“Once upon a time there were four little rabbits, and their names were -- Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.”
Does that simple sentence bring back memories? Maybe a flood of emotion? Stories written, and illustrated, by Beatrix Potter have had a strong impact on children for several generations, and they show no sign of stopping. The movie Peter Rabbit, 2018, grossed over $350 Million worldwide, bringing the enchantment of Beatrix Potter’s stories to another generation of youngsters. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was what shot Potter to fame, but her stories aren’t the only legacy that she left behind, maybe even not her most important.
In a time when women weren’t allowed to be scientists, Beatrix Potter was somewhat of a rebel. She was drawn to mycology, and the arbitrary rules weren’t enough to keep her from studying and learning.
For her, art and science were connected; two parts of a whole. Fungi fascinated her, and she loved drawing the different specimens she found while she was studying them. Accuracy was so important to her that, even though they weren’t recognized at the time, her drawings are used today, 76 years after her death, for identification and learning purposes.
One of the leading naturalists of the day, Charles McIntosh, became a supporter of Potter after she put in quite a bit of effort to meet him. He encouraged her to continue her studies, even helping her improve her microscope drawings in exchange for some watercolors of rare specimens.
Lichen, a combination between algae and fungi, particularly fascinated Potter. At the time, they weren’t recognized as hybrids -- the theory was met with ridicule when first introduced by Swiss botanist, Simon Schwendener, in 1869. Dedicated research into the matter led Potter to believe Schwendener, but alas, submitting her research to London’s Linnean Society was impossible. Women were strictly not allowed.
The head of Kew Gardens, William Turner Thiselton-Dyer, had an extraordinarily negative view of women, but he was the one she’d have to convince to allow her in. Impressing him was impossible, though. He called her ideas unimportant and refused to even glance at her illustrations.
Sir Henry Roscoe, a chemist and Potter’s uncle, was enraged at the dismissal and took it upon himself to get her work seen. His success was mediocre: the pages were laid out on display on the table, which essentially meant they were there for viewing but not of enough importance to be discussed during the meeting and given little value.
These barriers didn’t discourage Potter, however. Instead of continuing to push her studies, she put her efforts into creating The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the first print of which sold out before the next print could even be shipped. It didn’t take long for her to be solidified as one of the most beloved children’s authors of her time, and on. Even 116 years later, she’s still one of the most well-known authors. Her illustrations, which utilized the skills she developed while studying fungus, captivate the imagination while staying fairly true to life.
Her love of nature extended past creating art. With the proceeds she earned from her books, Potter purchased Hill Top farm and kept expanding it. Working the land brought her great joy. When she died at age 77, she had amassed around 4,000 acres from buying 14 different farms. Keeping the land as it was was a huge goal for Potter, so she left all of the land to the National Trust. It is still owned and protected from development today.
If you are interested in learning more about Beatrix Potter, the book Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature discusses her life in depth.