Photograph of Beatrix Potter taken by her father Rupert in 1912.

Beatrix Potter (July 28, 1866 - December 22, 1943) was an English author and illustrator of popular children's books which feature anthropomorphic animals.

Although born in London, Beatrix Potter developed a love of nature while exploring the countryside on family vacations in her childhood. She began sketching and painting animals and plants at an early age. She also enjoyed drawing illustrations for fairy tales and other popular stories, and she began to earn money as an illustrator when she was in her twenties. Around the same time, she started including illustrated short stories in her letters to the children of her former governess. In 1901, she expanded one of the stories and self-published it as The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The commercial edition published the following year was an immediate success and launched her writing career. She published 23 tales and oversaw licensing and merchandizing of her characters before retiring to dedicate herself to farming and conservation.

Beatrix Potter's books remain very popular today. They have been translated into many languages and also adapted to other media many times.


Potter and her mother Helen Leech Potter

Beatrix Potter and her mother Helen.

Helen Beatrix Potter was born on July 28, 1866 in London, England, to a wealthy family. She was the first child of Rupert William Potter and Helen née Leech whose families had made their fortunes in the Lancashire cotton industry. Beatrix was educated at home by governesses, as girls of Victorian upper-middle-class families usually were. Her childhood was spent in lonely isolation until her younger brother Bertram was born in 1872.

Beatrix and Bertram shared a love of animals and kept many pets including rabbits, mice, and frogs in their school room. During long summer holidays, in Scotland and later in the Lake District, the siblings roamed the countryside sketching and catching animals. Beatrix's parents, both artistically inclined, recognized her gift. They encouraged her and enrolled her at the National Art Training School in London in 1878. Beatrix did well at school and received a certificate in 1883. She never truly appreciated her schooling, however, because she feared her originality would be compromised by formal instructions.

Young Beatrix

Beatrix Potter at age fifteen, with her dog Spot.

Once Bertram was sent away to boarding school, Beatrix was again on her own. The isolation combined with the restrictions and demands put on her by her parents, especially by her domineering mother, caused Beatrix to suffer bouts of depression and occasional poor health. She continued studying and drawing animals and plants, however, and soon developed an interest in the scientific study of nature. She was particularly fascinated by fungi and, encouraged by the Scottish naturalist Charles Macintosh, learned to draw them with technical accuracy. Beatrix Potter not only became an excellent scientific illustrator but also developed her own theory on the germination of spores. She wrote a paper on the subject which was presented to the Linnean Society in 1897 on her behalf – because women were not allowed to attend the proceedings – by a Kew Gardens expert.

In addition to drawing and painting animals and plants, Potter also enjoyed drawing illustrations for fairy tales and popular stories such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In 1890, she sold some of her pictures to Hildesheimer and Faulkner, a London publisher. They were used for greeting cards and as illustrations for a book of verses A Happy Pair by Frederic Weatherley. Potter also began including illustrated little stories in letters to the children of her former governess and companion Annie Moore. Encouraged by Moore to publish, Potter borrowed the carefully-preserved correspondences. One of the letters, written in September 1893 to the sickly five-year-old Noel Moore, told the story of a naughty little rabbit named Peter. Potter expanded the story and, after failing to find a publisher, self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901. Frederick Warne & Co., one of the publishers who had rejected the story earlier, reconsidered their decision and offered to publish it on the condition that she replace her pen-and-ink illustrations with new color ones. The first commercial edition was published in October 1902. It was an immediate success.

1901 First Edition of Peter Rabbit

Cover of the 1901 private edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

A businesswoman ahead of her time, Potter pushed for licensing and merchandising of her creations. She patented a Peter Rabbit doll in 1903 and actively involved herself in the development of additional products including a board game, wallpaper, painting books, and toys. She had strong opinions on how her books should look and worked closely with her editor Norman Warne, the youngest member of the firm, on their design and production. When they could not reach an agreement on the next book, Potter again decided to self-publish. The private edition of The Tailor of Gloucester was printed in December 1902. The following August, her second commercial book, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, was published followed by the commercial edition of The Tailor of Gloucester in October.

Two more tales were published in 1904, and work on another book was almost complete when Warne proposed to Potter in July 1905. Potter's parents deemed a man working in trade unsuitable for their daughter, but Potter defied their wishes and accepted the proposal. Tragically, Norman died a month later from leukemia while Potter was away on her summer holiday. At the end of the same year, Potter purchased a seventeenth-century farm in Near Sawrey in the Lake District and named it "Hill Top". Her time at Hill Top was initially limited due to family obligations in London, but she began to spend more time there in the following years. Country life suited her, and Potter applied herself to learning the business of farming. Her creativity was also inspired by her surroundings, and she published steadily between 1906 and 1913.

B Potter and her husband W Heelis 1913

Beatrix Potter and her husband William Heelis.

Potter spent the income from her books and merchandising to improve the farm and to buy additional land. In 1909, she consulted a local law firm about purchasing some property near Hill Top. William Heelis, one of the partners, assisted her and soon became her solicitor, advising her on additional acquisitions. He eventually became her unofficial property manager whenever she was away in London taking care of her aging parents. Heelis proposed to Potter in 1912 and, after a secret engagement (Potter's parents objected to a "country solicitor"), they were married in 1913. The happy couple moved into Castle Cottage on the farm adjacent to Hill Top which Potter had purchased earlier.

After the marriage, Potter's focus shifted away from her books to being a wife and to farming. After her eyesight began failing in 1918, she only produced a few tales even though her publisher pressed for more new material. Conservation became her primary passion, and she purchased more land to add to the estate. After the 1920 death of Hardwicke Rawnsley, a long time friend and one of the founders of the National Trust conservation society, Potter took on a more active role in the Trust. She also became a prize-winning breeder of Herdwick sheep and was elected as the first female president of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders' Association in 1943. When she died at the age of 77 on December 22, 1943, Potter left over 4000 acres of land including Hill Top to the National Trust for preservation. The land is now part of the Lake District National Park and Hill Top Farmhouse is a museum.

Published tales

Peter Rabbit first edition 1902a

Cover of the first commercial edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902).


Beatrix Potter's stories have been read to and by children for over a hundred years. They have inspired multiple dramatizations -- of both her stories and her life. Some of these are...

  • an HBO adaptation of The Tale of Peter Rabbit
  • Miss Potter - a 2006 film directed by Chris Noonan focusses primarily on her efforts to be a published author instead of having the standard goal for a woman of her time, marriage.

External links