Helen Beatrix Potter (28 July 1866 – 22 December 1943) was an English author, illustrator, natural scientist, and conservationist best known for her imaginative children’s books featuring animals such as those in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which celebrated the British landscape and country life.
I am very excited about today’s KYH as I think Potter’s publishing journey reads like a story on its own with our heroine finally triumphing and getting the book deal!
Whenever Potter went on holiday to the Lake District or Scotland, she sent letters to young friends, illustrating them with quick sketches. Many of these letters were written to the children of her former governess Annie Carter Moore, particularly to her eldest son Noel who was often ill. In September 1893 Potter was on holiday at Eastwood in Dunkeld, Perthshire. She had run out of things to say to Noel and so she told him a story about “four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter”. It became one of the most famous children’s letters ever written and the basis of Potter’s future career as a writer-artist-storyteller.
In 1900, Potter revised her tale about the four little rabbits, and fashioned a dummy book of it – it has been suggested, in imitation of Helen Bannerman’s 1899 bestseller The Story of Little Black Sambo. Unable to find a buyer for the work, she published it for family and friends at her own expense in December 1901. It was drawn in black and white with a coloured frontispiece. Family friend Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley had great faith in Potter’s tale, recast it in didactic verse, and made the rounds of the London publishing houses. Frederick Warne & Co had previously rejected the tale but, eager to compete in the booming small format children’s book market, reconsidered and accepted the “bunny book” (as the firm called it) following the recommendation of their prominent children’s book artist L. Leslie Brooke. The firm declined Rawnsley’s verse in favour of Potter’s original prose, and Potter agreed to colour her pen and ink illustrations, choosing the then new Hentschel three-colour process to reproduce her watercolours.
On 2 October 1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published, and was an immediate success.
It was followed the next year by The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester, which had also first been written as picture letters to the Moore children. Working with Norman Warne as her editor, Potter published two or three little books each year: 23 books in all. The last book in this format was Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes in 1922, a collection of favourite rhymes.
Did You Know?..
Potter used many real locations for her book illustrations, the Tower Bank Arms, Near Sawrey appears in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck.