Beatrix Potter: A Life in Natureby Linda Lear
Peter Rabbit, Mr. McGregor, and many other Beatrix Potter characters remain in the hearts of millions. However, though Potter is a household name around the world, few know the woman behind the illustrations. Her personal life, including a romantic relationship with her publisher, Norman Warne, and her significant achievements outside of children's literature… See more details below
Peter Rabbit, Mr. McGregor, and many other Beatrix Potter characters remain in the hearts of millions. However, though Potter is a household name around the world, few know the woman behind the illustrations. Her personal life, including a romantic relationship with her publisher, Norman Warne, and her significant achievements outside of children's literature remain largely unknown. In Linda Lear's enchanting new biography, we get the life story of this incredible, funny, and independent woman. As one of the first female naturalists in the world, Potter brought the beauty and importance of nature back into the imagination at a time when plunder was more popular than preservation. Through her art she sought to encourage conservation and change the world. With never before seen illustrations and intimate detail, Lear goes beyond our perrenial fascination with Potter as a writer and illustrator of children's books, and delves deeply into the life of a most unusual and gifted woman--one whose art was timeless, and whose generosity left an indelible imprint on the countryside.
Beatrix Potter (1866–1943), creator of the immortal Peter Rabbit, is known as an avid writer of comical illustrated letters to friends and as an assertive marketer of her illustrations, and this lively volume also captures her energetic participation in Victorian-era natural history research and conservation. Environmental historian Lear (Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature) relates that, as a child in an upper-middle-class family, Potter sketched flowers, dead animals and live lizards, insects and rodents that she brought home. "Rabbits were caught, tamed, sketched, painted" by young Beatrix and her brother, Bertram. In 1893, while traveling with her pet rabbit, Peter Piper, and seeking unusual fungi with self-taught mycologist Charles McIntosh, Potter jotted an illustrated note "about a disobedient young rabbit called 'Peter' " to an ailing child friend and sketched Peter's nemesis, a McIntosh–look-alike farmer called Mr. McGregor, creating "two fictional characters that one day would be world-famous." Lear judges Potter "a brilliant amateur" naturalist who expressed strong convictions about land preservation. Potter's witty journals, with their close observations of people, animals, objects and places, serve as the basis for Lear's engrossing account, which will appeal to ecologists, historians, child lit buffs and those who want to know the real Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and Benjamin Bunny. A movie, Miss Potter, also releases in January. 16 pages of color illus., 8 pages of b&w illus. not seen by PW. (Jan.)Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kathryn R. Bartelt
“Read Beatrix Potter by Linda Lear and you sense a woman poised between late-Victorian constraint and the promises, intellectual and amorous, of liberation.” Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
“Potter was a famously close observer of the world around her, and Lear is an equally close observer of her subject. The result is a meticulously researched and brilliantly re-created life that, despite its length and accretion of detail, is endlessly fascinating and often illuminating. It is altogether a remarkable achievement.” Booklist, *Starred Review*
“Lear is not only an impeccable historian but a grand storyteller...a magisterial and definitive biography, a delight in every way.” The Horn Book
“In this remarkable biography...the author's meticulous attention to detail is obvious throughout, not to mention her elegant writing and exceptional scholarship. Highly recommended.” Library Journal
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A Life In Nature
By Linda Lear
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Linda Lear
All rights reserved.
BEATRIX POTTER NEVER CONSIDERED herself an 'off-comer' in Sawrey. For much of her adult life she worked hard at shedding at least the outward vestiges of her upper-middle-class upbringing in the Kensington area of London and at re-establishing and embellishing her country credentials. It was a matter of great consequence to her to be identified, not by her accidental place of birth, but rather by the geographical location of her family's roots. 'My brother & I were born in London because my father was a lawyer there,' she wrote once by way of explanation. 'But our descent — our interests and our joy was in the north country.' From this perspective Beatrix's purchase of land in Sawrey represented both an independent sallying forth, and a return to the land of her ancestors — to a place where she instinctively felt she belonged.
She had always been interested in her family's history, particularly in the qualities of the north-country stock they came from. She once wrote to an American friend with considerable pride, 'I am descended from generations of Lancashire yeomen and weavers; obstinate, hard headed, matter of fact folk ... As far back as I can go, they were Puritans, Nonjurors, Nonconformists, Dissenters. Your Mayflower ancestors sailed to America; mine at the same date were sticking it out at home, probably rather enjoying persecution.' Beatrix did not have to search far to find evidence of strong character or conviction. Both sides of her family were distinguished by their Radical political opinions, Unitarian convictions, extraordinary success in trade, and a discerning interest in the arts.
