Helen Beatrix Potter
Beatrix was an English author, illustrator, natural scientist and conservationist best known for her children's books featuring animals, such as those in The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
She and her younger brother Walter Bertram (1872–1918) grew up with few friends outside their 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. In their school room, Beatrix and Bertram kept a variety of small pets, mice, rabbits, a hedgehog and some bats, along with collections of butterflies and other insects which they drew and studied.
The family spent holidays in Scotland and the Lake District, developing a love of landscape, flora and fauna, all of which she closely observed and painted. Beatrix and her brother were allowed great freedom in the country and both children became adept students of natural history. In 1887, when Dalguise in Scotland was no longer available, the Potters took their first summer holiday in the Lake District, at Wray Castle near Lake Windermere. Here Beatrix met Hardwicke Rawnsley, vicar of Wray and later the founding secretary of the National Trust, whose interest in the countryside and country life inspired the same in Beatrix and who was to have a lasting impact on her life.
Whenever Potter went on holiday to the Lake District or Scotland, she sent letters to young friends, illustrating them with quick sketches. Many of these letters were written to the children of her former governess Annie Carter Moore, particularly to her eldest son Noel who was often ill. In September 1893, Potter was on holiday at Eastwood in Dunkeld, Perthshire. She had run out of things to say to Noel and so she told him a story about "four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter". It became one of the most famous children's letters ever written and the basis of Potter's future career as a writer-artist-storyteller.
Her parents discouraged her intellectual development as a young woman, but her study and watercolours of fungi led to her being widely respected in the field of mycology.
In her thirties, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published, and was an immediate success. Potter began writing and illustrating children's books full-time. It was followed the next year by The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester, which had also first been written as picture letters to the Moore children. Working with Norman Warne as her editor, Potter published two or three little books each year. The last book in this format was Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes in 1922, a collection of favourite rhymes. Although The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was not published until 1930, but it had been written much earlier.
With the proceeds from the books and a legacy from an aunt, in 1905 Potter bought Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey, a village in the Lake District, which at that time was in Lancashire. Over the following 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 and enjoyed a happy marriage of thirty years. Although they were childless, Potter played an important role in William’s large family, particularly enjoying her relationship with several nieces whom she helped educate and giving comfort and aid to her husband’s brothers and sisters.
Potter was also a prize-winning breeder of Herdwick sheep and a prosperous farmer keenly interested in land preservation. She continued to write and illustrate, and to design spin-off merchandise based on her children's books for British publisher Warne, until the duties of land management and her diminishing eyesight made it difficult to continue.
Potter wrote about 30 books, best known being her 24 children's tales. She died of pneumonia and heart disease 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 constitutes the Lake District National Park. Potter's books continue to sell throughout the world in many languages with her stories being retold in song, film, ballet, and animation, and her life depicted in feature and television films.