NEW YORK — Growing up in London in an upper middle class family, Beatrix Potter (English, 1866–1943) had a privileged but sheltered childhood with few girls her age who she could call friends. While her family was said to be strict, she was allowed to have many pets and her nursery was home to a variety of animals, from frogs, mice and guinea pigs to birds, a turtle, and of course, rabbits.
On family holidays to England’s Lake District and Scotland, she discovered nature, and would earnestly draw animals she encountered. Her scientific curiosity led her to draw realistic images, presaging her career as an author and illustrator. Her two favorite pet rabbits were said to be Benjamin H. Bouncer and Peter Rabbit, and she paid homage to them in her beloved children’s books.
During one of her sojourns to Scotland, at age 27, she wrote what would become her most famous children’s book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It began as an eight-page illustrated letter to the five-year old son of a former governess. She decided to publish it privately after several rejections from publishing houses, dipping into her savings to have 250 copies printed in 1901.
Potter’s charming line drawings and writing appealed to children of all ages. Soon, she was the leading author at the Frederick Warne & Company, which published Peter Rabbit commercially in 1902, and she began writing and illustrating full-time. Some of her most memorable and beloved characters include Peter Rabbit, Jeremy Fisher, Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddle-Duck.
John Bidwell, the Astor Curator of Printed Books and Bindings at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, noted the timeless appeal of Potter’s books. “Beatrix Potter is unparalleled in children’s literature because she had extraordinary skill in writing,” he said. “She knew exactly how to pitch the right tone of text for children and she was an extraordinary natural history artist.”
The Morgan hosted an exhibit devoted to Potter long before Bidwell’s tenure, but he said it was one of its first blockbuster exhibitions, with lines that stretched around the block. The museum hosted an exhibition of her picture letters in 2012, and in 2024, it will serve as the American venue for a Beatrix Potter exhibition organized by London’s V&A Museum and the National Trust. “For the Morgan, it’s going to be one of our larger and more ambitious exhibitions,” he said. “Visitors are going to see Beatrix Potter work that’s never been shown before and see artifacts and memorabilia from her place in the Lake Country.”
Potter, as an exhibition subject, checks many boxes. “Certainly, the last exhibit appealed to kids, grownups, people interested in the history of publishing and people interested in natural history illustration. There are all sorts of constituencies for Beatrix Potter,” Bidwell said.
Her books were written for young children, and her Tales of series, which kicked off with Peter Rabbit, were small books that could be easily held by children. The essence of their appeal lies in the fact that adults and older children continue to appreciate them.
“That’s one of the pleasures of Beatrix Potter,” he said. “Parents can read these books to kids before they can read on their own, but Beatrix Potter has this kind of wit and humor that makes the books equally enjoyable for older kids.”
Bidwell noted how Potter was ahead of her time as a female author. “She was independently wealthy, so she didn’t have to give in to publishers,” he said. “She could call the shots and instead of writing the pablum that kids were served so much in her day, she could actually have Peter Rabbit’s father cooked in a pie and served to Mr. McGregor. Shocking!”
Potter told endearing stories of creatures but didn’t shy away from the hardships they faced in the natural world. “Potter’s ability to imagine the world from the eye-level of a small creature hiding away from adults is one of the most captivating qualities of her book, as is her detailed and realistic rendering of the animals derived from her lifelong study of them,” according to The British Museum.
Bidwell noted that Potter didn’t dumb down her writing for children and battled publishers when she included the occasional “hard word” they didn’t like, telling them that kids occasionally liked a hard word. “She was pioneering because she had the freedom and independence to sustain her own artistic and literary principles,” he said. As Warne’s primary money-maker, Potter was given a lot of creative control over her books.
While she wrote more than 30 books in all, her 23 Tales of … children’s books are most desirable to collectors, with first editions of Peter Rabbit in mint condition bringing top dollar. Rabbits figured in several Potter books, but so did mice, including The Tale of Two Bad Mice, The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse and The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse.
Potter did not limit herself to books. During her lifetime, she sought to expand the popularity of her characters by translating them into other forms, such as china figurines. Sbe reportedly made some clay figures herself and reached out to Royal Doulton to produce them. Some prototypes were made, but apparently the concept was never realized. Royal Doulton prototype figurines of Jeremy Fisher and Sir Isaac Newton made $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021 at Lion and Unicorn. After Potter died, another firm, Beswick, produced a series of porcelain figurines of Beatrix Potter characters from the 1940s to about 1980. One can typically buy group lots of Beswick figurines for three-figure sums.
Few authors can claim the legacy that Beatrix Potter has. Her distinctly engaging children’s books and associated collectibles, ranging from vintage figurines to modern plush stuffed animals, ensure her characters and stories will continue to delight generations of readers.
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