On 28th July 1866 at No. 2, Bolton Gardens, Kensington, London, Beatrix Potter, one of the UK’s most celebrated children’s storytellers and illustrators, was born. Her traditional Victorian family were shunned by much of London’s society as they were Unitarians. This meant the family were quite isolated, and Beatrix spent most of her childhood looked after her nanny, in a large house with servants, rarely seeing her parents.
Once Beatrix was old enough to have an education, she was given her governess, who taught her alone. Her parents however, did encourage frequent trips to galleries, and provided her with special art tutors as well as taking her to see exhibitions at galleries.
Beatrix had a younger brother called Bertram. Even though he was six years younger than her, they were good friends and both enjoyed painting and drawing. They also shared a mutual love of animals, and had many pets, including rabbits, mice, frogs, lizards, snakes, snails and a bat. Her pet rabbits, especially Benjamin Bouncer, were the inspiration behind many of the drawings and stories she would produce in later life.
Every year Beatrix’s father rented a large house in Scotland for three months. The entire household, including the dogs, servants, and any of the small pets the children could sneak along, travelled north. They regularly stayed at a house called Dalguise, on the River Tay in Perthshire, where Beatrix and her brother had their only taste of freedom all year, and would roam the countryside. It was during these periods that Beatrix learned to observe plants and insects with an artist’s eye.
When Beatrix was sixteen, however, Dalguise House was not available, and so the family rented a property in the English Lake District instead. Beatrix’s fell completely in love with the region. While in the Lakes her artistic skills and imagination drew her to a fascination with fungi, and as she grew older, she was encouraged to draw scientific botanic illustrations, at which she excelled.
As an adult, it was her drive to become financially independent in a world dominated by men earning the money that made Beatrix turn from botanical drawing to children’s story books.
In 1902, the publisher Norman Warne of Frederick Warne & Co. risked publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Four more best-selling little books followed, including her own favourite, The Tailor of Gloucester., setting the path for a series of animal adventures that would remain popular to the present day.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.