Helen Beatrix Potter

November 15, 2009


Hunca Munca

Date of Birth:
Born July 28th 1866 in South Kensington, London
Died December 22nd 1943 in Sawrey, England

Beatrix Potter was born into a privileged household in 19th Century England and was raised and educated by governesses[1]. This basically defined who she was, as she was isolated from other children and wasn’t allowed to do what boys did. This meant that as Beatrix was growing up she had many pets and she saw them as her friends and playmates. These pets were the inspiration for most of the characters in her books. For example, her favorite pets were two rabbits named Peter and Benjamin. Along with rabbits she had frogs, newts, ferrets, and even a pet bat[2]. She watched the animals for hours on end and sketched them constantly, developing an early talent. She also has drawn mice, cats, ducks, and hedgehogs and has used them all as characters.

Her family had several summer cottages and she also developed a love of landscape, flora and fauna, which she closely observed and painted. She delighted in the countryside and collected specimens of plants, insects, and animals and took them home to study. She produced many drawings and paintings in little hand-sewn books[2].

Much of Potter’s stories’ vocabulary and artistic practice stemmed from Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories[1].

So basically, the culture, time, and family that she was born into were the largest factors that influenced the subject and style of Potter’s illustrations.

In a way, Beatrix Potter’s stories of animals that have character and costuming have influenced almost all children’s books since then that have animals as main characters.

Intellectual development of girls was discouraged in that time and so when Beatrix came of age her parents appointed her as housekeeper[1]. Before that her governesses had only taught her the basics of reading and writing. As for her art, Beatrix Potter was entirely self-trained.

Works of Note:

Beatrix Potter didn’t write or illustrate any stories until she was 27.When she was on a holiday in Scotland in 1893 she sent a letter with a story about rabbits to the five-year-old son of her last governess. Here is a reproduction of the first page of the letter, with the first page of Peter Rabbit to compare it with[2].


Peter Rabbit Page 1

Here are some more sketches from the letters, only here the text has been printed.

Black and White 1

Later that year her third book was published, The Tailor of Gloucester. I guess her first three books would be fairly important to her career, as their success and popularity would determine how many more she could publish. They were in fact, extremely popular and Potter went on to publish 20 more books in the next 27 years[1].

Beatrix lived on a Hill Top Farm in the Lake District and married the solicitor William Heelis. This is where she wrote and illustrated most of her books, and where much of the scenery and settings of the stories are based on[2].

Illustrator Miscellany:
From the age of 15 until she was past 30, she recorded her everyday life in journals, using her own secret code. The key to the code was not discovered until 15 years after her death and the journal took another 6 years to de-code.

This was the code she used. Actually, it is a cipher rather than a code, because another letter, number, or symbol replaces each letter of the alphabet[2].


Beatrix Potter was also highly interested in botany and mycology. She did many watercolors of fungi and observed lichens, algae, and spores. She wrote technical papers on her studies, but was turned down from any schools because she was a woman, and her research was turned down for the same reason. Potter was actually one of the first to suggest that lichens were a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae[1].

Beatrix Potter was secretly engaged to her publisher, which created a rift between her and her family, because he was of lower status. They were going to marry anyways, until he died of pernicious anemia right before the wedding.

The character Peter Rabbit was patented and produced as a soft toy in 1903. This makes Peter the oldest licensed character.

Once Beatrix became financially independent of her parents she moved to a cottage and became a farmer and then later a sheep breeder. She was very concerned with conserving the pristine countryside and when she died she left all of her property to the National Trust[1].

Examination of Materials:
Beatrix Potter starts all of her illustrations as sketches. She uses pen and ink to create the line work and then works over that with watercolors. Her use of watercolor is thin and playful, and creates a soft texture. She puts much more detail into the animal characters than into the backgrounds. The backgrounds also never have much or any pen work in them; they are just light and loose color. It’s a fairly simple process but she executes the technique well and makes it her own. She also uses the white of the paper a lot by letting it shine through.

Style Analysis


Peter Rabbit

Peter Rabbit

I think this is a career-defining image because it is from Beatrix’s first book, which was about her favorite pet rabbit. This image shows how much character she could put into the animals she drew. It also shows how she gave her characters costuming. I think this illustration is absolutely adorable, which is precisely what got Beatrix Potter all of her fame and success as a children’s book illustrator.

Potter is able to put so much action and story telling into each illustration. They are basically spot illustrations, because each one is so small, but they could also be counted as page illustrations, because the entire page and book format is so small. Sometimes she will just fade away the edges, sometimes she will have a square in which she will fill with the scene, and sometimes it will just be a character. Beatrix is able to paint landscapes, animals, buildings, plants, and occasionally people (but definitely not her forte). She develops great characters that can easily be distinguished and have such charming personalities. She is able to draw each animal in many positions, because of all of her studies of her pets, and she can make the animals stand up, talk, wear clothing, and yet they still look very realistic. Her use of texture makes the animal characters look soft and inviting.

As for this specific illustration of Peter Rabbit and his mother and three sisters, it is successful because it shows character development as well as a narrative. No background is needed, because the focus is on the animals. Peter stands alone, since he is the only boy among sisters. He is curious and adventurous, because he doesn’t look quite comfortable in his clothes. You can tell that the sisters are not main characters because you can’t even see all of their faces; however, you can tell that they are obedient to their mother. Peter’s mother looks so loving and huggable. I think in general this illustration is well executed and appeals to the target audience, children, because it is so adorable.

– Amber Zoellner, Spring 2009



[1] Wikipedia, “Beatrix Potter”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beatrix_Potter (accessed October 17, 2009).

[2] Sandy Ransford, ed. The Big Petter Rabbit Book. [New York: Viking Penquin Inc., 1986], page number


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