As a child, whether in Scotland on holiday or in the schoolroom in London, Beatrix Potter always had animals about her. Rabbits, bats, frogs, lizards, birds, mice, were kept as pets or observed in the wild. All were drawn and painted over and over again and written about. It was something she did not grow out of – for which we must all be grateful.
In 1890 when she was twenty-four, Helen Beatrix Potter bought a rabbit. ‘I brought him home (surreptitiously – if that’s the way to spell it) from a London bird shop in a paper bag.’ She called him Benjamin Bouncer and she took him with her wherever she went. He was taken for walks on a lead, photographed and – most important of all – drawn.
Six designs for greetings cards, using Benjamin Bouncer as a model, were sold to the London firm of Hildesheimer & Faulkner for £6. Miss Potter could hardly believe it. ‘My first act was to give Bounce … a cupful of hemp seeds, the consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was partially intoxicated and wholly unmanageable. Then I retired to bed and lay awake chuckling till two in the morning, and afterwards had an impression that Bunny came to my bedside in a white cotton nightcap and tickled me with his whiskers.’
Christmas and New Year cards duly appeared and her designs were also used as illustrations for a set of verses by Frederic E Weatherly – Beatrix Potter had started her professional career; but although she submitted more sketches to publishers, including Frederick Warne, no commissions came. The ‘little books’ were over ten years away.
A few years later another rabbit arrived on the scene – a Belgian rabbit bought ‘in the Uxbridge Road, Shepherds Bush, for the exorbitant sum of 4/6’. Beatrix Potter called him Peter Piper. He lived for nine years, went everywhere with her, learned to do tricks to amuse visiting children and was drawn from every conceivable angle. When he died Beatrix wrote ‘whatever the limitations of his intellect or outward shortcomings of his fur, and his ears and toes, his disposition was uniformly amiable and his temper unfailing sweet. An affectionate companion and a quiet friend.’
In the summer of 1893 the Potter family – with Peter Piper – were on holiday in Scotland. On 4 September Beatrix wrote the famous picture letter to Noel Moore – the six-year-old son of Annie Moore who, as Annie Carter, had been Beatrix’s last governess. Annie Moore was only three years older than Beatrix and whenever she could Beatrix visited Annie and her rapidly growing family bringing a basket of rabbits or cage of pet mice for them to play with. All the eight Moore children received picture letters from Beatrix which they kept and treasured. Squirrel Nutkin first appeared in a letter to young Norah, written from the Lake District in 1901 and borrowed back to use as the starting point for the book – at the same time Beatrix acquired a couple of squirrels from a pet shop to serve as models.
The letter to Noel, as is now well known, became the basis seven years later for The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mr McGregor’s Garden. Failing to find a commercial publisher who would take the book on her terms – ‘(Miss Potter) would rather make two or three little books costing 1/- each than one big book costing 6/- because she thinks little rabbits cannot afford to spend six shillings on one book’ – she published it herself for Christmas 1901. This book re-illustrated in colour became The Tale of Peter Rabbit, published by Frederick Warne in October 1902. By Christmas 1903 over 50,000 copies had been sold and Beatrix Potter was an important author on the Warne list. `The public must be fond of rabbits! What an appalling quantity of Peter,’ commented Beatrix who was overflowing with ideas for new books.
The children of the Warne family, nieces and nephews of Norman Warne, her most supportive editor (and to whom she became engaged in 1905), quickly became part of the fortunate group of children who could call Beatrix Potter friend.
From Wales she wrote to Winifred Warne about her pet hedgehog. ‘Mrs Tiggy-winkle is a great traveller, I don’t know how many journeys she hasn’t done. She enjoys going by train, she is always very hungry when she is on a journey … I think I am going to the sea-side on Saturday. I wonder if I shall find any crabs and shells and shrimps. Mrs Tiggy-winkle won’t eat shrimps; I think it is very silly of her, she will eat worms and beetles, and I am sure that shrimps would be much nicer. I think you must ask Mrs Tiggy-winkle to tea when she comes back to London later on, she will drink milk like anything, out of a doll’s tea-cup!’
In Wales and back in London she was hard at work turning another story originally written for a child into a book. Lucie Carr, one of the daughters of the vicar of Newlands in the Lake District, was the first recipient of the tale of Mrs Tiggy-winkle, inspired by Kitty MacDonald the washerwoman at Dalguise House, the Potter family’s summer-home in Scotland when Beatrix was child.
The Potter menagerie, which travelled everywhere with her, was now quite extensive. As well as Mrs Tiggy-winkle in a basket, there were rabbits and mice in wooden boxes. The mice, Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca, were caught in a Gloucestershire kitchen. Watching them nest-building gave Beatrix the idea for The Tale of Two Bad Mice – using as a model for the doll’s house one which Norman Warne had made for his niece Winifred.
As always Beatrix Potter was observing her animals carefully and making numerous sketches. ‘Mrs Tiggy as a model is comical; so long as she can go to sleep on my knee she is delighted, but if she is propped up on end for half an hour, she first begins to yawn pathetically, and then she does bite! Nevertheless she is a dear person; just like a very fat, rather stupid little dog.’ For drawing the clothes she made a cotton wool dummy of the hedgehog. Her comment on this gives a vivid picture of Beatrix Potter at work. ‘It is such a little figure of fun; it terrifies my rabbit; but Hunca Munca is always at pulling out the stuffing.’
Poor adventurous Hunca Munca for whom Norman Warne made a new travelling box. `She fell off the chandelier, she managed to stagger up the staircase into your little house, but she died in my hand about ten minutes later. I think if I had broken my own neck it would have saved a deal of trouble.’
This brief account of a few events in the life of Beatrix Potter is drawn from a new biography by Judy Taylor. It is a fascinating and eminently readable book based on meticulous research, and richly illustrated in colour and black and white with photographs, illustrations, drawings and sketches.
Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman, Judy Taylor, Warne, 0 7232 3314 4, £12.95