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Biography

Helen Beatrix Potter

Helen Beatrix Potter (28 July 1866 – 22 December 1943) was an English author, illustratornatural scientist and conservationist best known for her imaginative children’s books featuring animals such as those in The Tale of Peter Rabbit which celebrated the British landscape and country life.

Born into a privileged Unitarian family, Potter, along with her younger brother, Walter Bertram (1872–1918), grew up with few friends outside her large extended family. Her parents were artistic, interested in nature and enjoyed the countryside. As children, Beatrix and Bertram had numerous small animals as pets which they observed closely and drew endlessly. Summer holidays were spent in Scotland and in the English Lake District where Beatrix developed a love of the natural world which was the subject of her painting from an early age.

She was educated by private governesses until she was eighteen. Her study of languages, literature, science and history was broad and she was an eager student. Her artistic talents were recognized early. Although she was provided with private art lessons, Beatrix preferred to develop her own style, particularly favoring watercolour. Along with her drawings of her animals, real and imagined, Potter illustrated insects, fossils, archeological artifacts, and fungi. In the 1890s her mycological illustrations and research on the reproduction of fungi spores generated interest from the scientific establishment. Following some success illustrating cards and booklets, Potter wrote and illustrated The Tale of Peter Rabbit publishing it first privately in 1901, and a year later as a small, three-colour illustrated book with Frederick Warne & Co. She became unofficially engaged to her editor Norman Warne in 1905 despite the disapproval of her parents, but he died suddenly a month later.

With the proceeds from the books and a legacy from an aunt, Potter bought Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey, a tiny village in the English Lake District near Ambleside in 1905. Over the next several decades, she purchased additional farms to preserve the unique hill country landscape. In 1913, at the age of 47, she married William Heelis, a respected local solicitor from Hawkshead. Potter was also a prize-winning breeder of Herdwick sheep and a prosperous farmer keenly interested in land preservation. She continued to write, illustrate and design spin-off merchandise based on her children’s books for Warne until the duties of land management and diminishing eyesight made it difficult to continue. Beatrix Potter published over twenty-three books; the best known are those written between 1902 and 1922. Potter died on 22 December 1943 at her home in Near Sawrey at age 77, leaving almost all her property to theNational Trust. She is credited with preserving much of the land that now comprises theLake DistrictNational Park.

Potter’s books continue to sell throughout the world, in multiple languages. Her stories have been retold in song, film, ballet and animation

Lake District conservation

Beatrix had been a disciple of the land conservation and preservation ideals of her long-time friend and mentor, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, the first secretary and founding member of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. She supported the efforts of the National Trust to preserve not just the places of extraordinary beauty, but those heads of valley and low grazing lands that would be irreparably ruined by development. She was also an authority on the traditional Lakeland crafts, period furniture and stonework. She restored and preserved the farms that she bought or managed, making sure that each farm house had in it a piece of antique Lakeland furniture. Beatrix was interested in preserving not only the Herdwick sheep, but the way of life of fell farming. In 1930 the Heelises became partners with the National Trust in buying and managing the fell farms included in the large Monk Coniston Estate. It was composed of many farms spread over a wide area of western Lancashire, including the famously beautiful Tarn Hows. Beatrix became the de facto estate manager for the Trust for seven years until the National Trust could afford to buy most of the property back from her. Her stewardship of these farms earned her wide regard, but she was not without her critics. She was notable in observing the problems of afforestation, preserving the in-take grazing lands, and husbanding the quarries and timber on these farms. All her farms were stocked with Herdwick sheep and frequently with Galloway cattle.


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