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The woman who self published her first book, studied mushrooms, drew beautiful animal illustrations, and continues to influence pop culture today.

The basics

Beatrix was born on July 28th 1866 and died December 22nd 1943, aged 77.

She grew up as part of a wealthy family in Manchester. Her schooling came from private, in-house governesses, the third and final of which was Annie Moore, whom she remained close friends with for life. 

She kept many small animals as pets growing up, including mice, rabbits, hedgehogs, guinea pigs, and bats. She cared for them so deeply that she would often take the animals on holiday with her. 

These holidays included Dalguise in Scotland and the Lake District, where she would sketch and explore the countryside. Potter kept a coded diary from the age of fourteen.

Enter science…

Natural history was a big passion of hers, especially botany, which was increasingly popular during the nineteenth century. As well as drawing and painting animals and various specimens of bugs, she collected fossils and studied archaeology. 

Eventually, she was drawn to fungi, partly because the variety of colours posed new challenges for her watercolour skills, but also for their fairy-like qualities, according to Linda Lear, author of Beatrix Potter, The Extraordinary life of a Victorian Genius

She later befriended mycologist (someone who studies mushrooms) Charles McIntosh, who helped her improve the accuracy of her drawings, taught her about taxonomy (naming of species), and supplied her with specimens to draw during the winter when the family were not on holiday.

Mushroom mad! ?

Following years of drawing and studying mushrooms, she became curious as to how they reproduced. She started drawing microscopic spores that the mushrooms produced, and developed her own theory of germination. 

It was thought at the time that mushrooms reproduced through symbiosis (according to Google, this is ‘interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both’), but Beatrix found evidence that this was not the case. 

She was consulting a botanist at Kew Gardens to assist her in these studies. However, it was during this time that she faced her first instance of sexism. The director at Kew Gardens rejected her theories because she was a woman. 

But she was undeterred. 

She wrote up her conclusions and submitted a paper, On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae, to the Linnean Society, who study natural history, evolution, and taxonomy in 1897.

Yet again, sexism reared its ugly head. 

As she was a woman, she wasn’t allowed to read her paper allowed as the author typically did, but not only that, she wasn’t even allowed to attend the event. It was read by George Massee from Kew Gardens.

She later withdrew the paper as she discovered that some of the samples she had used were contaminated, but continued with her line of study for many years to come.

In fact, some of the drawings she accurately produced of certain mushrooms were submitted to the Armitt Museum and library, and are still used today to identify different fungi.

You can also find a collection of her drawings at the Perth Museum and Art Gallery in Scotland.

Fellow W.P.K.Findlay included many of Potter’s drawings in his book, Wayside and Woodland Fungi, which fulfilled her desire to one day have her fungus drawings published in a book.

The Linnean Society did later issue a posthumous apology letter to her for their sexist behaviour in 1997. 

Artistic and literary career

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, her illustrations were heavily influenced by fairytales and fables. She studied a lot of different books to try and learn more about the illustration style. 

Her own illustrations were based on her own pets —mice, rabbits, kittens, guinea pigs, etc, that she had at a young age. 

In 1890, she designed some Christmas cards with her brother, as well as a few other special occasion ones. They, naturally, included a lot of mice and rabbits. 

Her drawings were later purchased by a poet to accompany his poems that were published. They were also purchased by the printer Hildesheimer and Faulkner, and some frogs illustrations sold to appear in the Changing Pictures annual in 1894.

Then she decided it was time to get published herself. 

In 1893, in one of her many letters to Annie Moore’s son, she ran out of things to say and began telling him the tale of ‘four little rabbits, whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.’ This became one of the most famous children’s letters ever written.

In 1900 she revised it into a full tale and made a dummy book to take to some publishers. 

The publishing rollercoaster

She sent the book to six different publishers. Who all rejected her.

Beatrix had a vision: to have the book small enough for children to hold and read by themselves. 

Which makes sense, right? Seeing as it’s children who’ll be reading it.

But publishers didn’t want to sell a small book. They wanted to sell a big book they could charge more money for. 

Badass Beatrix refused to let go of her vision. 

In December 1901, she used her own savings to self-publish the book, creating 250 copies to share around to friends and family. 

A friend called Rawnsley rewrote the story in didactic verse, which added more of a moral to the story, and shared it around the big London publishing houses. Within a year, Frederick Warne and Co, one of the publishers who had originally rejected it, reconsidered what they called ‘the bunny book.’ And they reverted back to Potter’s original prose.

On 2nd October, 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published, including original illustrations. It was immediately a success, selling 20,000 copies by Christmas—just two months later! It has since been translated into 40 languages, sold 45 million copies worldwide. 

Beatrix continued to publish with Frederick Warne and Co for the next few years, publishing twenty three books in total. 

Country life

She became engaged to Norman Warne in 1905, and they started the process of purchasing Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey in the Lake District. Unfortunately, he died of pernicious anaemia aged thirty seven, before they got married.

Beatrix didn’t let that deter her. She used her income from the books and a small inheritance from an aunt to buy the place. 

She had to learn how to farm animals as the farm had pigs, cows, and chickens. She even added sheep the following year. 

You can see lots of examples of her country surrounding in her work, particularly The Tale of Ginger and Pickles, and The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse.

She met William Heelis in 1912, a local lawyer who helped her secure land surrounding her farm. They moved into Castle Cottage, which was the renovated farmhouse on Castle Farm—one of the places Heelis helped in purchasing. 

Beatrix was a big fan of country life and the community. She served on lots of local committees and established a nursing trust for local villages.

She purchased an additional sheep farm in 1923 in Troutbeck Valley, dedicating a lot of time to breeding and raising indigenous Herdwick Sheep.

She became the first female president elect of the Herdwick Sheepbreeders Association in 1942, but sadly died before she could take up the position. 

During her life, she worked with the National Trust to preserve not just beautiful areas of the countryside, but also low grazing lands that would otherwise be ruined by development.

Beatrix’ Potter’s legacy

Beatrix Potter is most well known for writing and illustrating wonderful children’s books that are still popular today. It’s almost forgotten that she was also a self-published author, renowned mycologist, and successful farmer. 

Let’s not forget Badass Beatrix, who refused to give on her vision, fought through sexism, and brought us so much more than just Peter Rabbit.