Artists Who Started Late in Life: Beatrix Potter
Artists understand artists.
I am an artist. What is more I appreciate the stories and struggles that artists have to endure to make the mark in history that some of them have made. Many times it just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I know that it seems like artists who are not very talented or who show no more talent than some others who did not achieve fame did, however it is a lot of chance, happenstance and who you know more than talent most of the time.
The sad fact is that artists feel deeply, all the highs and all the lows of life. Sometimes I envy people like my mother, who have a very “even keel.” People like that seldom get mad or upset (although when they do, look out). However they also don’t get overly jovial or jocular. Every day is a straight line from sunrise to sunset.
Gratefully, I don’t live like that. I am one of the artists. When I am happy, I am a very ecstatic, giggling fool. And when I’m sad, I am in the dismal dumps. No halfway for me. I feel it all and it often shows up in my work.
This is the story of one who didn’t intend to be an artist at all. She wanted to make her mark in science but as a woman, was denied access to the scientific community. So she found another outlet: Beatrix Potter 1866-1943
The beloved creator of Peter Rabbit and 23 other children’s books did not start out studying art. She had a scientific mind and wished to publish her scientific and biology studies but being a woman, she was shut out. She wrote out her little story about 4 rabbits along with watercolor illustrations when she was about 36 but could not find a publisher for it, so she published it at her own expense for family and friends. Later she was approached by one of the publishers that had turned her down to indeed publish the book, and any others she could come up with. Her books have held the imagination of children for over a century.
Beatrix and her brother, Walter, grew up in a wealthy family in London, England, and were educated by a private governess. This meant that they had few friends outside the extended family and the governess. They loved nature and the natural world was often a subject of her painting from an early age. She was an eager student and learned languages, literature, science and history at home. Early forms of homeschooling, I call it. She developed her own style, preferring watercolors for their portability and often illustrated insects, fossils, archeological artifacts, leaves and fungi. As a matter of fact her walks in the woods and often collection of specimens lead to her illustrating and researching fungus spores, particularly mushrooms.
Did you read Peter Rabbit when you were a child?
The upstairs nursery
As the years progressed, she found that many things could be brought up to the floor of the house deemed “the nursery” as her parents rarely visited there. The floor harbored herself, her brother, her governess’s room and the common room they used for school. Sometimes she and her brother would find dead birds and animals, take them home and bribe the cook to boil the flesh off them so that they could have the skeleton to study in the nursery. She could even bring up mice to the nursery and no one would know.
Later her parents expected her to attend dances and cotillions, to meet a nice young man and start her own family, but she was uninterested. The discussed forcing her but decided that they had enough money to care for her as an old maid if that is what she decided to be. This left her alone to continue her studies. Eventually she was alone in the nursery as her brother grew up and joined the military and her governess was no longer needed. She began compiling her mushroom illustrations in earnest and discovered that she had some samples that had not yet be cataloged or discovered in any of the scientific journals. She tried to have her illustrations and findings published but was scorned for being a woman and “obviously” not scientific enough to be accurate.
Studies on lichen
She then began doing studies on lichen: the mossy substance that grows on rocks and wood. She hypothesized that the lichen was not growing on the rocks but was symbiotic and was grown on something microscopic that was growing on the rocks and trees. She wrote a length thesis on the subject along with watercolor illustrations and scientific measurements and notes she had gathered. Again approaching the scientific community to have her thesis published, she was scorned and laughed out of the place because as a woman, she couldn’t possibly be doing more than dreaming. Some 40 years later another scientist (a man, of course) was credited with postulating that lichen is symbiotic and grows on something microscopic that was growing on the rocks and trees.
A letter to the children.
This had to be a blow to Beatrix as a woman and as a scientist. By now in her 30s she threw herself into other things, like learning languages. She became fluent in 5 languages: French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Russian. She continued to keep in touch with her beloved governess, who had by now 4 children of her own. As the story goes, one day she received a note saying that her former governess’s son, Peter was deathly ill with Scarlet Fever. Because her mother would not let her borrow the carriage to visit the family, she sat down to write a letter. However, what do you write to a sick child? Dear Peter, I hope you don’t die? No, she thought she would write him a story. The children always loved when she told them stories about the different animals that they had encountered. So she wrote a short story about a family of rabbits who were sent out to pick berries for a pie. They were warned not to go into Farmer McGregor’s garden patch because they would be caught but Peter couldn’t resist. He snuck into the garden and ate till he was bursting, when Farmer McGregor spied him, he chased him all over the garden and Peter lost his coat trying to escape. When he got home he was very sick and while his siblings got to eat berry pie, he had to stay in bed and have medicine. She decorated the margins of the letter with watercolor illustrations.
She published it herself at first.
When she finally got to see the children and Peter did recover, they ran to meet her and begged her to read the letter to them again and again. She was overjoyed that she had created something that caused such excitement with the children. So she took the story, refined it, redid the watercolor illustrations and presented it to several children’s book publishers there in London. They all refused her. But she knew it was a good story and the children loved it, so she pulled her own money out of the bank and went to a printer. She had about 200 books printed to her specified dimensions (about 5 inches by 5 inches, the size of children’s hands). And she gave a few copies away, but the rest she sold, sending them to book store owners she knew and even a few sent to America. After they all sold she thought to herself that she should probably print a few hundred more, when she was approached by one of the children’s book publishers that had originally turned her down. With cap in hand, Mr. Warne begged her to let them publish her book and in full color.
During the next few months working with the younger Warne brother at Frederick Warne & Co, they fell in love and became unofficially engaged, secretly planning a wedding because her parents disapproved. However tragedy struck and Norman Warne died suddenly of leukemia.
Hill Top Farm
With the proceeds of her book sales, Beatrix bought her own home and farm, Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey, which was a tiny village in the English Lake District near Windermere. She continued to write and illustrate stories published by the Warne Co and even translated them into other languages herself to be purchased all over the world. In her late 40’s it appeared she would never marry and certainly never have her own children, so she began to make preparations for her property to go to the National Trust with the proviso that the land and animals would remain as they were. It was a move to keep development from coming in and destroying the legacy of the countryside she loved so much. To do this, she hired a lawyer, and later the fell in love and married.
A character herself.
As she got older people said she began to look very much like the characters in her books, or perhaps it was the other way around. The characters in her books were modeled after herself. Her stories have been retold in song, film, ballet, animation and even a TV series.
The Reluctant Artst
I would say she didn’t jump into art right away but once she embraced it, she made a mark on the world that will be remember and loved for generations. I read these stories to my children and expect them to read them to their children and grandchildren.