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How Peter Rabbit Came to Be

How Peter Rabbit Came to Be

Though it’s been more than one hundred years since her illustrated stories first delighted and entertained, Beatrix Potter’s works are still loved around the world. In celebration of her newest story, let’s see how her tales (and their tails) came into being…

Image: Frederick Warne archive

Helen Beatrix Potter was born on 28 July, 1866. The Potters lived in a large house in a London square, and Beatrix was brought up by a number of governesses. She and her brother spent most of their time in the schoolroom on the third floor of the house.

Image: Victoria and Albert Museum

From a young age, Beatrix showed a keen interest in art. Her parents liked to paint and they encouraged their children to do the same – Beatrix’s younger brother Bertram in fact grew up to become an accomplished landscape painter. For Beatrix they arranged for a drawing teacher to come to the house.

Image: Victoria and Albert Museum

Beatrix and her brother kept several pets in their schoolroom – rabbits, mice, birds, a bat, a frog, lizards, a terrapin, and even a snake. Two rabbits in particular were her favourites. The first was called Mr. Benjamin Bouncer, a rabbit with personality who enjoyed buttered toast and peppermints. The second was Peter Piper who, as Peter Rabbit, would be the hero of her first book. Beatrix taught herself a lot about drawing by studying her pets’ anatomy and behaviour and completing detailed sketches.

Image: Linder Trust

Beatrix often gave her pictures of Peter, Benjamin and others as presents to loved ones. She also sent illustrated letters to the children of family and friends, with news of her pets. Young Freda Moore was told, “My rabbit is so hot he does not know what to do with himself. He has such thick fur, I think he would be more comfortable if he had a little coat” which he could take off if he got too warm.

In 1890, Beatrix sold six rabbit designs for £6, to be used in greetings cards. The printer of the cards, Hildesheimer & Faulker, soon asked for more. Beatrix Potter’s rabbits also featured in A Happy Pair, a booklet with illustrations by Beatrix and verse by Frederick E. Weatherly. Beatrix began to wonder whether she should write her own stories.

Image: Frederick Warne archive

In September 1893, while Beatrix Potter and her rabbit Peter Piper were on holiday in Scotland, a little boy she knew in London had a long-term illness. To cheer him up Beatrix sent him a letter that told a story about Peter. She wrote, “My dear Noel, I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were – Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.”

Image: Victoria and Albert Museum

The Peter Rabbit letter was a big hit with Noel and his family. As the years went by, Beatrix Potter’s success in selling her drawings made her think it might be possible to do her own illustrated book. In 1900 she borrowed the letter back from Noel and copied it out to make a little black and white book. She added bits here and there, prepared 41 new illustrations, and had 250 copies printed in time for Christmas 1901.

Image: Frederick Warne archive

Beatrix Potter’s good friend Canon Rawnsley had written several books for children. He was convinced that her story was worth publishing, and persuaded a publisher to look at it. Though they had previously rejected it, publisher Frederick Warne & Company decided that if Beatrix were willing to redraw all the pictures in colour they would take it on. She agreed and the following year, in October 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published commercially for the first time.

Image: Frederick Warne archive

Beatrix became a frequent visitor at her publisher’s offices, driving there in the Potters’ carriage and overseeing every detail of her book’s design and production. Warne printed 8,000 copies to go on sale in October 1902 and another 20,000 by Christmas. Beatrix wrote to Norman in amazement, “The public must be fond of rabbits! What an appalling quantity of Peter”.

Beatrix wanted her book to be small, “to fit into children’s hands, not to impress grown-ups”. Warne changed her format only very slightly, to 144 x 110mm. All 23 of Beatrix Potter’s Little Books are now that size.

Beatrix also wanted her books to be affordable for all readers – as she said, “all my little friends happen to be shilling people. The “shilling people” bought so many copies that Warne decided to put Peter on the front of their Christmas catalogue. The naughty rabbit was already their biggest star.

Image: Hulton Archives/Getty Images

 

Packed with detailed sketches of Beatrix Potter's best-loved characters, descriptions of each of the 23 "Little Books" she created, and a selection of gorgeous original illustrations, The Ultimate Peter Rabbit is the perfect guide for new and dedicated fans alike. Generous access to the Potter estate's archives has produced a volume which includes 300 artworks from the books and over 50 specially commissioned photographs of Beatrix Potter's English Lake District home, the inspiration for the bucolic settings of the long-adored children's classics.

Buy the book

Buy the book

The Ultimate Peter Rabbit The Ultimate Peter Rabbit

Packed with detailed sketches of Beatrix Potter's best-loved characters, descriptions of each of the 23 Read More

Packed with detailed sketches Read More

£14.99
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