Among the most popular works in the British Museum's prints and drawings collection are the complete watercolours by the children's author and illustrator Beatrix Potter (1866–1943) for The Tale of The Flopsy Bunnies.
Presented to the Museum by Beatrix Potter's executor in 1946, they illustrate the story of Peter Rabbit's sister, Flopsy and her family and how they narrowly escaped being eaten by Mr McGregor.
Explore the life and work of this great writer and illustrator, including details of a Museum visit in 1903.
A wealthy upbringing
Beatrix Potter was born and raised in London, the eldest child of parents who had both inherited Lancashire cotton fortunes. Her father Rupert, a qualified barrister, married her mother Helen in 1863. They left their family roots in the industrial Midlands to live in a large house in the exclusive area of South Kensington, London. It was here, at number two Bolton Gardens, that Beatrix Potter was born in July 1866 and raised in an affluent Victorian household complete with maids, cooks, butlers and nursemaids.
As the eldest child of the family, Potter's early life was solitary. Her brother Walter Bertram was six years her junior. Educated at home by a governess and cared for by nannies, she had few friends of her own age and lived a life of lonely privilege. She found comfort in her many pets (including mice, lizards and rabbits) and drawing. Often left to her own devices at home, especially after her brother was sent to boarding school, it was in the room on the third floor that served as her nursery, school room and later, studio, where Potter's imagination and artistic skills began to flourish.
Path to publication
By the age of 14, she had started a journal, written in code, to record her thoughts, ideas and sketches and kept it up until the age of 30. Her early sketches included detailed images of her pets and other animals. Her father, a talented amateur photographer, had friendships within the London art world including the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (1829–1896), whose family would holiday with the Potters in Perthshire, Scotland. Millais recognised Potter's talent, telling her: 'Plenty of people can draw, but you have observation.' With the encouragement of her father, Potter went on to study at the National Art Training School in London (now the Royal College of Art).
This artistic training, coupled with her close study of nature, was vital to her later success as an author and illustrator. During the 1880s, Potter began making Christmas cards for relatives and with the support of her uncle, at the age of 23, she sent her drawings to the publishers Hildesheimer & Faulkner. The publishers took the designs for £6 (equivalent to around £700 today) and requested more. Potter had secured her first commercial publication marking the start of her career as an illustrator.
Women in Victorian society
Although afforded greater opportunity and independence thanks to her social standing, Potter still had to overcome the male-dominated nature of Victorian society. She struggled, for example, to have her scientific observations on fungi and lichens – which grew from making detailed drawings of them under the microscope – taken seriously by the authorities at Kew Gardens and was treated unfairly by the Linnean Society of London when submitting a scientific paper which went unpublished – at the time women were not admitted as members.
Unlike most women of her class, she did not marry in her 20s. It was not until her late 30s that she fell in love with Norman Warne, her editor at his father's publishing company, Frederick Warne & Co, which specialised in children's books. In 1900, the publisher, along with five others, declined to take up Potter's first book proposal for The Tale of Peter Rabbit, a story which originated from an illustrated letter she had written seven years earlier to the children of her former governess, Annie Carter Moore.
Unperturbed, Potter privately published her book, which sold well, with buyers including the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Aware of the success, Frederick Warne & Co changed their minds and published the book in 1902. They wisely adopted the author's small-scale format for the book that encouraged children to hold it in their hands and pore over the detailed and brightly coloured illustrations accompanying the text. The first of 23 books in all, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was an immediate success selling 50,000 copies in a year. Potter also proved herself to be an astute businesswoman, patenting a Peter Rabbit doll and an array of merchandise, from wallpaper to tea sets, decorated with the animal characters from her books.
The commercial success made her and her publishers wealthy, and it led her professional relationship with Norman Warne to blossom into love. But tragically they never married as Warne died in 1905 just one month after their engagement. Potter would wear her engagement ring until she died.
Visiting the British Museum
At the age of 37, the year after The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published, Beatrix Potter applied for a British Museum library reader's ticket. This would have given her access to the Museum's library collections for six months.
Senior Museum Archivist Francesca Hillier describes the Museum Potter would have visited in 1903: 'Although the Reading Room is largely unchanged since Potter first visited, the area surrounding it is quite different today. Where we now have the Great Court, with its impressive, glazed roof, there was once the Iron Library. This large oblong structure had many metres of shelving for book storage and was accessible via the Reading Room's balcony 'secret' doors.'