When Beatrix was a little girl, obscured and forgotten under the table skirt with the 'yellowy green fringe' in the library of Camfield Place, the country home of her paternal grandparents, she absorbed stories and family gossip which many years later she could recall with unusual clarity and detail. 'I can remember quite plainly from one to two years old,' she wrote; 'not only facts, like learning to walk, but places and sentiments — the way things impressed a very young child.'
The impressionable little girl paid particular attention to the stories told by her adored grandmother Jessy Crompton Potter, once a noted beauty and an accomplished harpist, and now an arresting and spirited older woman. In those recitals of the family's past, the name Crompton was redoubtable. As far as the family legend went, or at least the version that Beatrix embraced, the Cromptons were the source of all that was independent, outspoken, eccentric and worth emulating in the family. 'I am a believer in "breed",' Beatrix wrote to a friend; 'I hold that a strongly marked personality can influence descendants for generations. In the same way that we farmers know that certain sires - bulls - stallions - rams - have been "prepotent" in forming breeds of shorthorns, thoroughbreds, and the numerous varieties of sheep.'
Beatrix's great-grandfather, Abraham Crompton, settled his family of thirteen at Lune Villa, a Georgian house with expansive grounds on the River Lune in Lancashire. He also owned land in the Tilberthwaite Fells near Coniston: fells that Beatrix could later see outlined against the horizon from the upper fields of Hill Top Farm. His property there was known as Holme Ground, which means a place surrounded by water, as indeed it was. Abraham sometimes spent summer holidays there attended by one or other of his children, most often with Beatrix's grandmother, Jessy.
Both Beatrix's father's and mother's families had deep roots in the counties near Manchester, which by the time of Beatrix's birth in 1866 was the second largest city in England and the centre of the textile manufacturing that was fuelled by the Industrial Revolution. The Potters of recent generations came from Glossop, a textile town in Derbyshire, south-east of Manchester. Beatrix's mother's family, the Leeches, were from Stalybridge and Hyde in nearby Cheshire.
Edmund Potter, Beatrix's paternal grandfather, was by far the most accomplished member of either family. His attitudes, passions and talents are important because Beatrix resembled him more than any other family member. She inherited much of his artistic talent, entrepreneurial ability and intellectual curiosity. Edmund was born in 1802 and baptized at Cross Street Chapel, a Unitarian congregation already in the forefront of the Dissenting community. He was brought up rather severely in a hard-working merchant family which valued education. Edmund had a penchant for innovation, held enlightened opinions and kept company with other thoughtful men. Although his eventual wealth qualified him as one of Manchester's cotton oligarchs, Edmund Potter remained a humble man, dedicated to the well-being and improvement of his countrymen.
In 1825 Edmund and his cousin Charles bought a run-down spinning mill in Dinting Vale, a small cotton manufacturing village south of Glossop, on the edge of the open moorland of the High Peak. Theirs was but one of the forty-odd cotton mills in Glossop Dale, where nearly a third of the population was employed in the textile industry. They proceeded to establish a hand-printed calico manufacturing business, applying the woodblocks with good dyes to create innovative prints which proved popular. Years later, when Beatrix was absorbed with the selection of endpapers for the de luxe editions of her 'little books', she discovered that the most popular calico pattern Edmund Potter & Company ever produced was a small crossed broom or brush pattern on a blue ground that her grandfather had designed.
Edmund married Jessy Crompton, 'the pretty Radical', in the Lancaster Priory church of St Mary near her home at Lune Villa in 1829. Jessy had independent opinions of her own and inherited her father's Radical belief in the political emancipation of the working classes. Her views would influence her husband's practices and attitudes as an employer, as well as his views on the necessity of educating the lower classes. The match was remarkably congenial. Jessy was adept at managing a large household and in promoting her husband's political ambitions and social connections. She bore seven children within a decade: four sons and three daughters.
The Potters' social life revolved around the Unitarian community in Manchester. They often attended Cross Street Chapel, where the Revd William Gaskell, an eloquent and compelling preacher, was the newly appointed junior minister. Gaskell's wife, Elizabeth, became one of the major social novelists of the century before her early death in 1865. The Gaskells and the Potters raised their families in the same environment and their friendship influenced the next two generations of Potters.
The calico print trade was increasingly unstable owing to fluctuations in demand and the imposition of a tax levied exclusively on printed cotton. The repeal of the tax did not come soon enough to save the fledgling firm. The company went into receivership, and the cousins went their separate ways. Edmund rebuilt his calico business in Dinting Vale as Edmund Potter & Company. With hard work and innovation, he emerged in 1837 not only debt free, but captain of a modernized calico printing business.
