Beatrix Potter Drawn to Nature

Ever since Peter Rabbit first scampered onto the page and around Mr. McGregor’s garden in 1901, Beatrix Potter’s storybooks have captivated millions of children around the world. But the adventures of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Squirrel Nutkin, and her many other characters are just one part of Beatrix’s enduring legacy.

Born in London, England, in 1866, Helen Beatrix Potter was a town mouse longing to be a country mouse. Beatrix was passionate about animals and the natural world, and although this sparked her career as an internationally famous author and illustrator, it also inspired her to become a natural scientist, farmer, and conservationist. Her determination to create a meaningful life for herself led her to significant achievements in both art and science.

This exhibition follows Beatrix’s adventures from her childhood in Victorian London to the rural landscapes of the Lake District in North West England. Discover the boundless creativity, imagination, and curiosity of the woman behind the famous tales.

Town and Country

Beatrix Potter spent the first half of her life in a large house at 2 Bolton Gardens in the Kensington neighborhood of London. She belonged to a family hailing from North West England. They came from the area around Manchester, then Britain’s second-largest city and the epicenter of its textile industry. Her ancestors had gained wealth and influence through color printing calico (cotton) and trading in luxury goods. Her father Rupert pursued a career as a lawyer. By Beatrix’s time, her family had artistic and scientific connections near their London home, which gave her the opportunity and drive to expand her creative pursuits and scientific interests.

As Beatrix once explained, London was her “unloved” home, and her real “joy was in the north country” of Britain. Her passion for nature took shape during her family’s lengthy stays in the countryside, especially in Scotland and the Lake District. Exploring these rural landscapes eventually took her back to her roots.

Under the Microscope

Like many Victorian middle-class children, Beatrix and her brother Bertram were encouraged to draw and study natural history. Beatrix and Bertram collected, labeled, and organized animals, ferns, insects, and rocks, and even practiced taxidermy1 and animal anatomy2 in their nursery—the room on the third floor of their house where their governesses taught them.

Bertram went away to boarding school when he was eleven, and the teenage Beatrix was left behind to continue her education at home. She developed varied interests in science and archaeology,3 and her talent for drawing and observational skill allowed her to capture nature in vivid detail. From her late teenage years, she nurtured a passion for one particular branch of science—mycology, the study of fungi.4

1 Taxidermy: Stuffing the skins of dead animals to make them look lifelike
2 Anatomy: Studying the bodies and structures of animals and humans
3 Archaeology: Digging up history to learn about the past—including people, buildings, and treasure!
4 Fungi: Mushrooms, toadstools, and mold

A Natural Storyteller

Beatrix said that she was brimming with so many stories that she had more ideas than time to write. From her midtwenties, she translated her close observation of animals and nature into intricate pictorial storytelling. Her pets stirred her imagination, and she described and illustrated their antics in letters to children.

Beatrix’s letters became the basis of her stories. In 1902 she signed a publishing deal with Frederick Warne & Co., and with the combination of skilful language and striking imagery, her books sold quickly. Warne published two titles a year over the next decade. She developed an especially close relationship with her editor, Norman Warne, before his untimely death in 1905. Beatrix’s knowledge of animals meant that, although her characters were anthropomorphic (given human qualities), they reflected the true relationships of predator and prey. Her appreciation for art, the natural world, literature, and the places she visited helped Beatrix conjure the worlds they inhabited.

Living Nature

After she bought Hill Top in 1905, Beatrix Potter loved spending time there. But it was almost a decade before she would make the Lake District her permanent home, after marrying local lawyer William Heelis in 1913.

Writing books became less of a priority as Beatrix found new purpose in her life as a farmer. She learned about Herdwick sheep and worked to restore the dwindling breed. Herdwicks remain a significant part of the landscape today.

Conscious that modern development was a growing threat in the Lake District, Beatrix partnered with the National Trust—a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving land, buildings, and sites of cultural significance for the enjoyment of the public. Thanks to her, thousands of acres in the area were saved. Today, the National Trust owns and cares for over 20 percent of the Lake District, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, continuing Beatrix’s extraordinary legacy. The house and garden have at Hill Top welcome visitors.

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