Access to the Reading Room was via a corridor leading from the Front Hall, and once there, Potter would have been free to request any book and take her place at one of the leather-clad desks. 'She was one of many well-known writers and artists who visited around this time, including Bram Stoker and Vladimir Lenin, and who knows whom she may have encountered when visiting the Reading Room?'
In 1903, following the success of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, came The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, a story about a red squirrel's narrow escape from an owl called Old Brown. During a great period of creativity, fourteen more tales followed in just seven years.
These stories included the adventures of Peter's cousin, Benjamin Bunny, named after one of her pet rabbits, and the father to the Flopsy Bunnies. Most of the books that followed were about other creatures - mice, frogs, kittens, ducks, badgers and foxes – but the rabbit stories were some of the most popular.
The Tale of The Flopsy Bunnies
In 1909, Potter returned with a degree of reluctance – due to wanting to develop other animal characters – to the rabbits that made her name and remained a favourite with her readers. She did so through the character of Benjamin Bunny, in The Tale of The Flopsy Bunnies. In this story, Benjamin has grown up and married Peter's sister Flopsy. Very 'improvident and cheerful', Flopsy and Benjamin have a large family of children called the Flopsy Bunnies. The story opens by introducing the family and the fact that eating lettuces has a sleep-inducing effect on rabbits – illustrated here with the bunnies asleep in a lettuce patch.
When preparing this book, Beatrix Potter was staying with her uncle and aunt at Gwaynynog, a large house in Wales, where she made many studies of the garden. She had described it on an earlier visit as 'the prettiest kind of garden, where bright old-fashioned flowers grow amongst the currant bushes.' It was the inspiration for the garden seen in The Tale of The Flopsy Bunnies.
The Tale of The Flopsy Bunnies 2
The watercolour pictured illustrates an escape scene from the story. As Benjamin and Mrs Tittlemouse are chatting to one another, local farmer Mr McGregor dumps grass clippings on them and the sleeping bunnies. Mr McGregor sees an ear twitch under the grass and puts the six sleeping little Flopsy Bunnies in a sack. He leaves it on the wall while he goes to put away the mower. Fortunately, Mrs Tittlemouse manages to nibble a hole in the sack and free the Flopsy Bunnies who put six rotten vegetables in their place to fool Mr McGregor that he has captured the plump baby rabbits. Later, Benjamin, Flopsy and their family listen delightedly as Mrs McGregor shouts angrily at her husband believing he has deliberately played a trick on her.
While Beatrix Potter drew colourful images of her animals and gave them characteristics of people, she also acknowledged the difficult realities of the natural world. Generations of children have been terrified by Mr McGregor who comes so close to ending the lives of the young rabbits – although all that is shown of him in the illustrations in terms of close-ups are his stout boots and hands as otherwise he is a distant bearded figure dressed in green. 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.
Motivated by her love of animals and the natural world, Potter used the money earned from her books to purchase land in the Lake District, including Hill Top farm in Near Sawrey, Cumbria. She lived in this area for the rest of her life.
It was here Potter met her future husband William Heelis, a solicitor who helped her buy land in the area. Married in 1913 when Potter was 46, the couple farmed sheep and shared a passion for the conservation of local land. Potter worked closely with the National Trust helping them manage and buy land with the proceeds of her work. Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of three founders of the National Trust, was a close friend.
Potter's later life saw her depart from writing to focus on her work relating to land sustainability and conservation. She and William enjoyed thirty years of marriage living a simple life in Near Sawrey, uninterested in the trappings of wealth.
On 22 December 1943, Beatrix Potter passed away at the age of 77 leaving 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust, along with 14 farms, which amounted to nearly all her property. Today Hill Top is open as a museum, left exactly as it was when she lived there.
See Potter's work
There were 32 drawings for The Tale of The Flopsy Bunnies in Potter's will, which were presented to the British Museum in 1946. The group consists of 28 watercolours reproduced for the front cover and the illustrations beside the text, along with four preliminary studies for them, two of which are executed entirely in pen. They're something of an exception in the Museum's graphic collection as book illustrations have never been the focus for collecting, but such was the fame and quality of Beatrix Potter's drawings that they were gratefully accepted and have featured in two recent external exhibitions of her work.
Like the majority of the works on paper collection, they're not on permanent display to avoid the watercolour fading but are available to view by appointment in the Prints and Drawings study room once it reopens. View a selection in the online gallery below.
Both Hill Top and the Victoria and Albert Museum also have drawings by Beatrix Potter and the National Portrait Gallery have photographs taken by her father including portraits of Beatrix and her brother.