Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Potter, an English writer and illustrator of such children’s books as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was also an early member of England’s National Trust for the preservation of properties of historic value or natural beauty. She donated four thousand acres of Lake District farmland to preserve the area’s rural quality of life.
Helen Beatrix Potter was born to middle-class parents in a fashionable rural suburb of London in 1866 at the very height of Victorian England’s prosperity and dominance on the world stage. Her father, Rupert Potter, was a barrister who had studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, and her mother was the daughter of a prosperous Lancashire cotton merchant. Their four-story Kensington house, bought especially to prepare for raising a family, had a staff of six servants, with a young Scottish nanny added after Beatrix’s birth. A brother, Bertram, followed not quite six years later.
As a child, Potter was shy, delicate, and often ill. She seldom ventured out into London, except for walks in Kensington Gardens with her nurse and her first dog, Sandy. She learned to read, she recalled, by painfully spelling her way through the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (1817), then Ivanhoe (1819), then The Talisman (1825), and then back to Rob Roy, which she could suddenly read. Rupert had been an amateur artist as a student and took up collecting, especially the drawings of Randolph Caldecott, the children’s illustrator for whom the Caldecott Medal was named, given annually since 1938 to the best-illustrated children’s book. Rupert was friends with the painter John Everett Millais and Prime Minister William Gladstone, whom he photographed.
The formative experience of Potter’s childhood was the family’s annual three-month vacation in Scotland, a ritual that began when Potter was five and lasted for the next eleven years. Each summer, Rupert would lease Dalguise House, a large country estate, where the adults would shoot grouse and fish for salmon while Potter would explore the meadows and woods collecting specimens, drawing and painting, and imagining Scottish lords and ladies walking alongside her. She and Bertram brought back pets from their expeditions—frogs, lizards, snakes, newts, bats, rats, hedgehogs, and rabbits—which they often smuggled into their upstairs rooms in the London house. Potter meticulously sketched and painted these animals. She did not like to draw people, nor did she draw them well. Her parents, fearful of germs and bad influences, kept the children isolated from other playmates. Potter’s substitutes for human warmth were her pets and her imagination. She began a journal when she was fifteen, written in a secret code to ensure privacy, which was her chief confidante until she was over thirty.
It was through her continued attention to the writing and drawing that were the companions of her long and lonely childhood that Potter eventually produced the children’s books for which she is most famous. Her first attempts at serious work were as a scientific illustrator. She had become fascinated by fungi during the family’s Scottish vacations, befriending a shy postman who taught her much about local mycological lore. Back in London, she spent long afternoons at the nearby Natural History Museum studying and drawing specimens, producing over one hundred watercolors that she hoped to have published as a book. However, they were rejected by the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.
Potter was pointed in a new direction by the happy accident of her family’s change of summer vacation locales. Beginning in 1882, when the Dalguise House was no longer available to rent, the family began summering in the Lake District, first renting a Victorian mansion called Wray Castle on the shores of Lake Windermere. The local vicar, Canon Rawnsley, was an amateur naturalist and conservationist deeply concerned about the despoilation of the lakes by tourism and its accompanying development. (In 1895 he succeeded in cofounding the National Trust, largely to protect the Lake District.) In 1890, upon seeing Potter’s drawings, he suggested offhandedly that she might illustrate birthday cards or nursery rhymes with one of the new foreign firms in London such as Hildesheimer & Faulkner. With Bertram’s help, she sent off six designs for Christmas cards, using their pet rabbit Benjamin Bouncer as a model. She received a check for six pounds and, for the next two years, poured herself into illustration work for the firm. The work, however, was not aesthetically satisfying.
About that time she began writing...
(The entire section is 1942 words.)
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