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Beatrix Potter: Victorian Pioneer of Cartoon Illustration

 Generations of children grew up and on her books. From The Tale of Peter the Rabbit and Tom Kitten to her immaculate, detailed botanical illustrations, Beatrix Potter continues to amaze the world with her talent. While most people are familiar with her artworks, few of them know that Beatrix herself had quite a difficult life journey, and only her moral strength and perseverance helped her overcome these life difficulties.

I invite you to explore her life and legacy together, as it is a truly inspiring and remarkable journey and one that all of us can learn from.
 

Beatrix Potter Bunnies in Winter

Bunnies in Winter

Unusual Childhood Years

Beatrix was born into a wealthy British family in London on July 28, 1866. Her parents were a very conservative and religious couple, as was expected from everyone in the Victorian era.

Beatrix was cut off from other kids, as her parents believed that other children would be a bad influence on her and her younger brother Bertram.

Beatrix Potter Three white water lilies (1906)

Three white water lilies (1906)

On the bright side, their parents encouraged Beatrix and Bertram’s interest in nature. The children were homeschooled by 3 nannies. Beatrix and Bertram kept a variety of pets, such as rabbits, mice, bats, and a hedgehog, as well as a collection of butterflies and other insects.

The kids studied and drew these animals, as well as the nature surrounding them, especially during their summer stay in the Scottish countryside. This love of nature and animals was one of the main themes not only in her life but especially in her art.

Beatrix Potter Winter Cards (1890's)

Winter Cards (1890's)

Speaking of which, art was definitely Beatrix’s second lifelong love.

By the age of 10, she could draw meticulous and very realistic drawings of plants and animals. Here is one of her early illustrations below.

Beatrix Potter Six Watercolour scenes (1980-90)

Six Watercolour scenes (1980-90)

One of her first models was her pet rabbit called Benjamin Bouncer, and, as you know, her affection to rabbits would ultimately lead her to create one of the best-selling children's books of all time, Peter the Rabbit, as well as several other tales about cottontails...

First Career Attempts

By early adulthood, Beatrix was becoming more and more scientifically-minded. Unfortunately, during the Victorian age women rarely attended university, and so she was forced to educate herself. Beatrix was interested in all natural sciences and astronomy, but especially botany.

Beatrix Potter The Tale of Ginger and Pickles - Ginger & Pickels Shop (1909)

The Tale of Ginger and Pickles - Ginger & Pickles' Shop (1909)

She also collected and studied fossils and archeological artifacts, as well as insects. By 1890, she centered her scientific interests on the study of fungi, mycology.

Beatrix executed very detailed illustrations of different species of fungi, many of which are featured in biology books to this day. You can see one of such illustrations on the following picture.

Beatrix Potter mushrooms

Mushroom Illustration

In 1892, Potter met Charles McIntosh, a famous naturalist, and fellow mycologist. He helped her gain access to scientific studies on taxonomy and supplied her with specimens to illustrate.

By 1895, Beatrix evolved so much that she even began making microscopic drawings of fungus spores (the agarics) and ultimately even wrote a paper on the germination of fungi.

Beatrix Potter Samuel Whiskers , 1908 Bird's-eye view from Hill Top Farm

Samuel Whiskers , 1908 Bird's-eye view from Hill Top Farm

Unfortunately, she had no right to publish or present a scientific paper, so the study was published under the name of James Messe, another mycologist colleague.

She continued her research for a few more years, but she continued facing discrimination in the scientific community and was forced to change her profession.

Beatrix Potter We love our little garden. Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes (1922)

We love our little garden. Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes (1922)

Beatrix Potter, the Artist, and Storyteller

Apart from her interest in natural sciences, Potter had always loved reading fairy tales and made her own little illustrations to famous fairy tales, such as Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland, substituting the main characters by animals that dressed up and acted like humans.

