The Cartoonists by Susanna McLeod        [email protected]

   

Beatrix Potter, Illustrator and Author of "Peter Rabbit"

April 30, 2013

   

An artist skilled in drawing small animals and plant life long before she was a teenager, Beatrix Potter faced rejection as a new author. Overcoming obstacles, she became a household name with the 1902 publication of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" and then many other endearing books. Potter's delightful, delicate watercolours, charming characters and matter-of-fact stories captivate children and parents yet today, over 110 years later.

   

With minimal linework, the art of Beatrix Potter bursts with life and activity. The fine lines flow from the pen of an artist dedicated to accuracy in natural form and behaviour. Enraptured with nature and natural history since early childhood, Potter learned her impressive techniques on her own.

Born on July 28, 1866 to Rupert and Helen Potter in London, England, Helen Beatrix Potter's family was of the wealthier middle-class. Her parents were distant and busy, leaving Beatrix in the hands of a childcare nurse. When Beatrix was six, her parents had a son, William Bertram, who was also left in the care of the nurse. The caregiver thrilled the wee ones with stories of fairies and witches, adventure and fun.

The lives of Beatrix and Bertram were lonely, with a lack of social opportunities. The Potters hired a governess to teach their children at home, and she provided a thorough yet fascinating education. "Miss Hammond happily allocated a generous portion of the educational timetable to art without neglecting the necessities of 'reading, writing and arithmetic,'" said University of Pittsburgh in "The Illustrators Project: Helen Beatrix Potter (1866-1943).

The Great Beatrix Potter  
The Great Beatrix Potter in Her Youth  

Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

Developing a foundation of science in her students, Miss Hammond took the Potter kids to the Natural History Museum. Inspired by the exhibits, the young Beatrix loved to draw the animals and plants. She did not do just quick sketches; Beatrix examined specimens closely, learning the intricacies of life with her brother by dissecting animals of different species. Home was filled with pets (not dissected) from frogs to rabbits, hedgehogs to mice. Beatrix was a budding scientist.

By the tender age of 8, Beatrix's talent for art was spotted by her parents and they encouraged her development. Taking lessons in oil painting, figure and life painting, Beatrix found the work distracting. She much preferred drawing and watercolours, and the freedom to create unsupervised. "Thank goodness my education was neglected and the originality was not rubbed off," Beatrix was quoted.

"Potter developed the eye of an expert investigative scientist," said Victoria and Albert Museum, "able to draw living creatures with great conviction - throughout her life her work was guided by the principle of portraying nature as accurately as possible." Precision was the solid basis of Beatrix' endearing work.

 
A Scene from Beatrix Potter's series, "Peter Rabbit" © F. Warne & Co.  

Honing her writing skills as well, Beatrix wrote about her investigations into plant life. Creating a rigorous series of microscopically detailed paintings on fungi, Beatrix hoped the works would be part of a textbook. She was refused since she wasn't a trained botanist.

Still living with her parents at age 24, Beatrix painted menu cards, place cards for money, and also created picture letters for entertainment of the children of friends. Sending artwork to a greeting card publisher, Beatrix received "a check for six pounds and a request for more dawings," said University of Pittsburgh. "The company made cards from some and used others as illustrations for a book of verses, A Happy Pair by Frederic E. Weatherly." The time had come for Beatrix Potter's rise to success.

 
Beatrix Potter's Delightful Work

Three years later, one of Beatrix' picture letters, "illustrated with little drawings of rabbits, squirrels and other tiny creatures," became the inspiration for her first Peter Rabbit book.

But Beatrix was hit by a problem so many new authors suffer. She could not find a publisher.

Undaunted, the author self-published "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," the book debuting on December 16, 1901 with 250 copies. Through a friend, the book caught the attention of publisher Frederick Warne & Co, and a year later, the colour version of Peter Rabbit was introduced. "All 8,000 copies were sold before the book was even published," noted University of Pittsburgh. Readers loved Beatrix' lively rabbits.

Specific on how she wanted her books to be presented, Beatrix insisted "it be small enough for little hand to hold, that text and illustrations be on separate pages, and that the price be as low as possible," according to Linda Lear in "Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature" at BPotter.com.

The delightful stories written by Beatrix were centred on the every-day, the usual events that people - and anthropomorphized animals - might face. Even with the grim facts that rabbits were caught to eat and mice were terrified of cats, fans were delighted.

 
   
Notice the details imbued in mice drawn by Beatrix Potter. © F. Warne & Co.

Working often and for many years with editor Norman Warne, the children's writer fell in love. in 1905, Warne asked for Beatrix' hand in marriage. Almost 40 years old, she accepted though her parents were not approving of the man's working class background. The joy Beatrix Potter felt was not to last. Norman Warne died only a month after their engagement, struck down with leukemia. The heartbroken bride-to-be had earned a little money from her books. At last moving from her parents' home, she bought her own property, a farm called "Hill Top."

 

She later found another love by name of Wiliam Heelis, a "gentle, quiet man who shared not her love of fantasy, but her real love of the land," wrote Lear. Becoming a farmer, Beatrix raised Hardwick sheep. "In the years to come she would purchase several more farms and parcels of land" in the northwest of England. Ever the creator, Beatrix transformed the landscapes into beautiful watercolour pieces.

In her mid-fifties, Beatrix Potter was drained of creativity and spent most of her time farming. She published a few new books, including "Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes" in 1922, and only a sparse few others by 1932. Her eyesight was failing and some of her paintings were rejected for inclusion in the books.

Bronchitis had hindered Beatrix over the years, and again took hold in the fall of 1943. Helen Beatrix Potter died on December 22, 1943.

Now considered classics for the ages, Beatrix Potter's books continue to entertain and delight young readers and their parents, her pages displaying a perfection with pen-and-ink and watercolours that few others share.

Flower Sketch by Beatrix Potter  
Flower Study by Beatrix Potter, from Victoria and Albert Museum
© Susanna McLeod 2013
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