Her appeal is so powerful that museums hold her in permanent exhibition – and some of them even commemorate her solely. Hollywood has trawled through her life, if somewhat on tiptoe. The great and the good have acknowledged her influence and the affection she inspires. Pottery, apparel, wallpaper – all kinds of domestic accoutrements bear her quaint, unthreatening drawings; her inescapably fluffy image has driven a licensing industry that has been worth millions. Yet Beatrix Potter was a sharp-edged, and reclusive woman, serious and complex, and her “nursery” reputation does her scant justice; she was much more than a “mere” children’s writer.
Helen Beatrix Potter, born Saturday, 28 July 1866, grew up in a fully-serviced Kensington house. Notwithstanding the butlers, governesses, grooms, nurses and maids she suffered early that writer’s boon, the angst of loneliness. A cold, uninterested mother raised the child at arm’s length, and the warmest early companionship came from pets – lizards, guinea-pigs, newts, birds, mice, bats and rabbits, cats and dogs. And since the coldness of the household bred no sentimentality, Beatrix was happy in time to put down any little creature who fell ill, skin it, and boil the carcass to extract the skeleton for drawing.
As prime material she made life drawings of her pets. Her dear creatures opened a portal into the widest and most powerful arena of all – the natural world. In the year she was born, her Potter grandfather purchased a 300-acre Capability Brown estate at Hatfield in Hertfordshire. How enchanting to a child with a sketch-pad and burgeoning powers of observation.
Another influence grew alongside. Her father had always longed to paint but could scarcely draw a straight line. So he indulged, as did many excited Victorians, in the new art form of photography; he bought all the latest equipment, and hired a servant to hawk it about for him. Naturally he photographed his family without ceasing, and no matter what her age or pose, his daughter always looks as serious as a century.
He also rendered her an even greater service than keeping her record. His friend, the painter John Everett Millais, deputed Rupert Potter to photograph landscapes that Millais could use as backgrounds in canvases. He also asked him to take, for reference, “likenesses” of the more important sitters, to save them having to sit so often and long. On some of these forays Beatrix went along with her father. She met Millais in his studio, he perceived her talent and interest, and he bared to her the very soul of working in oils – how to mix paint.
For The Tale of Peter Rabbit she created extra drawings. The warmth of its reception from friends and family astounded her, so she then made an edition for sale, price one shilling, plus tuppence postage. All who received it enthused; Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle had “a good opinion of the story and the words.”
As The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published on 2 October 1902, she already had in the hopper The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester (her own all-time favorite). She was 36 years old, and so began the universal author.
Adapted from Frank Delaney, The Tale of Beatrix Potter @ 2014 by The Public Domain Review.
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