn’t it? Fun Fact: Beatrix designed, created and registered the first Peter Rabbit doll herself in 1903, making Peter Rabbit the world’s oldest licensed literary character. Soon there followed tea sets and bedroom slippers and a board game and painting books for Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-duck.
Income from books and illustrations enabled Beatrix to invest in farmland, including Hill Top Farm, which features in many of her tales. This was a remarkable achievement, because as so well described in Brainpickings, women at the time had no right to vote, virtually no access to higher education, very rarely owned property and were themselves considered the property of their husband.
Beatrix was a staunch supporter of the National Trust and she remained committed throughout her life to its principles of preserving buildings and farms in keeping with the rural culture of the area. When she died in 1943, she left fifteen farms and over four thousand acres of land to the National Trust. In accordance with her wishes, Hill Top Farm is kept as it had been when Beatrix lived there. It receives thousands of visitors every year and if you happen to be in the Cumbria area, there’s a grand birthday party for Beatrix at Hill Top on 28 July.
When it comes to a Beatrix wrap, I am, of course spoiled for choice. An inner voice said do a Beatrix fungi wrap, but it made sense to reference the character illustrations for which Beatrix is so well known. I opted for a Beatrix wallpaper print, a lovely edged stitched blue grosgrain bow and a bunny shaped tag. A too cute wrap for a too cute little person. I reckon I could use this gift wrap in 150 years and it would continue to stand the test of time. In the meantime, I’m off to get a cup of tea, munch on a few biscuits (if only they were Beatrix Potter biscuits from my current biscuit crush the Biscuiteers) and read a whole lot more about the life and times of Beatrix Potter.