Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear

This biography of Beatrix Potter by Linda Lear was published in 2007. It is a very comprehensive 584-page account of an extraordinary woman. Although Beatrix Potter is mostly known for her iconic Peter Rabbit and friends children’s books, these books only represent one aspect of her life over a ten-year period. Besides being a gifted artist and storyteller, she was a scientist, farmer, businesswoman, sheep breeder, estate manager and conservationist.

Beatrix was born in 1866 into a wealthy English family and six years later her younger brother, Bertram was born. Previous biographies painted Beatrix’s childhood as restricted and lonely, but Lear points out that although she had limited friendships and social interactions with children of her own age, she had vital connections and rich exposure to the world of art, literature, travel, science, fantasy and natural history. She was taught at home by tutors and her family took regular holidays at her grandparents’ home and an estate in Scotland; places she loved, and which stimulated her interest in nature and art.

Beatrix’s parents entertained family and friends and she enjoyed the company of such people as the Gaskells (à la Elizabeth, the writer, and her husband William), Sir John Everett Millais, and Hardwick Drummond Rawnsley, an Anglican priest, poet and conservationist who had a lasting impact on the Potter family and many others in the Lake District.

Her Scottish nurse read her fairytales, stories from the Old Testament, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott. Her parents took her to art exhibitions and her father shared his love of photography with her.

The movie, Miss Potter, which was artistically beautiful, focused on her early life and her later relationship with Norman Warne, her publisher. Warne proposed to her when she was 39 years of age and she accepted but her parents were vehemently opposed due to his social status and there was no formal announcement of the engagement. Norman and Beatrix exchanged rings as tokens of their betrothal but as far as her parents were concerned it hadn’t happened. Norman left on a business trip and Beatrix never saw him alive again. A month after he had proposed to Beatrix he died of lymphatic leukaemia.

Beatrix had thought that like Jane Austen’s heroine Anne Elliot in her novel, Persuasion, that ‘my story had come right with patience and waiting…’

‘But Anne Elliott’s fulfilment was fictional, and Beatrix Potter’s loss was terrible and real. Bereft of her own story’s happy ending, with dreadful silence at home, and no one except Norman’s immediate family with whom she could share her grief or be comforted, Beatrix fled London for Wales.’

Later that year of 1905, Beatrix became the owner of Hill Top Farm, a property at Near Sawrey in Lancashire, determined to control this aspect of her life at least. Her books continued to be published and the profits from these and a legacy from her aunt helped her to gain her independence. During the following eight years she spent her time between Sawrey and helping her aging parents in London but in 1913 she married a local solicitor, William Heelis when they were both in their forties and lived happily at Sawrey for the rest of their lives. Beatrix, by now an astute businesswoman, ran the estate and William managed the accounts. Beatrix was eccentric, overbearing at times, and unpredictably crusty, and it was William’s familiarity with the district and his easygoing personality that were vital assets to their success.

Beatrix Potter’s achievements were quite remarkable. From accomplished artist and author, she became a Lake District farmer and successful sheep-breeder. Her efforts at conservation helped to save large areas of the Lake District for future generations.

Beatrix died in 1943 and William barely eighteen months later. The Heelis’s bequeathed 4,300 acres to the National Trust’s holdings in the Lake District, the ‘Greatest Ever Lakeland Gift,’ and not surprisingly, the National Trust Headquarters is named Heelis House.

‘…she was aware that her experiential education in the galleries of London constituted an important part of her artistic apprenticeship. The galleries were a sort of collective atelier; her education limited only by her capacity to observe. As a consequence of this exposure, she was prompted to experiment with a wide variety of media: oil, watercolour, modelling, block and transfer printing and etching, and unafraid to choose a diversity of subject matter. But by 1885 Beatrix had clearly chosen watercolour and was rapidly perfecting her drybrush technique.’

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this book was very comprehensive and thorough. It included 92 pages of footnotes and a 14-page Bibliography and more information about Beatrix Potter than you’d ever need to know. It was interesting to read about the various directions her creativity took, her upbringing, family life, and experiences during World War II. It was an enjoyable read for the main part, and very well-written, but it does cover a huge amount of information and a wide variety of topics, and if you’re like me and just have to read every footnote at the back of the book as you go, it makes for a very long process. I appreciated the author’s well-rounded approach especially as much of my previous knowledge came from the movie which wasn’t as accurate as it could have been and of course only concentrated on a fraction of her life. I am thinking that my artistic daughter would enjoy at least reading about Beatrix’s childhood and the development of her artistic talent so I may add it to her reading for this year.

I read this as part of the 2022 Art Book Reading Challenge

3 thoughts on “Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear

  1. Pingback: Bookish Destinations 2022 | journey & destination

    • The movie was beautifully done, scenery & costume wise etc. but her life was so diverse you’d need a series to go through it all. It’s been a while since I’ve watched it but I remember thinking that it gave the impression her childhood was a bit miserable – her mother was quite controlling & snobby, but she had a good relationship with her father at least until he got a bit older & sickness made him demanding. Well worth the read.

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