Today is the birthday (1866) of Helen Beatrix Potter, English author, illustrator, natural scientist, and conservationist best known for her imaginative children’s books featuring animals such as those in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which celebrated the British landscape and country life. Potter was born into a wealthy Unitarian family. She and her younger brother Walter Bertram (1872–1918) grew up with few friends outside their large extended family. Her parents were artistic, interested in nature, and enjoyed the countryside. As children, Beatrix and Bertram had numerous small animals as pets which they observed closely and drew endlessly. Summer holidays were spent away from London, in Scotland and in the English Lake District where Beatrix developed a love of the natural world which was the subject of her painting from an early age.
She was educated by private governesses until she was 18. Her study of languages, literature, science, and history was broad and she was an eager student. Her artistic talents were recognized early. She enjoyed private art lessons and developed her own style, favoring watercolor. She illustrated insects, fossils, archaeological artifacts, and fungi, along with her drawings of her animals, real and imagined.
In the 1890s, her mycological illustrations and research into the reproduction of fungus spores generated interest from the scientific establishment. Following some success illustrating cards and booklets, Potter wrote and illustrated The Tale of Peter Rabbit, publishing it first privately in 1901, and a year later as a small, three-color illustrated book with Frederick Warne & Co. She became unofficially engaged to her editor Norman Warne in 1905, despite the disapproval of her parents, but he died suddenly a month later of leukemia.
With the proceeds from the books and a legacy from an aunt, Potter bought Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey, a tiny village, then in Lancashire, in the English Lake District near Windermere, in 1905. Over the following decades, she bought additional farms to preserve the unique hill country landscape. In 1913, at the age of 47, she married William Heelis, a respected local solicitor from Hawkshead.
Potter was also a prize-winning breeder of Herdwick sheep and a prosperous farmer keenly interested in land preservation. She continued to write and illustrate, and to design spin-off merchandise based on her children’s books for Warne, until the duties of land management and her diminishing eyesight made it difficult to continue.
Potter published over 23 books; the best known are those written between 1902 and 1922. She died of pneumonia and heart disease on 22 December 1943 at her home in Near Sawrey at age 77, leaving almost all her property to the National Trust. She is credited with preserving much of the land that now makes up the Lake District National Park.
Often I try to dig a little deeper into lesser known aspects of the subject I am posting on, so I am going to leave Peter Rabbit behind and focus a bit on Potter’s interest in mycology. Few people know that she was quite the expert on fungi and well ahead of some of the leaders in the field in her day even though she was an amateur. Independently of German and English botanists she succeeded in germinating spores of a number of species. With the assistance of her uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe FRS, a renowned chemist, she got an introduction to George Massee, the mycologist at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Massee tried to dismiss her investigations, but in communicating with him she realized that her work was more advanced than his in the area of germination.
Her uncle suggested that she write a paper on her findings to present to the botanists at Kew, but she was hesitant as seen in her letter to William Thistleton-Dyer, director of Kew gardens:
I do not quite like to give the paper to Mr Massee because I am afraid I have rather contradicted him. Uncle Harry is satisfied with my way of working but we wish very much that someone would take it up at Kew to try it, if they do not believe my drawings. Mr Massee took objection to my slides, but the things exist, and will be all done by the Germans.
I am not sure whether it was her natural shyness, or her unwillingness to stand up – an amateur, and a woman to boot – before a group of skeptical men, but she backed out of presenting her work when offered the chance in December 1896. She did, however, see Thistleton-Dyer later, who proved to be patronizing and dismissive, and then visited Massee whom she said “had come round altogether and was prepared to believe my new thing.” Subsequently he was most supportive.
Her uncle then arranged to have her findings presented to the Linnean Society of London. He helped her with her writing and Potter wrote in her journal that he showed “a real interest in the business, and an immense amount of trouble in trying to understand the botanical part, and showing how to mend my Paper.” In February 1897 she wrote:
I have grown between 40 and 50 sorts of spore, but I think I shall send in only A. velutipes, which I have grown twice and Mr Massee has also grown according to my direction at Kew … but unless I can get a good slide actually sprouting it seems useless to send it to the Linnaean
A. velutipes is now designated as Flammulina velutipes but in Potter’s time went by the name Agaricus velutipes. (Agaricus was then used as the genus for mushrooms).
Massee submitted the paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae”, to the Linnean Society, which was a men-only affair, and was read on 1 April 1897 was the reading of the paper the word Agaricineae being another term for mushrooms. No one knows what the response to the paper was or where it ended up. There are no copies extant either in the Linnean’s archives or Potter’s private papers. No one even knows what the paper reported although there is still much speculation. Here is a gallery of Potter’s watercolors of fungi.
It would seem natural to present a recipe on mushrooms, of which I have a plethora. Yunnan, where I now live, is paradise for the mushroom cook, especially at this time of year. There are literally hundreds of types of wild and domesticated mushrooms available in local markets. Not a day goes by without me adding one or more kinds of mushroom to my dishes. No doubt Potter ate them too, although she does not mention them as food. She does, however, say that she was partial to hearty vegetable soups made with ingredients from her kitchen garden. In the end, though, I have settled on a classic Lake District lamb dish as a tribute to her labors as a sheep breeder.
The Lake District is noted for many delectable foods, some of which are hard to find outside the region. There is Kendal Mint Cake, Cumberland sausage, Grasmere gingerbread, cheeses galore, plus the famed Cumberland sauce. Here is Herdwick lamb cobbler which ought to be made with Herdwick lamb, (which Potter bred). The “cobbler” bit comes from the scones on top (please try to pronounce it /skonn/). I am dismayed to find I have yet to provide a recipes for scones: I will, eventually.
Herdwick Lamb Cobbler
2 lb shoulder of lamb, diced
1 onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, crushed and minced
2 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1 tsp fresh parsley, chopped
1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 tsp fresh oregano, chopped
salt and pepper
1 large leek, chopped
1 small turnip, peeled and diced
1 celeriac, peeled and diced
lamb or veal stock
1 oz pearl barley (optional)
2 oz plain flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
oil for frying
Gently sauté the herbs and vegetables in a deep, heavy skillet in a little vegetable oil until they have softened a little. Add them to a heavy-bottomed cooking pot.
Roll the lamb in the seasoned flour and brown on all sides. Add to the vegetables. Add the barley (if used). Cover with stock, bring to a gentle simmer, partly cover, and cook for 1 ½ to 2 hours, or until the lamb is tender. Watch the pot now and again, giving it a stir to avoid sticking, and topping with stock if it gets too dry. In the end the sauce should be quite thick.
Turn the meat and vegetables into an oven-proof casserole, dot with whole or halved scones and bake in a medium oven for about 15 minutes.
Serve with a pint of Jennings bitter (or any of the beers from Cumbria’s 30 breweries).