I'm sure you're all very familiar with Beatrix Potter and her famous rabbit creation, Peter. I grew up with the books myself, but never really appreciated the illustrations fully until I saw many of the original works at the Smithsonian in a travelling exhibit. The detail and warmth is unbelievable. The pieces are so small, but you stare and stare at each little flower and 'paw', marveling at the textures, gestures and color. Or at least I did.
Born in London, in the middle of the 19th century (1866), Potter didn't have an easy time gaining her position as a beloved illustrator and children's book writer. She was kept separate from most other children and educated by her governess. In an attempt to keep her from developing any further intellectually, her parents made her the housekeeper when she 'came of age'. Of course we know, this didn't stop her—from the age of 15, Beatrix kept a daily journal written in code in order to keep the contents hidden from her oppressive parents. In addition to keeping a journal, Potter began drawing her pets (frog, dog, newt, ferret, a bat and of course, a rabbit) and the animals she saw on her family vacations to Scotland and the Lake District of England at a young age.
During their vacations, the family befriended a local vicar, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, in the Lake District who eventually went on to start the National Trust (akin to America's National Park System). Through Rawnsley and her time in the countryside, Potter learned the importance of conservation—something she was committed and acted in favor of for the rest of her life.
But back to her artwork:
The sad, but common story of a Victorian woman with ambition, Potter attempted to become a student at The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew—and was rejected on the grounds of her sex. This did not stop her from painting a great number of images of fungi, and as a result of her expert illustrations and observations, she was very respected throughout england as an expert mycologist. A paper she wrote on the germination of spores was presented to the Linnean Society by her Uncle as women were barred from attending meetings. The society also refused to publish at least one of her technical papers.
It wasn't until later that she came to storytelling. After sending a letter to the son of a former governess with the first Peter story, she was encouraged to publish it. The manuscript was rejected by all publishers she submitted to (the primary complaint being that it wasn't colorful enough). So Potter decided to self-publish the book herself. And once she did that, she sold all her copies and was able to find a publisher. By the next year, she had a contract and a patented character—the first of many.
From there, Potter created 22 other children's titles that were popular enough to allow her financial freedom from her parents. And what do you think the first thing she did with her money was? She bought land in the Lake District. And as the sales continued, she continued to buy land in the hopes of preserving it. Potter lived out the rest of her days on 'Hill Top Farm' with her husband, dogs, cats and even a pet hedgehog named 'Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle'. When she passed, the bulk of her property was left to the National Trust so that it would be forever protected from development.
Beatrix Potter may primarily be known as the Peter's creator to most—but I see a spirited, forward-thinking and persistent woman who didn't let the mentality of the era she grew up in stop her in doing what she believed. Thanks Beatrix!
For more Beatrix check out:
The Tale of Beatrix Potter biopic (I haven't seen this, so I have no comment.)
Miss Potter, the recent Zellweger biopic (I also haven't seen this one.)