By Rudolf Schmid

Published in Taxon 48: 438-443 (May 1999)

        Findlay, W. P. K. (Walter Philip Kennedy). Wayside and woodland fungi. "With 59 [plus fp.] colour illustrations of fungi by Beatrix Potter, 28 by R. B. Davis and 20 by E. C. Large. There are also 19 black and white photographs and 8 line drawings." 1967. Frederick Warne, London (series: Wayside and woodland series, unnum.). xi, 202 pp., 50 pp. pls. (most col.), col. fp., text ill. (B&W), ep. ill., no ISBN (HB). [Contents: list ill.; fungi (F), man; nature, naming F; role of the amateur in mycol.; coll., ID F; ecol., habitats; class.; 11 groups F; biblio.; glossary; index.]
        Jay, Eileen; Noble, Mary & Stevenson Hobbs, Anne. A Victorian naturalist: Beatrix Potter's drawings from the Armitt collection. 1992. F. Warne & Co., Penguin Group, London. 191, [1] pp., ill. (most col.), ISBN 0-7732-3990-8 (HB), £25.00. [With "new reproductions of Beatrix Potter's book illustrations" (t.p. verso). Contents: Jay on BP and the Armitt Collection; Jay on BP's archaeol.; Noble on BP and Charles McIntosh, naturalists; Stevenson Hobbs on BP's sci. art; indices. For review see M. J. Richardson, Bot. J. Scotland 46: 512-513.]
        Potter, Beatrix. Beatrix Potter's Americans: Selected letters. Ed. by Jane Crowell Morse. 1982. The Horn Book, Park Square Bldg., Boston, MA 02116, USA. xvi, 216 pp., ill. (most col.), ISBN 0-87675-282-2 (HB). [Contents: intro; letters June 1921-Nov. 1943; biblio.; index. No botany noticed.]
        Potter, Beatrix. Beatrix Potter's letters. Selected and intro. by Judy Taylor. Oct. 1989. Frederick Warne, Penguin Group, London. 478 pp., [8] pp. pls. (col.), text ill. (B&W), ISBN 0-7232-3437-X (HB). [Contents: intro; letters Apr. 1883-Dec. 1943; biblio.; index. Ca. 400 letters from over 1400.]
        Potter, Beatrix. The journal of Beatrix Potter, 1881-1897. Rev. "complete edition transcribed from her code writings by Leslie Linder." Oct. 1989. Frederick Warne, Penguin Group, London. xxviii, 468 pp., [8] pp. pls. (B&W, col.), text ill. (B&W), ISBN 0-7232-3625-9 (HB). [Ed. 1 1966, The journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881 to 1897, Ibid., xxix (incl. 2 foldouts), 448 pp., [[68]] pp. pls. (B&W, col.), text ill. (B&W, 2 foldouts), w/ an appreciation by H. L. Cox. Contents ed. 2: J. Taylor on Leslie Linder and BP (new to ed. 2); Linder on the code-writing; ill. fam. trees; diary 1881-Jan. 1897; memories of Camfield Pl.; a fragment written in Sawrey; index.]
        Taylor, Judy. Beatrix Potter: Artist, storyteller and countrywoman. Oct. 1986 (1987 corr. reissue). Frederick Warne, Penguin Group, London. 224 pp., [12] pp. pls. (col.), col. fp., text ill. (B&W), ISBN 0-7232-3314-4 (HB), price unknown, ISBN 0-7232-4175-9 (PB), £14.99. [Contents: list ill.; 7 chaps. w/ flowery titles; biblio.; index.]
        Note: I give prices only if I know items to be in print. Address: Frederick Warne, Penguin Group, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, UK ( In 1983 Penguin acquired Frederick Warne & Co., known mainly for its Beatrix Potter books.

I filched the subtitle and subsubtitle from Dr. Roy Watling FLS. On 24 April 1997 at the Linnean Society of London he gave the subtitular and subsubtitular talk, which certainly must have been titillating. As a FLS, I periodically get from the Linnean Society these delightful announcements printed on thick colored paper stock. I momentarily regret that I can't just pop over on the Concorde for an intriguing talk, and then I cut the card in half along the shorter dimension to use for scrap paper for my more important memos. I don't know exactly what Dr. Watling was going to say, and I can't offer you afternoon tea (well, I can if you come to Berkeley, but I may be back to drinking coffee then). However, I suspect his talk and my comments (which I did mostly for the Feb. 1991 Taxon but never completed) are another case of parallel evolution. At any rate, here too there is "admission free."

