Nature at Play
A little Magic: Beatrix Potter's World of Science and Fantasy
“I remember I used to half believe and wholly play with fairies when I was a child. What heaven can be more real than to retain the spirit-world of childhood, tempered and balanced by knowledge and commonsense...” - Beatrix Potter
Helen Beatrix Potter was born in 1866 to a wealthy family in London. She and her younger brother shared a passion for nature investigation, often bringing animals and insects into their nursery as pets to study and draw.
Natural History and Microscopic Fairy Worlds
During the nineteenth century in Great Britain, interest in natural history was at its peak. Carl Linnaeus had established a system of biological classification in the 1750s, which led to the founding in 1788 of the Linnean Society, the world's oldest organization dedicated to natural history. Charles Darwin had his work presented formally to the Society in July of 1858. A year later, he published his theory of evolution through natural selection in his landmark book, On the Origin of Species. As microscopes and cameras got better and cheaper, more amateurs began observing, documenting and investigating nature. People could, for the first time, view the miniature worlds living in a drop of pond water or a bit of moss.
“Rather than opposing one another, scientific discoveries and fairy fictions reinforced each other's imaginative appeal....By combining scientific observation with fanciful imagination, both the fairy and the microscope produced a sense of wonder.” - Laura Forsberg
Beatrix's father had both microscopes and cameras. Beatrix would eventually use them herself in order to make detailed studies of plants and animals. While her brother was sent off to boarding school for a formal education, Beatrix was tutored at home by governesses. She was encouraged in her desire to investigate and paint the world of animals, insects and plants she found around her. When Beatrix was 12, an art teacher was brought in to train her in drawing, and her father began taking her to exhibitions and art galleries.
The Magic of Mushrooms
When Beatrix was in her mid-20s, she became particularly absorbed in the study of fungi, also known as mushrooms. She would collect a large variety, study them under her microscope, and make highly detailed watercolor paintings. She eventually became curious about how mushrooms grew. With encouragement from family and friends, she completed experiments as best she could from within her home, although she had difficulty keeping a sterile environment. She would eventually put her research into a formal paper, which was read to the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, but was then quickly withdrawn from consideration. It's not clear from Beatrix's journal what happened to her research, as the original paper and any potential later revision have never been found, and she appeared to move on from her intense scientific investigation.
Although she did have encouragement from members in her circle and had the courage to defend her research, Beatrix was in general not taken seriously by the establishment science of the time. She was not only an amateur, but a woman. Today, while it is difficult to draw conclusions on her scientific investigation, her incredibly accurate drawings of germinating spores and fungi have established her as a respected botanical illustrator. Her extensive drawings have since been used as a means to identify fungi. In 1967, a large body of her illustrations were published as part of a book of natural history written by the president of the British Mycological Society.
During the same time as her intense research, Beatrix began producing fantasy illustrations. Her fascination with fungi was not purely a scientific journey, but one enhanced by a little magic from her imagination:
“all the little tiny fungus people singing and bobbing and dancing in the grass and under the leaves all down below, like the whistling that some people cannot hear of stray mice and bats, and I sitting up above and knowing something about them. I cannot tell what possesses me with the fancy that they laugh and clap their hands, especially the little ones that grow in troops and rings amongst dead leaves in the woods. I suppose it is the fairy rings, the myriads of fairy fungi that start into life in autumn woods.” - Beatrix Potter
Down the Rabbit Hole with Peter
While Beatrix was pursuing her scientific illustrations, she still stayed in touch with her last governess, Annie Moore. Beatrix wrote to Annie and her four young children and on occasion visited them, bringing along her pet mice and rabbits for the youngsters to play with. On September 4, 1893, she wrote Annie's son Noel a picture letter, which would later become The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
“My dear Noel, I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter...”
Beatrix Potter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Beatrix later turned that letter into a full-length black-and-white children's book. When it was rejected by at least six publishers, she self-published 250 copies in time for Christmas 1901. The book was an immediate success, so she published 200 more copies before signing a contract with Frederick Warne & Co. to print a color version. The updated version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which came out a year later, sold out before the books ever hit the shelves! By the end of 1903, 50,000 copies of Peter Rabbit had been sold.
From Initial Rejection to Wild Success
Beatrix was an early brand visionary and character merchandiser. She recognized the value of spin-off products from her illustrations to spread the enchantment of her animal world. Beatrix pushed Frank Warne & Co. to print a wide array of her artwork onto products. In 1903, she designed a Peter Rabbit doll from scratch, laboring over the details to get the expression just right and registering the design at the London Patent Office. She also created a Peter Rabbit board game, a coloring book entitled Peter Rabbit's Painting Book and separate coloring sheets to be bought alongside or separate from her books. In addition, she carefully managed the licensing of her images onto a range of products from slippers to china tea sets and wallpaper. She continued to write and illustrate children's books, 23 in total, publishing two or three each year and adding to her product line of Beatrix Potter goods.
Preservation of the Land that Inspired her Imaginary Animal Kingdom
Although she grew up in London, Beatrix would get away to the countryside in the summers, where she and her brother could explore the outdoors. When she was 16, her family began visiting the Lake District in the north west of England. Here she met a local reverend and family friend who shared her love of nature and impressed upon her the need for conservation. Eventually, with the money she made as an author and designer, she was able to purchase Hill Top, a working farm in the Lake District. She expanded the farm to accommodate guests and began breeding sheep that were native to the area as part of her early preservation work.
Almost all of Beatrix's paintings were sketched from live models, landscapes and homes. There had been a real-life Benjamin Bunny, Peter Piper Rabbit and Mrs. Tiggy the hedgehog. Her Hill Top home and landscape were used as a backdrop for such books as The Tale of Tom Kitten. In her late fifties to early sixties, she began writing and illustrating less, getting increasingly involved in buying land in the Lake District and in preservation efforts. At her death in 1943, she left 4,000 acres to the National Trust, including her beloved Hill Top, still exactly as she left it and now open to the public.
“If I have done anything – even a little – to help small children on the road to enjoy and appreciate honest simple pleasures – of the sort that leads to becoming Boy Scouts or Girl Guides – I have done a bit of good.” - Beatrix Potter commenting on the satisfaction she had in supporting the Girl Guides, whom she welcomed to camp on her land, joining them around the campfire at times.
Check out our Magical cape, perfect for exploring enchanted woods whether outdoors or in a book!
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