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Tales from Beatrix that shaped our childhood

12:00am | & News

A new set of stamps issued by Royal Mail this week celebrates the life and work of one of Britain's most enduring and endearing authors, Beatrix Potter.

Although written in the early 1900s, her series of 23 timeless and charming children's books continue to sell in their millions around the world, translated into countless languages. The first and best known of the series, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, has sold more than 40 million copies alone.

The books, which tell the stories of various small animals and their adventures, are especially popular in Japan, where their use in teaching English to young children has captivated generations of young learners.

The new stamps feature six of her favourite characters – Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Squirrel Nutkin, Tom Kitten, Benjamin Bunny and hedgehog Mrs Tiggy-Winkle. As well as a great storyteller, Potter was also a skilled artist who illustrated her own books, and the images on the stamps are her own drawings. Their launch marks the 150th anniversary of Potter's birth, with the Royal Mint also issuing a commemorative 50p coin. 

Born to wealthy parents in the London borough of Kensington on July 28th, 1866, Potter was educated at home by a series of governesses and grew up largely isolated from other children. She and her younger brother, Bertram, had several pets which would inspire her later writing. She also enjoyed family holidays to Scotland and the Lake District, where she developed a love of nature and the countryside.

Both her parents were artistic and young Beatrix inherited their talent and love of painting, focusing particularly on plants and fungi, in which she became expert. She also enjoyed sketching and painting small animals, often dressing them in clothing such as capes and hats and giving them human traits.

By her late 20s Potter was a prolific letter writer who particularly enjoyed writing to children, especially those of her last governess, often illustrating her letters with quick sketches. It was while on holiday in Scotland in 1893 that she wrote just such a letter to her former governess's eldest son, Noel, telling the story of four rabbits named Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.

It was the earliest incarnation of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, although it wasn't published as a book until seven years later. Even then it was only in a very limited print run for family and friend, self-published by Potter at her own expense after the work was rejected by several publishers. It was a family friend who then took the self-published book around the London publishing houses, eventually persuading Frederick Warne & Co to give it a proper print run.

Despite having previously rejected the work, the publisher was keen to break into the booming market for small format children's books and decided to take a chance on "the bunny book". It was a gamble the publishing house would never regret! When it was finally published in October 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter, became an immediate hit.

It was followed the next year by The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester, both adapted from Potter's earlier picture letters, with the author then producing two or three stories per year for her now eager publisher.

A canny businesswoman, in many ways ahead of her time, Potter also realised the potential of "merchandising" and many other products based on her books were made and sold, including character dolls, wallpaper, painting books, china tea sets and board games.

She used the income from her work to pursue her love of country life, buying Hill Top Farm in the Lake District village of Near Sawrey, close to Hawkshead. Here she bred the local Herdwick Sheep, which had been threatened with extinction due to the rise of other non-native but more profitable breeds. Over the following decades she bought other farms in the district, determined to preserve the unique Lakeland landscape.

On her death in 1943, at the age of 77, she left almost all her land to the National Trust and is credited with conserving much of the landscape which is now the Lake District National Park, as well as saving the Herdwick sheep. Her home at Hill Top Farm is preserved just as she would have known it, run as a museum by the National Trust and attracting thousands of Beatrix Potter fans every year.

Those fans have another treat in store later this year, when a 24th Beatrix Potter book will be published. The previously unpublished manuscript for The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots was only discovered last year in the Victoria and Albert Museum archive. It will be published on September 1st, with illustrations by Quentin Blake.

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