When the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway came to Dinting Vale and Glossop in 1845, Potter's firm was assured a wider market and Glossop became a regional centre of trade. Edmund had wisely moved his family to Dinting Vale several years earlier and into Dinting Lodge, a substantial house overlooking the mill reservoirs.
As an enlightened employer, Edmund was concerned for the welfare and education of his employees, many of whom were children under the age of 13. He built a large dining room in the mill which could serve a hot meal to three hundred and fifty people at one time. He converted part of a nearby mill into the Logwood School, where the children of his workers, as well as the child labourers, could learn reading, writing and basic hygiene. He also built a reading room and library which was kept well stocked with books and newspapers. Edmund Potter believed in the necessity of educating the working classes and the need to repeal the excise taxes on grain, which raised the price of bread, but he had no sympathy for trade unionism. Such beliefs drew him into association with other politically powerful merchant leaders in Manchester who supported the growing movement for free trade.
Edmund also saw the art of calico printing and art education as tools for social improvement. In 1855 he published a pamphlet, Schools of Art, arguing for the benefits of art education for the working man. His own achievements in the science of calico printing and his technological innovations were displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and earned him election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1856. From 1855 to 1858 Edmund served as President of the Manchester School of Art, collected a little art himself and frequently lectured on textile design. By 1862 Edmund Potter & Company had become the largest calico printing firm in the world. The Dinting Vale printworks produced more than sixteen million yards of calico a year. That year Edmund contested a by-election at Carlisle and won the seat in Parliament as a Liberal by three votes. He left the family business in the capable hands of his eldest son, Edmund Crompton, and settled in London. Committed to the growth of the Unitarian ministry and to the gospel of free trade, Edmund served as a Member of Parliament for the next twelve years.
In London, Edmund and Jessy settled at 64 Queen's Gate, in South Kensington. They attended the vibrant Little Portland Street congregation led by colleagues from the faculty of Manchester College. Edmund also served as president of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, the first official coordinating body of the denomination, a position which increased his public stature. He was well connected within the London art and museum community, including the National Gallery of Art and the Kensington School of Art, insisting that the latter provide art education to the lower classes, not just to the sons and daughters of the wealthy.
In 1866 Edmund bought Camfield Place, a country estate of over 300 acres in Hertfordshire, north of London. The grounds of Camfield, laid out a century earlier by the famous landscape designer Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, were planted with cedars, rhododendrons and pink horse chestnuts. In keeping with the fashion of the times, the property included several sturdy summer houses, lovely terraced ponds, and, best of all, a grotto. Camfield would always be associated in Beatrix's mind with precious visits to her dear Grandmother Potter.
Edmund retired from Parliament and moved to Camfield, where he died in October 1883 at the age of 82. In the years immediately before his death Edmund's mind sadly deteriorated. Instead of the brilliant, kindly reformer and energetic Unitarian that he had been, Beatrix remembered him more as a befuddled old man. Jessy continued to live at Camfield and at Queen's Gate in London until her death in 1891. Edmund died an immensely wealthy man, leaving an estate of £441,970, principally to his wife. A great portion of that wealth eventually passed on to Beatrix's father, Rupert, ironically the son least endowed with his father's entrepreneurial spirit or liberal values.
During the period Edmund served in Parliament, the Potters lived not far from the Kensington home of the family of the late John Leech of Stalybridge, 20 Kensington Palace Gardens. Leech died in 1861, but the two north-country families had long been connected by cotton, Unitarianism, and membership in the art establishment of Manchester. John Leech had been every bit as much a Manchester merchant prince and benefactor of the Unitarian cause as Edmund Potter. Only his more flamboyant style and affinity for risk distinguished him. Although his death at the age of 60 deprived him of a comparable philanthropic career in his later years, Leech acted on a wider international stage than Potter, and also accumulated enormous wealth. In part because his granddaughter Beatrix never knew him, but also because he was a man of action rather than reflection, John Leech's contribution to Beatrix's understanding of family character was less vivid and came to her second-hand.
A year older than Edmund Potter, Leech married Jane Ashton, the lively and quick-witted daughter of a wealthy Unitarian cotton manufacturer in nearby Hyde, in 1832. They moved into Hob Hill House, a large brick structure in the middle of the family's textile mills in Stalybridge. Soon Leech, who was known around the Manchester Exchange as 'Ready Money Jack', bought a larger, historic estate on a hill overlooking the town, tore it down and built a new mansion known as Gorse Hall. It included a lake, landscaped gardens, a tennis court, and offered a panoramic view of the distant Pennines. By 1848 the John Leech Company had a fleet of ships sailing the world and was the largest mercantile business in the area.