Helen Beatrix Potter (28 July 1866-22 Dec. 1943), of course, is the celebrated illustrator and author of children's books, most notably on Peter Rabbit and other animals (23 stories published 1901-30, plus 4 posthumously). Not surprisingly Potter has received almost no mention in Taxon (e.g., 41: 802, 43: 155, 45: 152, 45: 601), although she is of some importance to considerations of Victorian botany and the role of women in science.

As a young girl, Potter became interested in photography and natural history, especially fungi, lichens, bryophytes, and animals. She made many excellent paintings of these subjects, aided not only by natural talent but also by a photographer's eye. While doing her paintings of fungi and lichens, Potter started to make scientific observations on them, including germination of fungal spores and the symbiotic nature of lichens. With the influence of Sir Henry E. Roscoe, her "Uncle Harry," who was a distinguished chemist knighted for his scientific work, Potter tried to establish contact with various zoologists and especially botanists. However, as exemplified below, she was repeatedly snubbed by numerous biologists as she tried to promote her scientific ideas, not only because her radical botanical views conflicted with conventional wisdom, which questioned the lichen symbiotic relationship proposed by Simon Schwendener (Ueber den Bau des Flechtenthallus, Verh. Schweiz. Naturf. Ges. Aarau, vol. 88, 1867--e.g., James M. Crombie in 1874 had ridiculed the symbiosis as an "unnatural union between a captive Algal damsel and a tyrant Fungal master"---Gilpatrick 1972: 41), but also because she was a woman. Biologists would either dismiss her science brusquely or, if they tried to be polite, would circumvent the issue by commenting on peripheral aspects such as her exquisite drawings or her pretty bonnets. Eventually with her uncle's scientific input, Potter completed a paper. "On the germination of the spores of Agaricineæ" was presented to the prestigious Linnean Society (Proc. Linnean Soc. London 1896-97: 11, Oct. 1897), with two ironies: on 1 April 1897, and by the mycologist George Massee, because women were not allowed at the meetings of the Society. Potter withdrew the paper to strengthen its conclusions. She did more microscopic work, but never finished the revision. Unfortunately, only the title of her paper was published, not even an abstract as is the custom today. The manuscript itself, alas, appears to have been lost, possibly even destroyed.

It is not clear why Potter set aside the botanical paper, although she certainly must have tired of battling with the botanical establishment. Indeed there is a marked hiatus in various accounts of Potter's life for the 1897-1901 period. For instance, Taylor's biography cited above abruptly jumps from the April 1897 reading of Potter's paper to her involvement in 1900 in getting her writing published. Noble (p. 118, in Jay et al. 1992 cited above) writes: "It is tantalising that Beatrix Potter's journal [see above] finishes without explanation on 31 January 1897, just when her work with the fungi and lichens was coming to a climax, so we have no further information here on the 'trouble about the paper'" (the last quote appears in a 22 Feb. 1897 letter to Charles McIntosh--see below).

After numerous rejections from publishers, Potter privately published her first book, The tale of Peter Rabbit, on 16 December 1901. On 2 October 1902 a revised trade edition by Frederick Warne finally appeared (incidentally, Potter first described the character in a 4 Sep. 1893, long story-letter to her little friend Noel Moore, eldest son of her former governess Anne Carter). The Peter Rabbit/Beatrix Potter phenomenon, which continues unabated today, had begun. On 25 July 1905 Norman Warne (1868-1905), youngest son in Frederick Warne & Co., the firm publishing Potter, proposed to her, but he died of pernicious anemia on 25 August 1905. After the events of summer 1905 Potter found solace in her writing and in her farm called Hill Top at Near Sawrey in the Lake District. On 14 October 1913 she married her solicitor William Heelis (he died on 4 Aug. 1945). Gradually, Potter gave up her artwork and writing as she became enmeshed in farming, in particular the breeding of Herdwick sheep. Potter never returned to botany. Nevertheless, literary accounts (see header and bibliography below) suggest that Potter's botanical frustration by fate seems reflected in some animal characters in her children's books. For instance, her exclusion from botany has been said to have a direct analogy to Peter Rabbit being chased out of Mr. McGregor's garden, that is, the garden of botany. [However, this seems retrospective or even deconstructionistic because the McGregor confrontation was based on a childhood incident that Beatrix and her brother Bertram had had.]

