Although Helen Beatrix Potter was a late bloomer who led a sheltered and lonely life for many years, when she found her stride, she blossomed. She would go on to write and illustrate 33 books and purchase over 4,000 acres of land to preserve it.
Name: Helen Beatrix Potter
Birth Date: July 28, 1866 – December 22, 1943
Job Functions: British Author and Illustrator of Children’s Books
Fields: Literature, Farming & Sheep-breeding
Known For: Peter Rabbit books, Conservationist
Beatrix Potter’s Steps to Success
Beatrix Potter had two very distinct careers, and was a success in both. We can separate them as being before and after her marriage to William Heelis, a lawyer. Prior to marriage, she was the author of children’s books and after marriage a farmer and sheep-breeder.
Children’s Book Author
Formula for Success for her Book: “A simple story, a whiff of danger, much naughtiness and a cast of carefully anthropomorphized animal characters–never overly cute–whom she drew brilliantly in authentic settings.”
- From an early age, Beatrix Potter liked to draw and paint, which her parents, tutors, governesses, and the painter Sir John Everett Millais encouraged. Although her father was a solicitor, he was also a talented photographer and an accomplished drawer. Her mother supported the arts.
- From ages 12 to 17 years, she received private instruction in drawing and painting from two different teachers. She earned a certificate for art from the Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education.
- Potter studied her pets – rabbits, frogs, mice, rats, newts, hedgehog, bats, and “a little ring-snake fourteen inches long” – and used them as models for her art. She also visited the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where she honed her skills in dry-brush watercolor using costumes, plant, animals and archaeological remains as her subjects. During the summer, her parent rented a summer house in the country and Beatrix was allowed to roam which allowed her to study plants and animals.
- For the illustrations in her books, she used her pets as models and places she knew and loved as settings.
- In 1890, her Uncle Walter sold some of her drawings to Hildersheimer and Faulkner for £6. They were used as Christmas and New Year cards and to illustrate a book of verses called A Happy Pair.
- In September 1893, Potter wrote five year old Noel Moore, the son of her former governess, Anne Moore. The lad was critically ill with scarlet fever and she wanted to cheer him up. Not knowing what to write, she penned and illustrated a story about four little rabbits – Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottaintail and Peter.
- Friends who saw the story letter she had sent to Noel, suggested that she turn her ideas into a book. Seven years later she wrote The Tale of Peter Rabbit (Review). Publishers refused to publish the book so Potter privately printed 250 copies in 1901, which she sold out. The books were unique because they were small enough so that a child could hold it, and they had illustrations facing every page of writing. Publisher Frederick Warne and Company offered to print the book if she changed her line drawings to coloured illustrations. She complied and her writing career was launched.
- 1906 to 1913 were her most productive years. She frequently wrote two books a year.
- Her biggest break came in 1929 when David McKay, an American publisher convinced her to create a big story book from all her previous writing that had not been previously printed. Children’s literature was taken more seriously in the US and their writers occupied a higher status than in England.
- Ahead of her time, Potter had excellent marketing ideas – she designed Peter Rabbit wallpaper, a Peter Rabbit doll, a Peter Rabbit board game, three painting books, and an almanac for 1929.
Farming, Sheep-breeding & Conservation
- From an early age, Potter loved animals, and some of her happiest times were the periods that she spent in the country where her parents allowed her to roam freely. She loved the natural beauty of the countryside.
- Influenced by Hardwicke Rawnsley, a preservationist and family friend.
- The sale of her books gave her the independence she craved, and in 1905 after the death of her fiancé, Norman Warne to leukemia, Potter purchased Hill Top Farm and Castle Cottage in the village of Near Sawrey, Cumbria, England.
- Over the years, she purchased thousands of acres of surrounding farmland and woodland to protect watersheds, ancient woodlands, and the areas were sheep grazed.
- Solicitor William Heelis processed her property transactions, and after a while he proposed to her. Potter’s family being the snobs they were did not believe that Heelis had a high enough social status, and opposed the marriage. Heelis and Potter got married on October 14, 1913. They lived at Castle Cottage farm and she started to turn from writing to farming.
- Devoted herself to breeding Herdwick sheep and she won prizes for her livestock at agricultural fairs.
- In 1930, she was elected the first woman president of the Herdwick Sheepbreeder’s Association.
- Resisted attempts by industrialists to develop the region.
- Bequeathed the land to the nation via National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty.
Biggest Accomplishments Why Beatrix Potter’s Contribution Matters
“Beatrix Potter’s books set her apart from other children’s authors and illustrators. Her integration of story and illustration remains unmatched in children’s literature. Her recognition of the beauty of animals, and her ability to convey it truthfully set her illustrations apart from the grotesque, caricature-like images typical of most animal stories for young children during the Victorian era.”
Lessons from Beatrix Potter
- Although Potter was born into wealth, she was a lonely, shy child who lacked self-confidence. Her parents left her with governesses while they enjoyed the scenes of London. When her brother Bertram (five years younger) was old enough they sent him off to boarding school. She was also not allowed to interact with children her own age. Despite this, she busied herself with her drawing and painting, and made the most of the time she had in the country during the summer months. To give you a sense of how difficult her parents were, her brother kept his marriage a secret from his parents for seven years. Potter found ways to work around her parents.
- Suffered from bouts of depression and occasional poor physical health. For two years she suffered from rheumatoid fever which slowed her down, but that didn’t stop her.
- She was highly productive creating two books a year.
- Deviated from the status quo by creating a book that was small enough to hold in a child’s hand. She made sure her books were priced low enough so more children could enjoy them.
- Was an astute businesswoman, and at the time of her death in 1943, the estate of her farms was valued £211,000 which is between $14 and $35 million today.
- She brought her books to life by using rich language and imagery. The stories were set in actual places she had visited.
- Look at the ways that you successfully get your done, and the ways others in your field get theirs done, is there a formula for success to make your work easier?
- Potter came up with innovative marketing ideas that were way ahead of her time. Think about all that you do, how can you do it better? How can you break new ground?
Tale of Mrs. Jeremy Fisher (The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and Mr. Jeremy Fisher and Other Stories)
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Book links are affiliate links.
Encyclopedia of World Biography
Women in World History, Volume 12
Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood
The Daily Mail, December 30, 2006
American Scientist, May-June 2007
Contemporary Authors Online