Mention Beatrix Potter and many of us think of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, or any number of the other lovable anthropomorphic creatures made famous in her illustrated books. But behind those precious, delicate illustrations, there was a shrewd businesswoman, natural scientist and artist who fiercely defended her work and opened her own doors. An exhibition on view at the Morgan Library and Museum welcomes you into the irresistible world Potter crafted.
Potter was born in 1866 to a privileged English family. As a child, she was constantly sketching her surroundings, especially gardens and and dusty rooms. “Her youth was rich in opportunities to read and to explore and investigate the natural world,” wrote Linda Lear, author of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature. She even smuggled a rabbit into the nursery in a paper bag, studying it and making sketches of its movements. Noticing this growing hobby, her parents exposed her to art lessons, which she could barely stand.
She turned her back on copying the works of classical painters and stole her brother’s microscope to sketch her insect specimens instead. By the 1890s, Potter’s studies of nature peaked with a fascination with fungi. Besides creating top-notch scientific illustrations, she wrote a paper titled “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae,” explaining her theory on how fungi spores reproduce.
Though nature studies were her primary interest at that time, Potter also wrote incredible picture letters to children she knew, focused on simple narratives. When a former governess suggested that Potter try to publish a book based on a letter she wrote to a child about an ill-mannered rabbit named Peter, Potter borrowed back the letter and pitched the story. She was turned away by six publishers, partly because she insisted on color illustrations, which went against the standard black and white printing of the time. Undeterred, Potter bucked the system and funded a privately printed edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, personally marketing her book to shop-keepers and children, handling her own inventory and fulfilling requests for copies.
In 1902, she signed a contract with Frederick Warne & Co., who issued the first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The first printing sold out before publication, catching the publisher off guard. They had failed to file a copyright, and overseas competitors immediately flooded the market with knockoffs. This was Potter’s first lesson in protecting her intellectual property, a lifelong battle that transformed her into a very savvy businesswoman. As her work grew in popularity, she had opportunities to merchandise and license her characters, and Potter was involved every step of the way. For a Jemima Puddle-Duck stuffed animal (see below image), she ensured the entire toy was copyrighted, right down to the fabric used for its fur.
Potter’s unusual childhood and affluent family laid the foundation for her adult success, but her unique, nature-focused approach to illustration coupled with her remarkable determination and resolve were keys to creating an imaginative world that transcends time, place and age. Over 100 years later, her books have sold over 100 million copies and been translated into 35 languages. Though her earnings weren’t huge by today’s standards, she invested her money back into the land, buying a hill-top farm and devoting much of the rest of her life to the conservation of the environment that inspired her work. Despite being labeled a spinster by Victorian society — she didn’t marry until age 47 — she built an empire that was rare for anyone at the time, let alone a woman.
Beatrix Potter: The Picture Letters is currently on exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum until January 27, 2013.
Header image information: Beatrix Potter with Her Pet Mouse Xarifa, 1885. Cotsen Children’s Library. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Princeton University Library. Photography: Princeton University Library.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.