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Beatrix Potter - Peter Rabbit - Biography
Beatrix Potter Biography
Beatrix Potter’s Life
A little girl in Victorian England, Beatrix Potter was taught at home by governesses and studied art while her brother was sent away to school. She was a shy, reserved personality when interacting with the outside world, but her secret diary written in her own code, revealed a lively young girl with highly critical opinions of her fellow artists.
Beatrix Potter’s Art
Despite not going to school Beatrix was an enthusiastic student of nature, teaching herself while painting and drawing the things she saw around her. Her childhood sketches reveal an early fascination for the subject which would continue throughout her life. She also painted many exquisite landscapes that show her pleasure in the countryside. Click here for more information on Beatrix Potter's Art.
Beatrix and her brother, Bertram, kept many animals in their schoolroom, from mice to birds and lizards to snakes. Beatrix Potter's pets were often subjects for sketches and paintings, and were later to inspire the much-loved characters in her books.
In 1893 Beatrix Potter wrote The Tale of Peter Rabbit in a picture letter to a little boy she knew who had been ill for a long time. In 1901 she went on to privately print 250 copies of the tale in time for Christmas. A sign of the future success of this little story, these first copies sold very quickly at a shilling each, meaning she quickly had to print another 200 two weeks later.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit
The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published by Frederick Warne & Co. in 1902 with an initial 8000 copies printed and the tale has never been out of print since. She went on to publish another 22 little books over the next 28 years, the proceeds from which enabled her to buy Hill Top Farm in the Lake District. Eventually she went on to own 15 farms and over 4,000 acres of land in the area.
The ideal subject for the Hollywood film Miss Potter in 2006, the story of Beatrix Potter's life held both great sadness and great success. After the tragic death of her fiancé and publisher, Norman Warne, Beatrix remained unmarried until the age of 47, when she married William Heelis, a Lake District solicitor. She dedicated her later years to preserving the ecology and natural beauty of the Lake District, becoming a farmer and breeding Herdwick sheep. She worked closely with The National Trust and left them a substantial part of her estate to be preserved as a living landscape.
The popularity of Beatrix Potter's stories and characters has grown immeasurably since she published The Tale of Peter Rabbit over 100 years ago, aided by her own foresight and acute business sense. A woman ahead of her time, she saw the potential in her most famous character creating the first patented soft toy in 1903, making Peter Rabbit the oldest licensed character. Not only that, she left an astounding legacy of stories, characters, art and unspoiled landscape to the world.
Beatrix Potter was born on July 28th, 1866 at No 2, Bolton Gardens, Kensington in London. A typical Victorian family, the Potters lived in a large house with several servants. Beatrix was cared for by a nurse, and she spent long hours alone, only seeing her parents at bedtime and on special occasions.
Her brother Bertram was born when she was six, and the children were educated at home by a governess until Bertram was old enough to attend school.
Beatrix stayed at home under the care of a sequence of governesses who encouraged her to read and write and taught her music and art.
Beatrix Potter discovered her love of nature on annual summer holidays in Scotland and the Lake District. She and Bertram explored the woods and fields, caught and tamed wild animals, and sketched and painted all they saw.
It was while staying near Windermere in the Lake District in 1882 that the Potters became friendly with the local vicar, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley. Rawnsley was already concerned by the effects of industry and tourism on the natural beauty of the Lake District. He taught Beatrix the importance of preserving the countryside, a cause that was to remain close to her heart for the rest of her life.
When Beatrix was fifteen, she began to keep a journal written in a secret code of her own invention. Even Beatrix herself, when she read back over it in later life, found it difficult to understand.
Cracking the Code
It was not until fifteen years after her death that the code was cracked. To the outside world Beatrix appeared a shy and reserved person but in her diary she was able to express herself openly, and she showed herself to be a strong critic of the artists, writers and politicians of the day.
Beatrix Potter’s Pets
Mr and Mrs Potter were overprotective parents and discouraged friendships with other children, but Beatrix and Bertram had each other for company and together they collected a menagerie of pets which they kept in the schoolroom.
At one time, they had a green frog, two lizards, some water newts, a ring-snake, a tortoise and a rabbit, all of which were carefully studied by the children.
Beatrix covered pages with sketches of them and almost all of her famous characters are based on the pets that she used to keep; for example Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny were based on the real pet rabbits Peter Piper and Benjamin Bouncer.
Did Beatrix Potter like children? The many letters she wrote to them, and pictures she drew for them, all seem to suggest that she did, very much. Some of Beatrix Potter's little books began as letters she wrote to children, with little pen and ink drawings to illustrate them. She made up a whole series of correspondence between the characters in her books as delightful miniature letters.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit
"Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter." This is the introduction to one of the best-loved children's stories of all time - The Tale of Peter Rabbit. However, the story of how Beatrix Potter's most famous character came to have a book published about him is another tale entirely.
On September 4th, 1893, Beatrix sat down to write a picture letter to Noel Moore, the five-year-old son of her ex-governess, all about a naughty rabbit called Peter. Noel was ill in bed and so Beatrix wrote to him: "My dear Noel, I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits..."
