What You Don’t Know About Beatrix Potter With 7 Bonus Tips for Artists
By Thea Fiore-Bloom Ph.D.
Interested in discovering eight surprising things you don’t know about the artist (born Helen Beatrix Potter) that can help make your art life blossom in the process?
Wizard! Off we go.
What You Don’t Know About Beatrix Potter Fact 1.
Potter Was a Mycologist
Potter never had children. She was always working on art or science, or both. Not only was Potter a scientific illustrator, but she was also a mycologist (mushroom scientist)obsessed with mushroom spore germination.
Ever look closely at the mushrooms in Beatrix Potter’s stories?
They’re not only beautiful, but they’re also scientifically correct.
For example, when Potter’s toads have a tea party ( “Toad’s Tea Party”, 1902) they’re not seated at a cartoonish mushroom table.
Oh, no. Potter’s toads have their tansy cake on a meticulously rendered toadstool mushroom table. And each scallop-shaped toad chair? It’s made of a cluster bracket fungus called Polyporus squamosus aka Dryad’s Saddle.
Beatrix’s 1st Bonus Tip For Artists and Writers:
Don’t be afraid to combine two seemingly mismatched lifetime obsessions of yours in your art; like Potter did when she combined mycology and children’s stories.
What You Don’t Know About Beatrix Potter Fact 2.
Potter Had a Magical Relationship With Her Postman
During Potter’s lifetime, The Old Boys Club/Linnean Society blocked Potter and other women from flourishing professionally in science.
But thankfully Potter often received a daily vote of male confidence, camaraderie, and valuable, scientific feedback from a most unlikely source – her postman.
Potter’s postman happened to be a fascinating naturalist by the name of Charles Macintosh. He too was a brainy, mycologist and lifelong Platonic, pen pal, and mushroom specimen supplier of Potters.
Potter eventually was quite happily married at the age of 47 to William Hellis (not her postman.) She and Heelis were together for thirty years until Potter’s death at the age of seventy-seven.
Beatrix’s 2nd Bonus Tip for Artists and Writers:
You may be getting pushback or rejection in one area of your art life, but remember helping hands exist all around you. Your next mentor may be knocking on your door as we speak, just like Potter’s postman. So keep your eyes peeled for a new mentor, supporter, or collaborator.
What You Don’t Know About Beatrix Potter Fact 3.
There Was Hella Science Behind Potter’s Fiction
Potter and her brother loved the life sciences from early childhood on.
They had a mini-museum with a laboratory in their nursery/study. It was replete with microscopes, dissection tools, fossils, books, and insects both alive and dead.
“Beatrix Potter insisted on all the science and naturalism in her own stories to be exactly true,” said horticulturist and Potter scholar Marta McDowell when I interviewed her.
“If you read Beatrix Potter’s stories, said McDowell, “it’s not outrageous to think, ‘Oh there actually are rabbits that wear little velvet jackets’; because everything else is so real, it increases the reality of the things that are fantasy.”
For example, in The Tale of Miss Tittlemouse, a toad named Mr. Jackson encounters a butterfly tasting sugar cubes (atop a lovely china cup).
But this butterfly is no generic pink winged thing; it’s an accurately etched Vanessa atalanta (commonly known as the Red Admiral).
Beatrix’s 3rd Bonus Tip for Artists and Writers:
Would any of your fantastical drawings, paintings, sculpture, or prose be fortified by sprinkling in some science?
What You Don’t Know About Beatrix Potter Fact 4.
Potter’s Pets Were the Unpaid Stars of Her Stories
One reason Beatrix Potter’s drawings of rabbits and mice are so “real” is that they’re the culmination of countless hours spent drawing from life.
The animals she employed most often as models, were, conveniently, from her own exotic menagerie.
Potter cared for pet rabbits (Peter Piper being one), pet mice (Xarifa to the left, being her favorite), as well as pet guinea pigs, and pet salamanders.
Beatrix even had pet hedgehogs and ferrets who kept her company and graced her book pages.
