No children’s books has captured hearts quite like of these of Beatrix Potter, the beloved author inspired by flora and fauna found in the pictoresqua English countryside. She wrote and illustrated 28 books, including the universally beloved Tale of Peter Rabbit. If lot of people are familiar with these well-known stories, few know that the wirter earlier work included scientific studies, inspired by a true love of nature.
Beatrix Potter was born in London in 1866 to a family of artists. Her father, Rupert, was a barrister who dabbled in photography, and her mother, Helen, was a talented embroiderer.
She had an upper-class education, with home-schooling and regular visits to the city’s best museums. At a young age, she developed a passion for plants and animals, and in addition to sketching her own pets like dogs, frogs, and a bat, she also drew portraits of the creatures she encountered in her garden, like mice, hedgehogs, and rabbits.
Beatrix and her family also made visits to rural Scotland and England, where she encountered new ecosystems and studied unfamiliar specimens, experiences that made grown her interest in the natural world, culminating in both an enduring interest in science and a unique approach to illustration.
“Thank goodness I was never sent to school,” she said. “It would have rubbed off some of the originality.”
When she was young, Beatrix’s fascination in earth science developed in a myriad of ways: in addition to collecting fossils and embarking on archaeological digs, she fostered this interest through her art. Her scientific drawings star all kinds of organisms, including insects, fish, and fungi, her most popular subject.
Artistically, Potter favored wild mushrooms for their aesthetic qualities.
From a scientific perspective, she was intrigued by their reproduction, prompting her to study it at length and compile her findings into a paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae”. However, due to her amateur status, and, most likely, her gender, her findings were debated and, ultimately, dismissed.
In 1893, while Beatrix was still pursuing scientific illustration, she wrote a letter to Noel Moore, the five-year-old son of her former teacher. In this correspondence, she opted for sketches of rabbits in lieu of small talk. “I don’t know what to write to you,” she wrote, “so I shall tell you story about four little rabbits, whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.”
Peter Piper, a real and “very naughty” bunny from her childhood, inspired Beatrix to write her first book: “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”, a story which follows a young rabbit as he defies his mother and enters an old man’s vegetable garden. After exploring (and eating) the garden, he is chased out by the old man. He makes a narrow escape and returns home, where he is sent to bed with a stomachache.
Even if it was initially rejected by six different publishers, the book was eventually published by Frederick Warne & Co, a British publisher. The pretty volume was wildly popular with the public, launching Potter’s career and prompting her to write several other books including “The Tale of Tom Kitten”, “The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck”, and “The Tale of Benjamin Bunny”.
Later in her career, Beatrix fulfilled a lifelong dream and moved to the Lake District, a picturesque region in England. Here, she was finally able to throw herself fully into the role of lady farmer, enjoying physical, day-to-day tasks such as helping with hay-making and unblocking muddy drains.
In her old age, Beatrix adopted an interest in conservation, which she passionately pursued until her death in 1943.
Beatrix Potter is still today one of the most popular children’s authors. Her books have been translated into 36 languages and continue to charm new generations all over the world. “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” is one of the best-selling books of all time, with over 45 million copies sold.
However, is thanks to her start in science, from her childhood sketches of animals to her formal studies of specimens, that put Beatrix Potter on the path to the art we know and love still today.