Publishing Peter Rabbit
Some years later, Beatrix thought of publishing the story as a book. She rewrote it into an exercise book and sent it to six publishers. It was rejected by every one of them. It was not until Beatrix had arranged to print the book privately that Frederick Warne agreed to publish it. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902, costing one shilling (the equivalent of just 5p today,) and became one of the most famous stories ever written.
Though Beatrix always believed in her book, even she was surprised by quite how popular it became. It was an overnight success, and she believed that this was because the story had originally been written for a real child.
Peter Rabbit has always been Beatrix Potter's most popular character - he also features in The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, and The Tale of Mr. Tod.
Did you know that Beatrix Potter really owned a pet rabbit called Peter? Read about him in Beatrix Potter's Pets.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit
Beatrix Potter produced new colour illustrations for The Tale of Peter Rabbit and was there to check on the quality of the reproduction and printing. She thought about every aspect of the book including the typefaces, binding, cover designs, endpapers and titles pages making this truly a book 'By Beatrix Potter'.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit has always been published in the same much loved small format. But originally all the books were published with different coloured covers. In 1930 all twenty-three were reissued in a standardised series of little books the same size as the original Tale of Peter Rabbit. In the 1940s, with Beatrix Potter’s approval, they were given the white dust jackets which everyone recognises today.
By the time Penguin Books acquired Frederick Warne in 1985, the printing film was beginning to deteriorate.
The centenary of the first publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 2002 gave Frederick Warne a wonderful opportunity to revisit every detail of the design of these little books to prepare them for their next 100 years.
The aim was to return to the first editions and recreate the books exactly as Beatrix Potter intended them, while using modern printing and design techniques to enhance the quality in a way that was not possible in Beatrix Potter’s day.
The most important aspect to consider were the pictures, the most famous and valuable element of the books. Massive advances in colour origination and printing in the previous 10 years meant better reproductions were achievable than ever before, using the most up-to-date digital technology.
The intention was to produce reproductions that retain as much colour as possible, have as few of the imperfections brought about by aging (foxing or the degeneration of the china white Beatrix herself used to make corrections for instance) and for the final result to be "jewel-like" and to give the impression that the picture had been painted straight onto the page of the book.
The 2002 edition sees six illustrations restored to The Tale of Peter Rabbit, four that were removed in 1903 plus two that had never been used before, Beatrix having initially prepared more illustrations than could be accommodated in the original format.
The paper stock was changed to a creamy-white, going away from the stark white of the paper that was fashionable in the 1980s and moving back to a colour that was closer to Beatrix's off-white watercolour paper.
The text was reset in the typeface Founders Caslon, which is of the correct period and of a complementary weight to the illustrations. Each opening was redesigned individually to ensure the correct balance between type and picture was maintained throughout the series. This task was carried out by Douglas Martin, typography historian and working designer, who hand spaced the text on every page to achieve the most pleasing layout.
The white dust jackets are part of the recognisable appeal of Beatrix Potter’s little books and they were preserved for the 2002 editions with a design that maintained the integrity and authenticity of the original version. The covers were simplified by dropping all unnecessary text and were matt varnished to give a more appropriate period feel. The illustrations used on the cover were contained in a box the same shape as the original pasted-on cover pictures, giving each book its individual identity.
The hardback board case under the dust jacket was changed for the whole series to the same shade of blue, the universally recognised colour for Peter Rabbit. The text and pictures of the cases echoed the jacket designs.
Hill Top Farm
Beatrix had always loved the Lake District since childhood holidays, and now, with the money she was earning from her Peter Rabbit books she was able to buy Hill Top Farm in the village of Sawrey. She kept on the farm manager, John Cannon, and invested in a flock of Herdwick sheep. She could not stay in her beloved new home because she was expected to take care of her parents in London, but it was her first step to independence, and she visited it whenever she could.
Beatrix Potter had always been passionately interested in 'real' animals, and after her marriage to William Heelis in 1913 she was able to settle in the Lake District permanently, and devote herself almost entirely to her farming.
By the end of her life, Beatrix has bought fifteen farms, and took a very active part in caring for them. Dressed in her clogs, shawl and old tweed skirt, she helped with the hay making, waded through mud to unblock drains and searched the fells for lost sheep. She said she was at her happiest when she was with her farm animals.
With her shepherd, Tom Storey, she bred Herdwick sheep - a rare and threatened breed indigenous to the Lake District. She encouraged the revival of Herdwick sheep in all her farms, and her sheep won most of the major prizes at local shows.
In 1943, Beatrix became the first woman to be elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders' Association, which was a great achievement and a sign of the high regard in which she was held by the local farming community.
Beatrix Potter used Hill Top as the backdrop for several of her tales. The first was The Tale of Tom Kitten, which she wrote in 1906. She included favourite views of her new home in the Tales of Jemima Puddle-duck, Samuel Whiskers and Pigling Bland and Ginger and Pickles' shop is set in Sawrey village. In 1947 the National Trust opened the house to the public and receives thousands of visitors a year.
Beatrix Potter Biography
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