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Beatrix Potter, Conservationist

The author of Peter Rabbit was a complex woman whose quest for autonomy helped save a crucial part of the English countryside

Keith Thomson

Artist and Scientist

Encouraged by her father (who was especially interested in photography), various tutors and governesses, and the painter Sir John Everett Millais (a family friend), Beatrix Potter quickly developed a talent as a watercolorist. She remained lonely, shy and lacking in self-confidence, however, and her personal development was slowed further by a two-year bout with rheumatic fever that started when she was 19. Even in her twenties, she was quite childlike, often sunk into fantasies, but she steadily developed as an illustrator and eventually sold some of her drawings to be published as cards. During visits to the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, she exercised her skills in dry-brush watercolor on a wide range of subjects, from costumes (a waistcoat famously reappeared in The Tailor of Gloucester) to archaeological remains, plants and animals. In London also, she and her younger brother kept a considerable menagerie that included bats, frogs, newts, snakes, tamed mice and rabbits.

All these experiences led her to become an astute student of algae and fungi. From painting fungi, she had become interested in their biology, encouraged in the summers by a Scottish naturalist named Charlie McIntosh (the model, later, for Peter Rabbit's nemesis, Mr. McGregor). Beatrix Potter developed a skill for culturing fungal spores and became convinced that macroscopic fungi like mushrooms and toadstools must grow from subsurface mycelia as do other molds. Further, she became attracted to the concept that lichens are a symbiotic combination of an alga and a fungus. These were ideas that had been mooted elsewhere, particularly in Germany, but when she took her studies to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, she ran into a brick wall of what appears, at first glance, to be rampant male chauvinism.

A closer look at this episode, however, shows that her approach to the director of Kew and a key staff member was a mixture of awkwardness, timidity and arrogant disdain. How many senior scientists would have embraced the arrival of a young unknown, armed with letters from influential family members but no scholarly credentials, telling them that their ideas were all wrong? As she described later, "I informed him [the director] that it would be in all the books, whether or no, and departed giggling." She was then 31. Sadly, the venture quickly fizzled out. Although the staff member at Kew whom Beatrix Potter had originally scorned submitted a paper on her behalf to the Linnean Society of London, she later gave up the effort and withdrew it.

Science's loss, however, was very much to the advantage of children's literature and conservation. Five years after the Kew Gardens episode, Beatrix Potter, now 36 years old, began writing books at the rapid clip of two a year, beginning with Peter Rabbit. In 1905, she became engaged to her editor/publisher, Norman Warne, although her mother bitterly opposed the match. Tragically, Warne died of leukemia within a month. Beatrix Potter then seems finally to have started to mature as a person. She had hit upon a winning formula for her books: a simple story, a whiff of danger, much naughtiness and a cast of carefully anthropomorphized animal characters—never overly cute—whom she drew brilliantly in authentic settings. <!--pagebreak-->

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