Promoting passion in book collecting
We’ve recently acquired an interesting item: the culinary manuscript from the estate of William Heelis. You probably don’t know the name Heelis, but you’ve probably heard of his wife, Beatrix Potter. The handwritten family recipe book includes a ledger dated March 10, 1851, along with recipes for sponge cake, ginger bread, soda loaf, and many more. Someone who was studying the classics also used the back of the recipe book to take notes. Bound in its original vellum boards with a brass clasp, the recipe book is in good condition. Items like this one give us opportunity to peer into the household life of a legendary author–a rare treat indeed! And in the case of Beatrix Potter, that daily life is probably different than most of us imagine.
Potter was born on July 28, 1866 in South Kensington, London. Her family took frequent vacations to the countryside, however, and these trips profoundly impacted Potter. She was educated at home by a series of governesses, as was the fashion for girls of her family’s social standing. Potter quickly fell in love with classic fairy and folk tales. She was also instructed in drawing and painting, and once her parents recognized her artistic aptitude, they encouraged her to develop them. She began with her own illustrated versions of classics like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Cinderella.
Potter’s family also kept many pets, including rabbits, a hedgehog, mice, and even bats. Potter faithfully sketched these creatures and made up her own stories about them. She also had an extensive insect collection, which she carefully mounted and identified. Her drawings of the collection were so detailed, it’s easy to see her path to becoming a naturalist.
From 1881 to 1897, Potter kept a journal of her daily activities, along with her opinions about current events and art. She wrote the journal in a code of her own invention, and it wasn’t deciphered until 1958! During the 1890’s Potter also began selling greeting cards and illustrations. But her primary occupation was with illustrating the natural world, mostly in the fields of of natural history, archaeology, geology, and mycology. Charles MacIntosh, a renowned Scottish naturalist, encouraged Potter to make her drawings even more accurate, and Potter soon grew adept as a scientific illustrator.
In 1896, Potter wrote a paper outlining her theory of fungi spores. Because women were not permitted to present at the Linnean Society, another researcher presented Potter’s research in April 1897. Unfortunately this paper has since been lost.
Meanwhile Potter had gotten into the habit of illustrating letters to children she knew. She’d adorn the margins with whimsical drawings of animals or draw scenes from the stories she recounted. In 1901, Potter decided to turn one of the characters from her marginalia into a children’s book, and The Tale of Peter Rabbit was born. Several commercial publishers turned the book down, so Potter published it herself. The following year Frederick Warne agreed to publish the book if Potter redid the black-and-white illustrations in color. The book was a resounding success, and the following year Norman Warne supervised publication of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester. Potter would go on to publish about twenty more little books, at a rate of two to three per year. Potter also had the perspicacity to register a Petter rabbit doll. She recognized the potential value of spin-off merchandise as a marketing asset.
By 1905, Potter was unofficially engaged to her editor, Norman Warne. Her parents disapproved of the match because Warne was “in trade.” Though Potter was a dutiful daughter in every other instance, she went against her parents’ wishes, moving forward with plans to buy a farm with Warne after their marriage. Unfortunately, Warne passed away from leukemia only a month later. Though Potter was devastated, she decided to move forward with the plan to buy land in the countryside. She purchased Hill Top Farm on her own, using money from her book sales. The farm became her sanctuary, though she still spent most of her time in London caring for her parents. By 1911 she’d lost most interest in satisfying her publishers’ demands, preferring to turn her attention to farming.
Potter’s solicitors hadn’t represented her well during the purchase of Hill Top Farm, so when she decided to purchase more land, she sought new representation. She found William Heelis, who advised her during the 1909 purchase of Castle Farm, which was just across the road from Hill Top. Soon Heelis was advising Potter on a variety of matters and acting as her property manager. In 1913, when Beatrix was 47 years old, the two married and moved into Castle Cottage on Castle Farm.
The couple soon became pillars of their community. Potter was active in local political issues, especially those that might impact the pristine Lake District. For example, she vehemently opposed the use of hydroplanes on Lake Windermere. Meanwhile Potter also began breeding and raising Hardwick sheep. She became one of the most admired Hardwick breeders in the region. In 1923, Potter purchased Troutbeck Farm, a huge but disease-ridden sheep farm. She managed to turn the farm around and make it viable again.
Heelis and Potter were active supporters of land conservation, and one of Potter’s motives in buying so much land was to protect it from development. The couple were early benefactors of the National Trust. Potter became its de facto land agent in 1930, managing not only her own properties, but also many others. Unfortunately by this time Potter’s eyesight had begun to fail, precluding her artistic endeavors. Her last little book, The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, was published that same year. Four years prior, she’d published The Fairy Caravan in the US only. She thought the book too autobiographical for publication in Britain, and it wasn’t published there until nine years after her death.
When Potter passed away on December 22, 1943, she left over 4,000 acres to the National Trust-and an incredible legacy of children’s literature. Though we remember Potter for her children’s books, her contributions are much more varied.