Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 13, 2013

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life

I just heard Marta McDowell talk about her new book, BEATRIX POTTER’S GARDENING LIFE, at the Odyssey Bookshop (which just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary). Marta McDowell, who wrote an earlier book about Emily Dickinson’s gardens, spoke about how she grew up without reading about Peter Rabbit or Jemima Puddle-duck, but hearing intriguing bits of her biography as an adult, and stopping to see Potter’s Hill Top farm on a trip to the Lake Country, was drawn in. She focused on the backgrounds of many of Beatrix Potter’s illustrations to identify the particular vines on walls or vegetables in characters’ baskets, showing us slides of illustrations beside photographs from actual plots and pathways. She pointed out things a less botany-focused person would miss. For instance, while looking at a photograph of Beatrix Potter holding her pet rabbit, I noted dress, posture, and expression, while Marta McDowell pointed out the wire mesh protecting the plants behind them. She inventoried Mr. McGregor’s shed.  Throughout her talk about a book that was clearly a labor of love, we got a sense of how the scarcity of gardens in Potter’s childhood reflected some bleakness, while she finally found joy as an adult buying property where she could not only garden but farm. There would be plenty of fruit trees.

Beatrix Potter Gardening Life

I’ve only dipped into the book I brought home, but I can see the focus on garden is kept with a sentence such as “The garden that they might have planted together was not to be.” This is in reference to Beatrix Potter’s first editor and first love, Norman Warne, who is shown lined up with four smiling siblings, all balancing on bicycles with arms criss-crossing to hold the other’s handlebars. I look forward to reading, but am riveted by the generous amount of astonishing pictures in this book  – many of Beatrix Potter’s watercolors (Marta McDowell said she painted the backgrounds for the books first, then added the animal characters) and photographs of places where she lived. This colorful book can get gardeners, or anyone, through a winter (and, local friends, signed copies are available at the Odyssey). I want to show you all the gorgeously reproduced preliminary and finished sketches executed with Potter’s delicate but certain hand, and photographs of blackberries, gates, snowdrops, roses, robins, frost, sheep, mushrooms, and much more, but until you have the book in hand can only suggest you take a peek at some from this blog from a National Trust teamThe photograph by Dayve Ward with the rainbow and birds over Hill Top is shown in the book as a dazzling two page spread.

And now I’m going to read.



  1. Thank you for this, Jeannine. What a marvelous topic! I wish Marta McDowell continued success in her writing life.

    • She is clearly full of passion for her subject, which she’d have to be. Research included four (if you include the first inciting one) trips to England and making sure every single plant mentioned was documented. But she keeps the Latin names to the back (B. Potter she says preferred the old-fashioned names). And Marta McDowell is already busy on her next.

  2. So excited to hear about this book! Must add it to my holiday wish list. 🙂

  3. Yes I think you would love this, so rich with pictures, and an intimate feeling that never pries or oversteps bounds. The author apologizes in the intro for following 21st century convention and calling her subject by her first name, then leaves the heavy lifting to Linda Lear, whose tome inspired her, and other biographers she cites. The connection with plants tell enough — or almost. I have more to read, but suspect you might want to get just a peek at what’s on the kitchen table. But that’s a good kind of lingering curiosity — we are clearly in her home.

  4. The book sounds lovely, Jeannine. I read a biography of Beatrix Potter long ago and still remember the bits about her loneliness and then the first showing of her work to (I think) that editor. I think I must find this book & renew my love of those little animals and that talented woman.

    • I, too, read a biography long ago — I think it was Margaret Lane’s — and was riveted by the story of a girl who brightened her lonely days by bringing in animals to the attic, who later privately published a book on her own terms — small enough to fit in a child’s hands — went through a crisis of love in her 40s and found a new love later and a happy life farming sheep and saving land. Marta McDowell’s is the pefect way back into that story — the photographs of Beatrix looking happier and less restrained over the years gives the simple outline. And Beatrix Potter is such a wonderful mix of storyteller, artist, and scientist!

  5. Lovely to find new interest in Beatrix Potter’s life, but I need to add that Margaret Lane made most of it up in her 1943 “ladies biography.”. I tried to correct that erroneous “lonely little girl picture” in my 1998 biography “Beatrix Potter a Life in Nature” (St. Martin’s Press) and it is not a “tomb”– but a life of a genius who was so much more than a children’s book writer and illustrator. Potter was a first rate botanist, botanical artist, natural scientist,and sheep breeder. At the end of her life she accomplished the unthinkable: the conservation of the vast English Lake District by her largesse and care for the countryside. Marta McDowell’s book on her gardens is a wonderful addition to part of that story and it is a beautiful book I’m proud to have encouraged and to promote.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting. Marta showed a picture of your biography when talking about inspiration and acknowledged the crucial support of your research. I read your great biography of Rachel Carson some time ago. There are few in the world who did so much for nature as Carson, but I can see Beatrix Potter shared her status as genius. I doubt I’ll change my mind that Rachel Carson got the better mother, but I look forward to reading and sharing your biography. Thank you for your wonderful work!

  6. I’ve always longed to see more of the creative genius of Beatrix Potter. It takes a one-of-a-kind biographer, like Linda Lear, to have brought her to the attention of a world curious about her method and her determination. Because Potter certainly had both. I think this new look at the melding of her diverse interests brings us closer to understanding the botanist, the writer, and the woman who took a leading part in conserving the beautiful accuracy behind Peter Rabbit and friends. She used her talent to preserve it for the rest of us.

    • Beautifully stated. Thank you for that, Sherri. I think “the beautiful accuracy” is what I love most in her paintings, and sets them apart from other animals in human clothing. And the long sentences with long words she expected children to follow, and they did and do. She is up there with my other favorite nature-lover (who is said to have spent two years studying real spiders before creating Charlotte) and writer, E.B. White.

    • Also thank you for convincing me to take Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, which my husband gave me when it first came out, off my shelf, and move beyond those delicious endpapers with copies of one of Potter’s delightfully illustrated letters. But I first must finish Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. Loving her fictional 19th century moss specialist, but this real life should be a perfect follow-up.

  7. Jeannine you are a reader and writer after my heart. I’m plowing through Gilbert’s book too. Many similarities between her heroine and Beatrix Potter’s real life. She wrote a scientific paper on the reproduction of fungi spores and really was the first in Britain to understand symbiosis, but she couldn’t give her paper at the all-male Linnean Society and realized she’d never be accepted in the professional botanical world and so turned to scientific illustration, to painting fungi., and by accident writing letters to children. She also was among the first to discover penicillin and to understand it. The Linnean Society has since (2008) apologized for their sexist treatment of BP, but sadly her paper has been lost.
    Gilbert is one to a whole world of lost female naturalists. Thank you for your lovely blog.

    • Thank you for this. I knew about Beatrix Potter’s interest in fungi, but didn’t know she was first to discover penicillin. Amazing. Glad Linnean Society apologized. Sorry it was rather late. And love how Potter didn’t stop but made her own wonderful path.

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