On 150th Anniversary of Her Birth, Beatrix Potter’s Legacy Celebrated Worldwide

Beatrix Potter wasn't just an author and illustrator. She was a woman of many talents... IMAGE: EXPRESS NEWSPAPERS/GETTY IMAGES
Beatrix Potter wasn’t just an author and illustrator. She was a woman of many talents…
IMAGE: EXPRESS NEWSPAPERS/GETTY IMAGES

Her stories have enriched the lives of countless children. But arguably Potter’s greatest talent was for science – despite the scepticism of Kew’s botanists

Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of revered children’s author and illustrator, Beatrix Potter, celebrated worldwide for such beloved literary characters as Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-duck. In this celebration of her literary and artistic legacy, it is easy to forget she was a keen natural scientist.

Influenced by family holidays in Scotland, Potter was fascinated by the natural world from a young age. Encouraged to follow her interests, she explored the outdoors with sketchbook and camera, honing her skills as an artist, by drawing and sketching her school room pets: mice, rabbits and hedgehogs. Led first by her imagination, she developed a broad interest in the natural sciences: particularly archaeology, entomology and mycology, producing accurate watercolour drawings of unusual fossils, fungi, and archaeological artefacts.

Potter’s uncle, Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe FRS, an eminent nineteenth-century chemist, recognised her artistic talent and encouraged her scientific interests. By the 1890s, Potter’s skills in mycology drew Roscoe’s attention when he learned she had successfully germinated spores of a class of fungi, and had ideas on how they reproduced. He used his scientific connections with botanists at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens to gain a student card for his niece and to introduce her to Kew botanists interested in mycology.

Although Potter had good reason to think that her success might break some new ground, the botanists at Kew were sceptical. One Kew scientist, George Massee, however, was sufficiently interested in Potter’s drawings, encouraging her to continue experimenting. Although the director of Kew, William Thistleton-Dyer refused to give Potter’s theories or her drawings much attention both because she was an amateur and a female, Roscoe encouraged his niece to write up her investigations and offer her drawings in a paper to the Linnean Society.

In 1897, Potter put forward her paper, which Massee presented to the Linnean Society, since women could not be members or attend a meeting. Her paper, On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae, was not given much notice and she quickly withdrew it, recognising that her samples were likely contaminated. Sadly, her paper has since been lost, so we can only speculate on what Potter actually concluded.

Potter, who never had any ambition to become a professional mycologist, turned her attention to writing and illustrating stories and greetings cards. In 1901, she privately published a picture letter she had written to a young child, A Tale of Peter Rabbit. Frederick Warne & Co. bought and published the letter in colour the following year. Potter’s lasting contribution to art and story was thereafter assured.

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SOURCE: The Guardian