As Peter Rabbit and friends return in a brand new tale and on Royal Mail stamps, Nicholas Tucker remembers the writer, illustrator and sheep farmer
Beatrix Potter was a writer of strong contradictions. A keen business woman, the first author to license fictional characters to a range of toys and household objects still on sale today, she allowed herself to be short-changed over her royalties for years. She was an expert in natural history, boiling down animal corpses to extract their skeletons so she could understand their anatomy well enough to draw them, yet she wrote stories in which rabbits wear blue jackets and hedgehogs pinafores. A huge success, she turned her back on her literary achievements in middle age to pursue a career as a sheep-breeder.
She had a lonely home-bound childhood with parents intent on keeping her on as their companion, but she still managed to get engaged twice despite their disapproval. She lost her first fiance, Norman Warne, through his premature death and married her second, William Heelis, at 47. By then she had become as tough as the old boots she wore to sheep fairs or while working in her Lake District garden. Often seen in her oldest clothes, her resemblance to Mr McGregor, the distinctly unsmart gardener in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was sometimes remarked on locally.