Helen Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) Beatrix Potter’s picture books remain a landmark in the history of the genre. Originally published in a variety of forms, each volume had its appearance tailored to a particular text, and the integration of word and image was carefully considered. Though Potter made use of a basic anthropomorphism, she tended to eschew further fantasy, and the great success of her illustration often lies in the sense it gives of a particular place.
Beatrix Potter was born at 2 Bolton Gardens, South Kensington, London, on 28 July 1866, the elder child and only daughter of a barrister who chose to live as a dilletante, with painting and photography numbered among his interests. Beatrix herself led a very sheltered life for many years, remaining with her parents until she was nearly 40. Educated at home, she was entirely self-taught as an artist.
She sketched fungi, fossils and fabrics in the South Kensington Museums, and animals, both furtively at home, and during family summer holidays in the Lake District and Scotland. Then developing an interest in illustration, she absorbed the influence of Thomas Bewick, Randolph Caldecott, Walter Crane and John Tenniel, as she published some greetings’ cards and a first book, The Happy Pair (both 1890). Three years later, she invented the character of Peter Rabbit in a series of picture-letters for Noël Moore, the son of her former companion, Annie Carter. These formed the basis of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which was privately printed in 1900, and finally accepted by Frederick Warne & Co two years later. This was followed by several more of her classic tales.
After a fierce battle with her parents, in 1905, Potter became engaged to Norman Warne, her editor, though two years later he died. Soon after, she bought Hill Top Farm at Sawrey, near Windermere, gaining a measure of independence and becoming a capable farmer. During the following eight years she produced much of her best work, and both her home and the adjacent Castle Farm, which she bought in 1909, were used as the settings for at least six of her books. Originally published in a variety of forms, each volume had its appearance tailored to a particular text, and the integration of word and image was carefully considered. Though Potter made use of a basic anthopomorphism, she tended to eschew further fantasy, and the great success of her illustration often lies in the sense it gives of a particular place.
Following her marriage to William Heelis, an Appleby solicitor, in 1913, Potter worked little as an illustrator and spent much of her time farming. She died at Hill Top Farm on 22 December 1943. Her properties were bequeathed to the National Trust.
Her work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, Tate and the V&A.
Further reading: Anne Stevenson Hobbs, Beatrix Potter: artist and illustrator, London: Frederick Warne, 2005; Margaret Lane, The Tale of Beatrix Potter, London: Warne, 1946; Anne Carroll Moore, The Art of Beatrix Potter, London: Warne, 1955; V A J Slowe, ‘Potter, Helen Beatrix (b London, 28 July 1866; d Near Sawrey, Cumbria, 22 Dec 1943)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 25, page 372; Judy Taylor, Beatrix Potter, artist, storyteller and countrywoman, London: Warne, 1986; Judy Taylor, ‘Potter [married name Heelis], (Helen) Beatrix (1866-1943)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 45, pages 10-11