Helen Beatrix Potter: Author, Illustrator and Scientist

Helen Beatrix Potter
Beatrix Potter with her spaniel Spot (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, copyright expired)

You may be forgiven for thinking of Beatrix Potter as the talented author and illustrator of a large number of children’s books, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit, but she is much more than that. For Beatrix Potter was a leading mycologist (someone who studies fungus) and conservationist and it was these interests that lead her to write her best-selling books. Beatrix Potter continues to enlighten people today as a recently discovered parasitic fungus (Tremella simplex) in Aberdeen was found to have been drawn by Beatrix Potter in the late 1890’s. So what drew the young Beatrix to nature and its study?

Beatrix was interested in nature from a very young age and was very meticulous in recording observable data, often drawing or painting what she observed in nature. Although these paintings were not systematic as Beatrix drew what interested her it led to her close friend John Everett Millais acknowledging her keen eye: “plenty of people can draw, but you…have observation.” From as young as nine years of age Beatrix was drawing watercolours of caterpillars with anatomical and field observations. Her love of nature was further enhanced by opportunities during her childhood. Beatrix was born into a wealthy family and so enjoyed summer holidays near the River Tay in Scotland which enabled her to draw a wide range or flora and fauna in the local area. Additionally, she was able to learn photographic techniques, including detail and perspective, from her father Rupert, an amateur photographer, further enhancing Beatrix’s talent in painting. Subsequent trips to the Lake District also influenced a lot of Beatrix’s painting at a young age. On these trips she also exhibited a keen interest in geography and archaeology, noting in her journals about the formation of land, soil erosion and paintings of fossils.

Educated privately through governesses at home, Beatrix’s talent in drawing was recognised early and further tuition in painting was provided. However, this was detested by Beatrix who did not wish to copy other painters but experiment with her own style, later sticking with watercolours. Beatrix cared for a lot of pets at home and these provided a great source of inspiration for many of her drawings. She would also draw a menagerie of animals secretly hidden in the nursery with her younger brother Walter Bertram including mice, rabbits, bats, snails, egg collections and insects. Additionally, when pets died the Potter children would boil the corpse and play with the bones to learn more about the anatomy of the animals they drew.

Oyster mushroom mycelium growing on a bed of coffee granules  (Photo: Tobi Kellner, Wikimedia Commons, License: CC BY-SA 3.0)
Oyster mushroom mycelium growing on a bed of coffee granules
(Photo: Tobi Kellner, Wikimedia Commons, License: CC BY-SA 3.0)

At first, study for her drawings were through the use of a hand lens, then a camera and later with her younger brother’s microscope and this is how Beatrix became fascinated with fungi. Her interests began at first with their colour and structure and she later became interested in her 30’s in the role of spores in reproduction of different fungi. At the time this topic was highly debated within British mycologist circles. On a holiday to Scotland in 1892, Beatrix formed an alliance with a noted naturalist Charles McIntosh and exchanged her accurate drawings of rare specimens for his knowledge of microscopic drawing of fungi, knowledge of taxonomy and live specimens during winter. By 1895, Beatrix had collected and drawn the spores and spore-producing structures (basidia) of the mushroom Boletus granulatus, now called Suillus granulatus. She had also successfully managed to germinate spores of a number of species and produced drawings of the mycelium.

With these interesting results at the time, Beatrix approached the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew Gardens only to be dismissed by the current director, Willian Thiselton-Dyer. However, her uncle, the chemist Henry Enfield Roscoe, encouraged Beatrix to continue her research into fungal spore reproduction, which she then later offered to the Linnean Society in London, though at the time they did not admit women or allow them to attend meetings. The paper Beatrix submitted was titled ‘On the germination of the spores of Agaricineae’ and contained many of her microscope drawings. This paper has since been lost but it seemed as if Beatrix was heavily interested in the idea of hybridisation.

Around this time as well, the principal of London’s Morley Memorial College for Men and Women, Caroline Martineau, commissioned Beatrix to produce lithographs for use in lectures, of which two survive today, one on a Sheetweb spider and the other of insects. After a lifetime of drawing Beatrix donated her botanical and mycological drawings to the Armitt Museum and Library in Ambleside, Lake District. These are still used today by both amateur and professional mycologists and 59 of her drawings were reproduced in a book on fungi.

Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny from The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, photo in the public domain)
Benjamin Bunny from one of Beatrix Potter’s books
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons, photo in the public domain)

However, these feats are not the limits to Beatrix’s love of nature. During her life, Beatrix also became fascinated with the countryside, not in keeping with her parents’ views for their child, and became a wealthy land owner in the North of England, running both her own farms and those she shared with the National Trust. It is through this work that Beatrix became interested in conservation, particularly concerned with breeding native Herdwick sheep and promoting the preservation of the land in the Lake District. On her death, Beatrix Potter donated her land to the National Trust and today over 1700 hectares are still enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year.

Therefore, through her work as both a mycologist and conservationist it is important that we think of Beatrix Potter as more than an author. For it was through Beatrix Potter, who fought against societies who did not acknowledge women and rejected her papers that the foundations of mycology was born. In Beatrix’s own words ‘with opportunity the world is very interesting.’

SSAThis post, by author Rebecca Jones, was kindly donated by the Scouse Science Alliance and the original text can be found here.

3 thoughts on “Helen Beatrix Potter: Author, Illustrator and Scientist”

  1. Your article’s focus on the scientific endeavors and interests of Beatrix Potter was good to see in this science blog setting. Just this summer in Birnam, Scotland, there was an exhibit of her paintings and letters with the above mentioned fungi that she studied with Charlie McIntosh in the 1890s. The original paintings are housed in the Perth Art Museum as the set of paintings that Potter sent to McIntosh in exchange for the baskets of fungi he mailed her to study and paint. The other fungi paintings that Potter kept were the ones she donated to the Armitt Museum in Ambleside.
    Please note a couple of corrections of facts though:
    1) Her brother’s name was Bertram, not Walter.
    2) Her wealth to purchase the Lakeland farms came directly from her successful little Peter Rabbit books – her own monies not inherited from her family.
    3) The illustrations in all the little books are anatomically and botanically correct, reflecting again her scientist’s eye and observation of how animals behave in the natural world (even if they are wearing clothes!).
    4) The last illustration in this article is of Peter Rabbit (foreground) and Benjamin Bunny in the back, from The Tale of Benjamin Bunny.

  2. Hi, many thanks for your comment. I wish I had a chance to see the exhibition, it sounds really interesting! Also thanks for your corrections, I’ve made a couple of tweaks to the text accordingly.

Comments are closed.

Share This