The Leeches shared with the Potters a deep commitment to Nonconformity and education, as well as to the promotion of science and art in Manchester. John Leech came to London frequently to promote his firm's trading relations and to lobby Parliament. Like Potter, he too collected contemporary British art, including at least one landscape by J. M. W. Turner. When John Leech died, after a long illness, the Christian Reformer reported that 'his name was known in almost every part of the world'.
His surviving sons, John and William, worked in the family business and remained in Stalybridge. One of his five daughters died in infancy, the eldest never married, but the other three made good matches. Harriet married Fred Burton, a wealthy cotton manufacturer who built Gwaynynog, an estate near Denbigh in Wales. Elizabeth and Helen married two sons of Edmund Potter, Walter and Rupert. John Leech left a personal estate of more than £200,000, and settled a generous legacy of £50,000 on each of his daughters.
During her long widowhood, Jane Leech turned her attention to the Unitarian community and the working people of Stalybridge. She gave the pioneer Unitarian congregation permission to make the old Leech home, Hob Hill, into a free school which soon became the centre of the Unitarian reform and educational efforts in the town. During the cotton famine that began in 1862, when mills were forced to close because of the lack of imported raw cotton from the United States, the Hob Hill School offered night classes for workers in thirty different subjects. Mrs Leech and her daughters, Elizabeth and Helen, taught cookery, needlework and housewifery. She established kitchens to feed all the mill workers in Stalybridge, not just those in the Leech mills, and organized an annual bazaar for the support of the Sunday School. At the time of her death in 1884, the school served more than four hundred girls and infants.
As a child Beatrix went less often to Gorse Hall to see Grand-mamma Leech than she did to Camfield Place, although her journal records frequent luncheons and teas at both grandmothers' London homes. But when Jane Leech died, Beatrix, not quite 18, felt her loss acutely. Her memories of Gorse Hall, like those of Camfield, were vividly sensory; having to do with the smell of the old house and the quality of light there. She recalled 'the pattern of the door-mat, the pictures on the old music-box, the sound of the rocking horse as it swung, the engravings on the stair, the smell of the Indian corn' and feared it would all be changed. 'I have now seen longer passages and higher halls,' she confided in her journal. 'The rooms will look cold and empty, the passage I used to patter along so kindly on the way to bed will no longer seem dark and mysterious, and, above all, the kind voice which cheered the house is silent for ever.'
During Jane Leech's funeral at Dukinfield, Rupert Potter, Leech's son-in-law and Beatrix's barrister father, was seated near his own father's old pew. As a boy, he had often sat studying a memorial inscription engraved on the south transept wall that began with the Latin phrase 'Cur viator fleas sepultum? — traveller, why weep for me in my grave?' After the service he wickedly confided to his daughter that the inscription had always made him think of 'dog fleas'. His confession amused Beatrix and became something of a family joke.
As the second son of a rising mill owner, Rupert Potter was born during the time when his father was fighting his way out of bankruptcy and times were hard. His teenage years at Dinting Vale were more privileged, but Edmund, honoured and remote, had little time to spend with his family. Crompton, the eldest by three years, inherited the entrepreneurial ambitions of his father, and although the two brothers had much in common, they were too often in competition as young men to admit admiration.
Excerpted from Beatrix Potter by Linda Lear. Copyright © 2007 Linda Lear. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
LINDA LEAR, a professor of environmental history and author of the prize-winning biography Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, is an enthusiastic horticulturalist and collector of botanical art. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
Linda Lear, a professor of environmental history and author of the prize-winning biography Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, is an enthusiastic horticulturalist and collector of botanical art. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
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This is a well written, intensely researched biography. Beatrice Potter was very interesting. I did not know all the dimensions of her life and her intense striving. Anyone who enjoys a good, deep, complicated biography will be glad to read this one.
This is an exceptional biography of Beatrix's life and work. Thoroughly researched, this book includes much detail on her family and relations, her homes and farms, her animal and plant (and fungi) inspirations, her meticulous painting and writing, her generous efforts for conservation, her love for Herdwick and oak furniture, and so much more. If you are looking for an in-depth biography, you will not be disappointed - 447 pages of fascinating facts. Though a few times Linda Lear's presentation of the facts can be a little hard to get through, however the vast majority had me captured and feeling like I was in Beatrix's shoes, or muddy boots rather! There are also four sections included that have photographs of Beatrix (young and old) and notable persons, and color renditions of her artwork. I highly recommend this biography to anyone interested in an honorable woman whose life and legacy are truly inspirational.