Published: 14 April 2016

Celebrating 150 years of Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter

School of the Arts student, Catherine Tully, explores the legacy of celebrated author, Beatrix Potter in the writer’s landmark year:

This year marks the 150th birthday of one of the world’s most treasured children’s authors, Beatrix Potter. She has captivated audiences for over a century with her illustrated tales that explore the world of one of literature’s most famous animals, Peter Rabbit.

After several rejections from publishers Beatrix Potter printed the book herself – 250 copies of her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The instantaneous success of the children’s novel brought it to the attention of Frederick Warne & Co. who reconsidered their initial decision and published the tale in colour for the first time in 1902. The novel was an immediate triumph, as were her subsequent Tales.

All 23 Tales achieved worldwide success and have been passed down through generations of devoted fans. University of Liverpool School of the Arts Professor, Jill Rudd, shares her view on the achievement: “As well as the strong plot line and characters, I think the wry humour is key to what makes them so memorable and enjoyable. Add to that that most readers encounter them when sharing them with a family member in childhood and you get quite a potent mix.”

“Potter helped introduce a new area of children’s literature. She was part of the shift away from overtly moralising stories for children to something designed to appeal to their imaginations.”

Beatrix Potter

The image of Peter Rabbit and other characters are iconic and now widely seen in all aspects of living, such as nursery wallpaper and baby clothes; Potter’s beautiful illustrations are just as significant as the stories themselves.

Professor Rudd said: ”The pictures carry the humour as much as the text and, as in all good books, especially children’s books, contain details not present, or only implied, in the words.”

Potter is not only famous for her stories but for her innovating and forward-thinking business acumen. She was the first person to license a literary character and in 1903, Potter designed and created the first Peter Rabbit toy herself and immediately registered for a patent across her work. She further explored the commercial elements of her illustrations and brought merchandise such as tea sets, painting books and board games to the market, much of which is still replicated in items sold today.

Aside from her storytelling, artistry and business skills, Beatrix Potter was also a keen botanist, environmentalist, farmer and visionary in an era when women were discouraged from having ambition and involvement in such matters.

Professor Rudd said: “She herself was a powerful and clear-headed woman, highly influential in preserving landscape and local sheep breeds, she gifted much land in the Lake District to the National Trust. The more people know about her the better.”

Beatrix produced technically accurate scientific illustrations of fungi and undertook research into plants and even producing papers that were presented to the Linnean Society of London. Scientists still recognise her contributions today.

She was a keen and award winning breeder of Herdwick sheep and a great supporter of the conservation of the natural environment. She helped preserve rural buildings, landscapes and farms, saving many from developers and at the time of her death in 1943 she left fifteen farms and over four thousand acres of land in the Cumbria to the National Trust. Her old residence of Hill Top Farm is still kept as it was when she lived there and now receives thousands of visitors every year.

Beatrix Potter’s legacy lives on through many forms, it is estimated that two million copies of her books are sold every year worldwide, around four books every minute. Her life was depicted in the 2006 film Miss Potter and is celebrated by the Cumbria attraction, ‘The World of Beatrix Potter,’ which is hosting a number of events to commemorate the author’s birthday. Perhaps the most exciting news, however, is the announcement of the rediscovered, previously unpublished and unillustrated story, The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots. The book will be released on 1st September 2016, over a century after it was first penned, and will be illustrated by the renowned Quentin Blake.

Early editions of the Beatrix Potter’s Tales pictured in this article can be viewed at Special Collections in the Sydney Jones Library by arranging an appointment.

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