Happy Birthday Beatrix Potter, author, artist, naturalist and conservationist!
We all know Beatrix Potter as a beloved children’s author. Generations of children (and adults) have treasured her small, illustrated tales of Peter Rabbit, Tom Kitten, Jemima Puddleduck and friends. But what separates her animal stories from all the others? Potter’s animals wear clothes and live in a world of houses, furniture and crockery, but beneath their clothes, they are rabbits, cats, ducks, mice, foxes, squirrels, hedgehogs and frogs. Potter was an exceptional observer and was able to combine her observations with a seemingly, effortless mastery of watercolor illustration to create characters who were fanciful but fashioned on a foundation of truth.
From an early age Potter carefully observed the behavior of the small creatures that she and her brother collected, recording her observations in notes and drawings. At the age of 10, she was given a copy of Birds Illustrated from Nature by Mrs. Blackburn. Her drawings and paintings based on that book and from life showed such promise that her parents provided her with art lessons. By her late teens, Potter was so skilled that her work was of professional quality. Her subjects were plants, animals, insects, fossils and archaeological finds, rendered with great detail in dry-brush and often to scale. She made use of a microscope to show details too small for the eye to see.
Potter became an avid mycologist and did original research on spores. Her findings were presented to the Linnean Society of London, though she herself could not make the presentation, as women were not allowed, at that time, to address the Society. She created over 300 scientific illustrations of fungi and lichen. With the success of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Potter’s career as an author and illustrator of children’s books took precedence over fungi.
The popularity of her children’s books gave Potter the resources to buy Hill Top Farm in the Lake District, one of the most beautiful regions of England. Over the years she added more farms and properties to her holdings, in an attempt to preserve the natural beauty of the area. On her death, the land was given to the National Trust, an organization devoted to preserving the environmental and cultural treasures of England, Ireland and Wales.
For more information:
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has an online collection of Beatrix Potter’s work.
The section, Nature’s Lesson’s, has examples of Potter’s scientific illustrations.
For a brief assessment of Potter’s mycological studies
Linda Lear, an environmental historian, has written a biography, Beatrix Potter – A Life in Nature, which focuses on Potter’s relationship to the natural world.
Examples of Potter’s scientific illustrations can be found in Ann Stevenson Hobbs, curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Beatrix Potter Collection, Beatrix Potter’s Art – Paintings and Drawings
This is another in an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthdays of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers, and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.