Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Illustrator Beatrix Potter Self-Published Her First Book, “Peter Rabbit”

After her budding future as a scientist was stifled, the Victorian-era illustrator turned to children’s books.
by Rich Watson

At the turn of the twentieth century, Beatrix Potter had a promising future as an amateur scientific illustrator, with an emphasis on the study of fungi. As a woman in Victorian England, however, she could only pursue her craft so far.

Her fortune took a turn when she launched a career in children’s literature, beginning with her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

Beatrix Potter’s self-education in art

Potter was born in 1866 in West Brompton to a posh family. She and her brother Bertram had governesses to teach them. Bertram eventually went to boarding school.

The Potter children took not only to art but fairy tales and nursery rhymes. They’d study their many pets and illustrate classic children’s stories. 

They’d spend summers in Scotland, and later, the Lake District in Cumbria, and sketch there. 

Beatrix learned art from drawing manuals and the works of painters in galleries. Through the encouragement of acquaintances like painter John Everett Millais, she developed a critical eye.

Potter and mycology

Mycology is the study of fungi: 
  • molds, 
  • mildews, 
  • rusts, 
  • yeasts, and especially 
  • mushrooms.
As she got older, Potter’s interest in natural science and mycology in particular grew. At the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, she developed many botanical illustrations of fungi. The scientist Charles Macintosh, who Potter knew from her summers in Scotland, inspired her to refine her pictures further. She used a microscope and painted with watercolors.

According to the book Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear:
…[Potter] was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques. Unlike insects or shells or even fossils, fungi also guaranteed an autumn foray into fields and forests, where she could go in her pony cart without being encumbered by family or heavy equipment.
Despite her lack of an institutional education, she wrote a paper theorizing how fungi might germinate. In 1897, she submitted it, through the RBG’s assistant director, to the Linnean Society of London, a group devoted to natural history. 

The beginnings of Peter Rabbit

Potter switched to commercial illustration. She designed greeting cards and book and magazine art.

Annie Carter Moore, one of Potter’s governesses, had a son with whom Potter corresponded. In 1893, she wrote him an illustrated letter, weaving a story about a rabbit named Peter. It was likely inspired by her own pet rabbits, Benjamin Bouncer and Peter Piper. Seven years later, that letter was the basis for what would become her first children’s story.

Potter self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit for her family and friends in 1901, with her own illustrations. She took that route because she and the publishers didn’t see eye to eye:
According to The Telegraph, it was [Annie] Carter Moore who encouraged Potter to turn her story and its illustrations into a book. Initially, she attempted to go the traditional route and sent the book to six publishers, each of whom rejected it because Potter was insistent that the book be small enough for a child to hold while the publishers wanted something bigger (so that they could charge more money for it). It wasn’t a compromise that Potter was willing to make, so she took the matter into her own hands.
Hardwicke Rawnsley, an Anglican priest and family friend, saw the difficulty Potter had in attracting a publisher. He rewrote the text and sent it out again. Frederick Warne & Co. wanted to get in on the growing children’s book market, so after initially rejecting Peter, they gave it a second chance in 1902.

Potter in later years 

Warne published twenty-three of Potter’s children’s books, featuring Peter and other characters. Later in life, she bought farmland and bred sheep. She was also active in land preservation.

An exhibit of Potter’s nature artwork just completed a run at New York’s Morgan Library.



Did you read The Tale of Peter Rabbit as a child?


  1. I sure did read the book as a child (many times). Bravo to POTTER for staying true to herself about the book being small enough for a child to hold. CLASSIC TV FAN

  2. I wonder how many small prose books for children are out there.

  3. What an interesting story! I remember seeing only a sample of Peter Rabbit in a catalogue once as a child. I believe all the books were only published here after the movie came out.
    I took the self-publishing route with my most recent book as well, as I wanted to keep control over the illustrations and hired exactly the illustrator I wanted. I plan to publish it in English as well!

  4. Self-publishing today is easier than it was in Potter’s day. If control over the images was so important to you, that was probably a good idea, though I know here in America it’s hard for kiddie lit to go that route. Good to know you’ll have an English version too.