Monday, April 22, 2013

Beatrix Potter (1866 – 1943)

Beatrix Potter was an English author, illustrator, natural scientist and conservationist best known for her imaginative children’s books featuring animals such as those in The Tale of Peter Rabbit which celebrated the British landscape and country life.

Born into a privileged Unitarian family, Potter, along with her younger brother, Walter Bertram (1872–1918), grew up with few friends outside her large, extended family. Her parents were artistic, interested in nature and enjoyed the countryside. As children, Beatrix and Bertram had numerous small animals as pets which they observed closely and drew endlessly. Summer holidays were spent in Scotland and in the English Lake District where Beatrix developed a love of the natural world which was the subject of her painting from an early age.

She was educated by private governesses until she was eighteen. Her study of languages, literature, science and history was broad and she was an eager student. Her artistic talents were recognized early. She enjoyed private art lessons, and developed her own style, favouring watercolour. Along with her drawings of her animals, real and imagined, she illustrated insects, fossils, archaeological artefacts, and fungi. In the 1890s her mycological illustrations and research on the reproduction of fungi spores generated interest from the scientific establishment. Following some success illustrating cards and booklets, Potter wrote and illustrated The Tale of Peter Rabbit publishing it first privately in 1901, and a year later as a small, three-colour illustrated book with Frederick Warne & Co. She became unofficially engaged to her editor Norman Warne in 1905 despite the disapproval of her parents, but he died suddenly a month later, of leukemia.

With the proceeds from the books and a legacy from an aunt, Potter bought Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey, a tiny village in the English Lake District near Ambleside in 1905. Over the next several decades, she purchased additional farms to preserve the unique hill country landscape. In 1913, at the age of 47, she married William Heelis, a respected local solicitor from Hawkshead. Potter was also a prize-winning breeder of Herdwick sheep and a prosperous farmer keenly interested in land preservation. She continued to write, illustrate and design spin-off merchandise based on her children’s books for Warne until the duties of land management and diminishing eyesight made it difficult to continue. Potter published over twenty-three books; the best known are those written between 1902 and 1922. She died on 22 December 1943 at her home in Near Sawrey at age 77, leaving almost all her property to the National Trust. She is credited with preserving much of the land that now comprises the Lake District National Park.

Potter’s books continue to sell throughout the world, in multiple languages. Her stories have been retold in song, film, ballet and animation.

Beatrix Potter’s parents did not discourage higher education. As was common in the Victorian era, women of her class were privately educated and rarely sent to college.


An illustration by Potter
Beatrix Potter was interested in every branch of natural science save astronomy. Botany was a passion for most Victorians and nature study was a popular enthusiasm. Potter was eclectic in her tastes; collecting fossils, studying archeological artifacts from London excavations, and interested in entomology. In all of these areas she drew and painted her specimens with increasing skill. By the 1890s her scientific interests centred on mycology. First drawn to fungi because of their colours and evanescence in nature and her delight in painting them, her interest deepened after meeting Charles McIntosh, a revered naturalist and mycologist during a summer holiday in Dunkeld in Perthshire in 1892. He helped improve the accuracy of her illustrations, taught her taxonomy, and supplied her with live specimens to paint during the winter. Curious as to how fungi reproduced Potter began microscopic drawings of fungi spores (the agarics) and in 1895 developed a theory of their germination. Through the aegis of her scientific uncle, Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe, a chemist and vice chancellor of the University of London, she consulted with botanists at Kew Gardens, convincing George Massee of her ability to germinate spores and her theory of hybridisation. She did not believe in the theory of symbiosis proposed by Simon Schwendener, the German mycologist as previously thought, rather she proposed a more independent process of reproduction.

Rebuffed by William Thiselton-Dyer, the Director at Kew, because of her gender and her amateur status, Beatrix wrote up her conclusions and submitted a paper On the Germination of the Spores of the Agariciceae to the Linnean Society in 1897. It was introduced by Massee because, as a female, Potter could not attend proceedings or read her paper. She subsequently withdrew it realising that some of her samples were contaminated, but continued her microscopic studies for several more years. Her paper has only recently been rediscovered, along with the rich, artistic illustrations and drawings that accompanied it. Her work is only now being properly evaluated. Potter later gave her other mycological drawings and scientific drawings to the Armitt Museum and Library in Ambleside where mycologists still refer to them to identify fungi. There is also a collection of her fungi paintings at the Perth Museum and Art Gallery in Perth, Scotland donated by Charles McIntosh. In 1967 the mycologist W.P.K. Findlay included many of Potter’s beautifully accurate fungi drawings in his Wayside & Woodland Fungi, thereby fulfilling her desire to one day have her fungi drawings published in a book. In 1997 the Linnean Society issued a posthumous apology to Potter for the sexism displayed in its handling of her research.

Potter gave her folios of mycological drawings to the Armitt Library and Museum in Ambleside before her death.

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