Potter's botanical artwork has been published in a variety of sources. Naturally selected paintings have appeared in various biographies of her (see head and references below), but two works are particularly complete (see header for bibliographic details):

Walter P. K. Findlay's Wayside and woodland fungi (1967--the book is out-of-print and surprisingly has not been reprinted) contains a color frontispiece plus 59 other color illustrations of fungi by Potter. Findlay, also the author of Fungi: Folklore, fiction, & fact (1982), wrote (p. xi): "the splendid but hitherto mostly unpublished paintings of fungi in their natural surroundings" were "not enough ... to illustrate the book entirely with her work" and had to be supplemented by 48 color illustrations from R. B. Davis and E. C. Large. My artist friend Suzanne Klein remarked that Potter's paintings have a "mystery and delicacy" not found in Davis's and Large's (all have botanical accuracy). Findlay has a six-page chapter entitled "The role of the amateur in mycology," with three pages devoted to Potter. Findlay concluded (p. 25): "But Beatrix Potter was more than an enthusiastic amateur collector and artist. She had the mind of a professional scientist and biologist--which is what she undoubtedly would have been had she lived in a later age; unless she had taken up archaeology in which she also took a very keen interest" (see Jay & Hall 1990, cited below, and Jay's chapter in Jay et al. 1992 just following).

Eileen Jay et al.'s A Victorian naturalist: Beatrix Potter's drawings from the Armitt collection (1992) has 169 (plus 3 vignettes) B&W and especially color illustrations of zoological, archeological, and mainly botanical subjects, mostly of non-vascular plants, particularly of fungi (plus 62 paintings, line drawings, and photos of other subjects). Anne Stevenson Hobbs's chapter "Beatrix Potter's scientific art" analyses her artwork from both a botanical and artistic perspective. Potter's "fungus painting spans the years 1887-1901, reaching a peak in 1893-97" (Stevenson Hobbs, p. 146, in Jay et al. 1992). Mary Noble's comprehensive chapter, much the longest in the book, elaborates the lengthy interaction of Potter with Scottish naturalist and mycologist Charles McIntosh (1839-1922) and offers much proof of the excellence of Potter's botany.

Incidentally, Potter drew most of the major groups of macrofungi, but her Victorian prudery found stinkhorns offensive. Her 10 December 1892 letter, written "in a very formal style" to Charles McIntosh mentions Phallus impudicus: "'Miss Potter trusts Mr McIntosh will never send a horrid plant like a white stick with a loose cap, which smells exactly like a dead sheep! She went to look at a fine specimen but could not find courage to draw it'" (M. Noble, p. 67 in Jay et al. 1992 cited above; also Letters, p. 19). Pegler et al. (p. 15, see entry in following review) also mention the Potter case as well as that of Etty Darwin, eldest daughter of Charles, who "would scour the local woods for stinkhorns and then bring them home to burn them 'behind closed doors.'"

The Beatrix Potter saga is actually quite valuable in giving us a picture of Victorian science and the status of women in it. This in particular, and an intimate view of upper-middle class life in late Victorian Britain in general, are revealed, because Potter from the ages of 15 to 30 kept a diary for just over 16 years, from 1881 to 31 January 1897. Although this was initiated as the typical endeavor of a somewhat withdrawn teenager, it covers Potter's fascination with natural history, especially fungi and lichens, and her contacts and frustrations with biologists until nearly the time when her 1 April 1897 paper was read to the Linnean Society. The diary was written in a complex letter/number-substitution code that was not cracked until 1958 by Leslie Linder (I am sure Ultra would have cracked the code sooner had the Nazis adopted Potter's code instead of their Enigma). The diary was finally published in 1966, and Linder's revised and somewhat expanded account in 1989 (see header), albeit with fewer illustrations. Potter's diary relates her trials and tribulations with professional biologists and is filled not only with many comments about her frustrations but also with some acrid portraits of her male chauvinist tormentors, for example:

Now these snide remarks may seem tame by the vulgar-language standards of today, and Beatrix certainly did not use profanity. However, for Victorian Britain the comments would have been scandalous indeed had they been published. In fact, in calling a spade a spade, Potter's diary, much more so than the published volumes of her letters (see header), is valuable in offering a counterpoint to sanitized versions written by members of the establishment, for example, Frederick Orpen Bower's (1855-1948) Sixty years of botany in Britain (1875-1935): Impressions of an eye-witness (1938).

