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Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Tale of Beatrix Potter

Once upon a time there were four little rabbits, and their names were, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter. They lived with their Mother in a sand-bank, underneath the root of a very big fir tree...

And so began The Tale of Peter Rabbit, one of the most beloved characters created by author, illustrator and scientist, Beatrix Potter. Today, 28th July 2016 sees the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter's birth and it's wonderful to know that her stories and characters are as popular today as they ever were.

Helen Beatrix Potter was born on 28th July 1866 in South Kensington, London, the eldest of Rupert and Helen (Leech) Potter's two children. Beatrix was brought up by a nurse and educated at home by a series of governesses. Family holidays were spent in Scotland and later in the Lake District – a region she loved and where eventually she made her home and did some of her best work.

Beatrix loved nature and wildlife. On holidays she and her younger brother Bertram would explore the countryside drawing, painting and learning all about animals, insects, flowers and fungi. She would also trap small animals to keep and train as pets. They would appear in her stories and artwork.

In later years, encouraged by Charles McIntosh, a Scottish naturalist, her knowledge and technically accurate artwork of fungi resulted in her becoming a scientific illustrator. She produced beautiful watercolours and wrote a paper on the reproduction of fungi spores, for the Linnean Society.

Her first published work was in 1890 when at 24, she had a collection of her Christmas card illustrations published alongside poetry by Frederic E Weatherly. It was published by Hildesheimer & Faulkner, and entitled A Happy Pair. In 2001 a rare copy sold at auction for £23,250.

The story of Peter Rabbit began on 4th September 1893. Beatrix, then aged 27, was on holiday in Eastwood, Dunkeld and decided to write a picture letter to Noel Moore, the five year old son of a former governess who was ill in bed. She wrote:

My dear Noel, I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits…

The letter was later to become The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The following day she wrote a letter to Noel’s brother, Eric, about a frog called Jeremy Fisher. These famous letters are now stored in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Later, in 1901, Beatrix decided to try and get The Tale of Peter Rabbit published. She wrote the story out in an exercise book and sent it to six publishers, They all turned her down and so she decided to have it printed herself.

She had 250 copies made with 41 black and white illustrations which she sold to family and friends for a halfpenny. She soon needed more copies, so she ordered another 200. Then Frederick Warne & Co., publishers gave her a publishing deal and produced 8,000 copies in October 1902, selling at a shilling each.

Her association led to more than just publication of her book. Beatrix fell in love with publisher Norman Warne. Her parents however didn’t approve and tragically Norman died before the two could marry. Coping with her grief, Beatrix spent time in the Lake District, a special place where she and Norman dreamed of one day owning a home together.

With a small legacy from an aunt and the royalties from Peter Rabbit, Beatrix bought Hill Top a 34-acre 17th century working farm. Again this brought friction and disapproval from her parents, but bravely Beatrix got on with her life, throwing herself into farming and country life with a special interest in conservation and livestock, in particular Herdwick sheep.

By 1909 Beatrix had published fourteen books and was receiving income from licensing merchandise based on her books. As an astute businesswoman she spent the money improving and developing her farm and increasing its livestock, again under the disapproving eyes of her parents.

As she continued to develop her land and property, she sought the advice of a firm of local solicitors, W. H. Heelis & Son and in particular William Heelis. Their relationship blossomed into love and despite being torn between her own happiness and caring for her parents' needs who disapproved of William just as they'd disapproved of Norman, she eventually married William Heelis. She was 47 years old, and the two enjoyed a happy 33 years of married life.

The years saw Beatrix buying more property and getting more and more involved with the community, conservation, district nursing, the Girl Guides, the environment and the traditional value of hill-county farming. With all this going on in her life, and failing eyesight, Beatrix had less and less time to write her stories. She published her last story, The Tale of Little Pig Robinson in 1930.

When Beatrix Potter died on 22nd December 1943 she bequeathed fifteen farms and over 4,000 acres to the National Trust, ensuring the protection and conservation of the countryside that she loved so much. The countryside which had inspire a host of wonderful little books and characters, loved by young and old generation after generation.

Discover more about Beatrix Potter at: http://www.hop-skip-jump.com

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