You might know Beatrix Potter for her famous creations like Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck, but did you know she was also a pioneer in science, conservation and business?
As a new exhibition of her work, Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature, opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum, our Artistic Director Olivia Ahmad shares some surprising facts about the popular illustrator.
1. She knew her mushrooms
Before her children’s book career kicked off, Potter could be found roaming the Lake District, making hundreds of studies of natural specimens, particularly of mushrooms and lichen.
Potter learned about mushrooms through drawing them, but she also studied them under a microscope, eventually succeeding in germinating spores.
Despite her research prowess – she made original observations and was rigorous in her experiments – the male-dominated scientific establishment refused to take her seriously.
Her paper on her findings was dismissed by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and only presented to the Linnean Society (the world’s oldest biological society) by a man.
2. Her anthropomorphised animals are more realistic than you might think
They may wear clothes and use utensils, but Potter’s animal characters are informed by thousands of sketches and drawings of real animals, including her own pets.
This combination of real-world observations and fantasy make Potter’s children’s books very different from the sentimental characters often seen in other illustrated books at the time.
As well as making observational drawings, Potter dissected animals (who had died of natural causes) to better understand their anatomy.
3. She was an entrepreneurial self-publisher and merchandiser
Potter’s first and most iconic book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was rejected by several publishing houses.
The reason? She wanted her children’s book to be small enough for children to actually hold themselves – and she wanted it to be affordable.
Rejected but not dejected, she used her savings to self-publish 250 copies on her own terms. The book was a hit.
Publishers Frederick Warne and Co. reconsidered and within ten years her books were being sold in the millions.
In 1903, Potter the canny businesswoman went one step further, patenting a spin-off Peter Rabbit doll that became the first item in a huge range of merchandise inspired by her stories.
4. She went for a radical career change, from illustration to sheep-breeding
Flush with royalties from her books and merchandise, Potter bought herself a cottage in the Lake District in 1905 – a fitting move for a woman whose illustration career began studying its natural wonders.
She actively campaigned to preserve its unique landscape and made a career switch, ditching the pen and paint and becoming a renowned breeder of Herdwick sheep.
She was as successful as a farmer as she had been as a scientist and illustrator. By the time of her death in 1943, she had acquired 4,000 acres of land which she gifted to the National Trust.
5. She wrote a book for Quentin Blake, kind of…!
In 2014, someone made an exciting discovery in the V&A archive: an unpublished Potter story called The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, written exactly 100 years earlier.
Potter had completed only one illustration for it, despite telling her publisher it should “illustrate very well”, and so the baton was handed to her successor, Quentin Blake.
“It was written… at the beginning of the First World War, when life for Beatrix Potter was difficult, and no doubt farming demanded all her attention,” says Blake.
“There may have been other reasons why she never returned to it, but I have to confess there are times when I can’t resist the simple fantasy that she was keeping it for me.” We like to think so, too.
Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 12 February 2022 - 8 January 2023.