Beatrix’s 4th Bonus Tip for Artists and Writers:
If you haven’t had any formal art education, consider seeing that as a plus, not a minus, as Potter did.
Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.” –Beatrix Potter
Love and respect yourself for learning what you wanted to learn on your own terms.
Potter’s drive for accuracy and excellence didn’t stop with the animals and the outdoor settings of her books. She did an insane amount of research for her domestic interiors as well.
What You Don’t Know About Beatrix Potter Fact 5.
Historic Home Museums Were a Secret of Her Success
McDowell told me: “You know the places Potter went in order to create these stories were real worlds. And sort of the only things that are added are the details of her imagination. But those details are all layered on top of actual things.”
Many of Potter’s discoveries took place in the grand historic manor houses and home museums of Wales, England, and Ireland where she and her family summered.
For example, Mr. McGregor’s potting shed in The Tale of Peter Rabbit was a replica (down to the geraniums, clay pots, and gardening tools) of a potting shed Beatrix had stumbled into at Bedwell Lodge in Hertfordshire in 1891.
Beatrix’s 5th Bonus Tip for Artists and Writers:
Be like Beatrix. Love doing fieldwork. (Here’s how.)
Poke about historic home museums (and maybe sell your work in their museum shops.)
Great info is all around us, for cheap. Visit an old theatre, a battlefield, a mosque, or a movie studio to get the historical details right for your painting or play. It will keep your brain bubbling, lend veracity to your writing and make you remember how cool it is to be an artist or writer. Pop over here to read my article How Visiting Famous Artists’ Home Museums Unleashes Wild Magic For Creatives.
What You Don’t Know About Beatrix Potter Fact 6:
Potter Camped Out at The V&A
Beatrix even researched all the vintage clothes and textiles in her books.
For example, Potter painstakingly copied the luscious silk, embroidered waistcoat that the mice work on in The Tailor of Gloucester (1903) from a period waistcoat she repeatedly sketched in detail, during visits to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Beatrix’s 6th Bonus Tip for Artists and Writers:
Get to a city museum, find an uncrowded gallery. Perch on one of those mattress-sized benches with a Moleskin notebook and pencil- let your beautiful cranium open and invite the muses in. (After all, Museum comes from the Greek term mouseion which means, “where the Muses dwell.”)
The city, with its art museums, engaged Potter’s mercurial mind, but our final fact and tip have to do with the countryside.
What You Don’t Know About Beatrix Potter Fact 7.
Beatrix Was a Bad Ass Business Woman Who Left a Behemoth of a Bequest to The National Trust
The forests and fields of Great Britain gave much to Beatrix Potter during her lifetime (1866-1943) and she returned the favor.
Potter was a savvy, tenacious businesswoman who succeeded despite repeated creative rejection. And to put it bluntly, she made bank.
Did you know Potter self-published Peter Rabbit, and even invented character merchandising? Meaning she got a hefty percentage of every naughty Peter Rabbit plush toy or teacup ever sold.
Over the course of her career as a working artist and writer, Potter quietly funneled her hard-earned money into consistent land purchases. She ended up buying owning over 4,000 acres of woods and farmland in England’s Lake District.
Potter purchased it purposefully to generously bequeath the land, her writing studio, Hilltop, (and her ongoing royalties) to the public through the National Trust upon her death in 1943.
According to Potter’s biographer Linda Lear, Potter’s net worth at the time of her death would be the equivalent of at least ten million dollars today.
Beatrix’s Final Bonus Tip for Artists and Writers:
Don’t assume you’re bad at business. Do research. Submit, submit, submit, never stop believing in the originality and value of your work, self-publish if you want, don’t sign your copyright away.
Oh, and buy land.
Over to you. What do you think?
Do you love Beatrix Potter?
How did you first encounter her work? Film, books, T.V.?
I’d love to know in the comments below.
And don’t forget to pop over to my Mostly Free Resources for Artists Page
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