The Tale of Beatrix Potter – naturalist, conservationist, artist, author

The Tale of Beatrix Potter – naturalist, conservationist, artist, author

Jemima Puddle-duck
‘Jemima Puddle-duck’ by Beatrix Potter on wood panel, reproduced by kind permission of Mrs Cilla Smith

Beatrix Potter was born in 1866 at the home of a wealthy lawyer working in London. Her childhood was oppressive and she was allowed little interaction with other children. She did not go to school but she had a series of personal tutors. From a very early age she developed an interest in nature which was rather restricted in London, but blossomed on the annual visits to the Lake District. With her brother Bertram she kept wild animals as pets, including bats, mice and rabbits, making detailed investigations of their anatomy when they died, preparing and drawing the cleaned bones. ‘Anything messy, however interesting was forbidden, and the best experiments were those that could be conducted in private’ (Margaret Lane, 1946). Beatrix collected and drew fossils and made many visits to the Natural History Museum in London. Her father was an enthusiastic photographer and this medium was also used by Beatrix to record images of some of her pets.

Beatrix was always very deferential towards her parents and she kept a journal written in code (c.f. Samuel Pepys), which was not broken until 1958, presumably to prevent her parents from knowing her thoughts.

Beatrix had a lasting interest in fungi and the illustrations of many of those found around the Lake District were used by Frederick Warne & Co Ltd in a treatise on fungi published in the ‘Wayside and Woodland’ series. However, ‘genteel Victorians were not fond of the Stinkhorn and she could not find the courage to draw it’ (Spooner and Roberts, Fungi – Collins New Naturalist series).

Xanthoria Parietina
Xanthoria parietina – a lichen often found growing on tiled roofs under TV aerials where birds perch. Beatrix Potter was amongst the first to realize that lichens are formed by a symbiotic association between an alga and a fungus

Beatrix developed a method for growing lichen spores, but while studying this at Kew, her achievements were received with skepticism by the then keeper of mycology George Massee F.L.S. It is generally accepted that she was amongst the first (if not the first) to realize that lichens are formed by a symbiotic association between an alga and a fungus. However he was eventually convinced of her success and the illustrations made by Beatrix of the germination of the spores of lichens, and especially of Cladonia, were presented in a paper to the Linnean Society in 1897. As a woman, Beatrix was not allowed to be at that meeting and her work was presented by George Massee.

Similar prejudice was experienced by Mary Anning (1799-1847) and Elizabeth Philpot (1780–1857) in the field of palaeontology, and more recently by Jocelyn Bell Burnell (b. 1943; pulsars) and Rosalind Franklin (1920 -1958; structure of DNA). Beatrix Potter was amongst the first to realize that lichens are formed by a symbiotic association between an alga and a fungus. Beatrix also made a study of the germination of the spores of many fungi, but mainly of Flammulina velutipes, but due to the cold reception given to her work, she withdrew her papers, preferring to put her skills to use in writing her series of books for children beginning with ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’. This book was printed at her own expense in 1901, and she eventually produced 33 books in this series. It seems that none of her scientific papers have survived.

Cladonia sp on an ancient oak tree at Gatcombe Court ST525698

Most people are familiar with the endearing books that she wrote in the early 20th century, with the pictures of various anthropomorphic animals accompanied by simple stories which have a timeless appeal.

Despite her parent’s objections, Beatrix developed a close relationship with her publisher, Norman Warne, and they became engaged in 1905, but before they could marry he died from pernicious anemia. However she remained on friendly terms with the Warne family, and especially with Winifred, Norman’s sister.

With the financial success of her books, with her future secure and with greater independence, she acquired much property in the Lake District. During her negotiations over the purchases, she came to know a local solicitor, William Heelis, who eventually proposed marriage, which she accepted in 1913. She was concerned that indiscriminate development and uncontrolled access by visitors could cause serious harm to the countryside. She had been anxious to preserve the character of the Lake District, and when she died in 1943 in her will she left 4000 acres of her land to the National Trust, together with the 15 farms that she owned.

Velvet Shank Flammulina
Velvet Shank Flammulina velutipes on a Red Horse Chestnut near the library in Nailsea. Beatrix Potter investigated the germination of the spores of this fungus

Warnes failed to register her illustrations in the United States and unlicensed copies were produced there soon after publication in England. In the UK, copyright to her artwork will no longer apply in 2014, 70 years after her death. Examples of her work can be seen in the websites originating in the USA.

For further information see the books –

  • ‘The Tale of Beatrix Potter’ by Margaret Lane – Penguin Books 1946
  • ‘Beatrix Potter’ by Judy Taylor – Frederick Warne 1986
  • I also strongly recommend that you see the film ‘Miss Potter’ made in 2006.
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