Historians of biology will naturally want to mine extensively the published volumes of Potter's diary and letters (see header). Potter's foray into botany naturally has been discussed before, although almost entirely from the literary viewpoint. Besides Findlay's 1967 testimonial and the 1992 Jay et al. analyses mentioned above, an early excellent account emphasizing's Beatrix's botany rather than her bunny is Naomi Gilpatrick's 1972 popular article cited below. Recently, Ray Desmond (1995) briefly mentioned Potter in his history of Kew. Also recently, Ann B. Shteir (1996) analyzed the role of women in botany in England from 1760 to 1860 and epiloged on Potter (1866-1943) and paleobotanist and pioneering sex educator Marie Carmichael Stopes (1880-1958). "The rebuff to Beatrix Potter at Kew and the Linnean Society in 1896 and 1897 shows her to have been a late casualty to older ways in institutional botany" (Shteir 1996, p. 236), because significant changes were well underway regarding improved opportunities for women in science.

The literature on Beatrix Potter is considerable. For instance, MELVYL, the University of California's computerized library catalog, on 1 April 1999 listed 175 entries for author Beatrix Potter and 56 for subject Beatrix Potter. To flesh out this story of rabbit stew, I cite some general, mostly recent accounts on Potter:

  1. Bower, F. 0. 1938. Sixty years of botany in Britain (1875-1935): Impressions of an eye-witness. Macmillan and Co., London.
  2. Desmond, R. 1995. Kew: The history of the Royal Botanic Gardens. The Harvill Press, London, in assoc. w/ The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. [For review see R. Schmid, Taxon 45: 152.]
  3. Gilpatrick, N. 1972. The secret life of Beatrix Potter. Nat. Hist. 81(10): 38-41, 88, 90, 92-97, 109.
  4. Grinstein, A. 1995. The remarkable Beatrix Potter. International Universities Press, Madison, CT.
  5. Hawkesworth, J. 1980. The tale of Beatrix Potter. BBC-TV, London. [2 hour telecast, "based on the books of Margaret Lane."]
  6. Jay, E. & J. Hall. 1990. The tale of London past: Beatrix Potter's archaeological paintings: From The Armitt Collection, Ambleside. The Armitt Trust/Frederick Warne, London.
  7. Lane, M. 1978. The magic years of Beatrix Potter. Frederick Warne (Publishers), London.
  8. Lane, M. 1985. The tale of Beatrix Potter: A biography. [Rev. ed.] Frederick Warne, Harmondsworth. [Eds. 1-2 1946, 1968.]
  9. Linder, L. 1971. A history of the writings of Beatrix Potter, including unpublished work. Frederick Warne & Co., London.
  10. MacDonald, R. K. 1986. Beatrix Potter. Twayne Publishers, Boston (Twayne's English authors series, TEAS 422).
  11. Potter, B. 1972. The art of Beatrix Potter. [Rev. ed.] With an appreciation by A. C. Moore and notes by E. Linder & L. Linder. Frederick Warne & Co., London. [Ed. 1 1955.]
  12. Potter, B. 1989. Beatrix Potter's art: Paintings and drawings. Selected and intro. by A. Stevenson Hobbs. Frederick Warne, London.
  13. Shteir, A. B. 1996. Cultivating women, cultivating science: Flora's daughters and botany in England, 1760-1860. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. [For notice see Taxon 45: 601-602; for reviews see A. Pavord, Times literary supplement, 31 May 1996, p. 7, and L. Schiebinger, Nature 382: 683-684.]
  14. Taylor, J. 1987. That naughty rabbit: Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit. Frederick Warne, London.
  15. Taylor, J., J. I. Whalley, A. Stevenson Hobbs & E. M. Battrick. 1987. Beatrix Potter, 1866-1943: The artist and her world. F. Warne & Co., London, w/ The National Trust.
  16. Victoria and Albert Museum. 1985. Beatrix Potter: The V&A collection: The Leslie Linder bequest of Beatrix Potter material: Watercolours, drawings, manuscripts, books, photographs and memorabilia: Catalogue. Comp. by A. Stevenson Hobbs & J. I. Whalley, assist. by E. Stone & C. O'Malley. Ed. by J. I. Whalley. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and Frederick Warne, London.

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Last revised: January 2004