Little did she know, but this ability to make animals behave and look just like the human character while still retaining their cuteness would ultimately become the signature feature of her illustrations.

 

Beatrix Potter The Tailor of Gloucester' (1903) The Mice Sewing the Mayor's Coat

The Tailor of Gloucester' (1903) The Mice Sewing the Mayor's Coat

But let’s get back to Beatrix’s life for a second. It was 1901 and her failed career as a naturalist had become apparent.

Instead of giving up, Beatrix decided to gamble and turn her hobby of making holidays cards and letters with cute animal illustrations frequently sent out to family members into a career. She took a draft of the story about Peter the Rabbit and made it into a small children’s book with adorable illustrations.

Beatrix Potter The Tailor of Gloucester (1903) The little mice listened to the tailor

The Tailor of Gloucester (1903) The little mice listened to the tailor

Rejected by all publishers, again, she persevered and published the book herself. In 1902, she republished it, now with Frederick Warne & Co and with colored illustrations instead of the initial monochromatic ones. The book was an instant hit, and Potter’s career took off.
All in all, Potter wrote 23 beautiful children’s books, completely written and illustrated by her. As she was building her business, she met her fiance, Norman Warne, but he suddenly died before they could marry.
Beatrix Potter Squirrel Nutkin (1903)
Squirrel Nutkin (1903)
After Norman's death and losing interest in city life altogether, Beatrix moves to the countryside to the Near Sawrey village, married a local solicitor named William Heelis and dedicated the rest of her life to her art, farming and nature conservation efforts.
Life in the countryside inspired Potter to new heights. As her literary style matured, the characters and places she described in her books reflected the village she moved: Duchesses' garden from the identically named book, for example, is an exact replica of a real garden.
Beatrix Potter The Tale of Two Bad Mice (1904) Hunca Munca and her babie
The Tale of Two Bad Mice (1904) Hunca Munca and her babies

The various characters from her books also reflected the animals’ true behavior in nature, which Beatrix continued to study, even when said behavior isn’t very flattering.

For example, Tommy Brock, a badger from the story Tommy Brock and Mr.Tod is described as “a short, bristly person with a grin”, who is a ferocious carnivore and recklessly destroys the habitat of other animals.

Beatrix Potter Three mice seated at a table about to devour a Christmas pudding (1893)

Three mice seated at a table about to devour a Christmas pudding (1893)

This description is very true to nature: badgers are known for ripping apart their prey and digging up other animals’ burrows and destroying birds’ nests.

This kind of scientific precision is visible in Potter’s drawings as well. Just look at the detailed embroidery and clothing the animals wear. They were meticulously re-drawn from real-life museum expositions.

Beatrix Potter The Tailor of Gloucester (1903) Simpkin Goes Out

The Tailor of Gloucester (1903) Simpkin Goes Out

Luckily, all this hard work paid off, and now Beatrice Potter is considered one of the best illustrators in history, and over 12 million copies of her books are sold every year, 76 years after her death.
Despite all the difficulties she faced in her lifetime, Beatrix Potter managed to become a success like no other.
Beatrix Potter The Rabbits` Christmas Party: Christmas Dinner (c.1892)
The Rabbits` Christmas Party: Christmas Dinner (c.1892)
Furthermore, the adorable animal characters that behaved just like real people influenced generations of writers and artists as well.
Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, as well as the author of Watership Down, Richard Adams, and George Orwell, author of 1984, Animal Farm, and arguably one of the greatest writers of the second half of the 20th century, all reported Potter as their major inspiration.
If you want to know even more about Beatrix Potter's life and work, don't forget to watch the bonus video below this image.
Beatrix Potter Old Mr. Pricklepin, Appley Dapply's Nursery Rhymes (1917)
Old Mr. Pricklepin, Appley Dapply's Nursery Rhymes (1917)

The Biography Of Beatrix Potter

Image source for all pictures: plum leaves

H/T: telegraph, the strange life of Beatrix Potter

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