Attwell, Mabel Lucie (1879–1964)

views updated

Attwell, Mabel Lucie (1879–1964)

English artist, illustrator, and author of children's stories and verse. Born on June 4, 1879, in Mile End, London; died on November 5, 1964, in Fowey in Cornwall; ninth of ten children; attended Heatherley's and St. Martin's School of Art; married Harold Earn-shaw (an illustrator), in 1908; children: Peggy (b. 1909), Peter (b. 1911), and Brian (1914–1936).

At the height of her enormous popularity, British illustrator Mabel Lucie Attwell's trademark wide-eyed, chubby-kneed toddlers gained worldwide recognition. Fueled by the public's fascination with her colorful book illustrations, a huge industry of china, textiles, toys, dolls, and postcards was born. The round-faced tots, invariably two or three years old, even adorned the trenches of young British soldiers during World War I.

Attwell's childhood was not the ideal she often depicted in her illustrations. Born in Mile End, London, one of 10 children, she received a strict Victorian upbringing. Often overwhelmed by the size and exuberance of her family, she developed into a shy young girl, who neglected her schoolwork in favor of doodling on book covers and daydreaming. Her talent went virtually unnoticed until, at age 15, she amazed the family by receiving two guineas in payment from a publisher for a painting she submitted. After leaving school, she worked up the courage to take her portfolio to a London publisher, who surprised her with payment for some of the work. From then on, Attwell made a living from her drawing and saved enough to pay for formal art instruction. By 1905, she was illustrating books by May Baldwin, Mrs. Molesworth, Mabel Quiller-Couch , and others, usually providing between four and eight color plates for each volume.

While studying at St. Martin's School of Art, Attwell met and fell in love with fellow student Harold ("Pat") Earnshaw, a gifted artist specializing in pen and watercolor illustrations. The couple married in 1908 and settled in Dulwich, South London, where their three children were born. Daughter Peggy, born in 1909, became Attwell's inspiration for her archetypal toddler. A son Peter was born in 1911, and Brian followed in 1914. Marriage and children provided an environment in which Attwell blossomed both emotionally and professionally.

Some of her best-remembered illustrations were produced during this time for Cassell & Co. and Raphael Tuck & Son. For Cassell, she illustrated Grimm's Fairy Tales and Stories and Legends (both in 1910). For Raphael Tuck, Old Rhymes (1909), Mother Goose (1910), Alice in Wonderland (1911), Grimm's Fairy Stories (1912), Our Playtime Picture Book (1913), Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales (1914), The Water Babies (1915), Children's Stories from French Fairy Tales (1917), and Baby's Book (1922). Individual stories from these books were reissued separately in the 1920s and 1930s, especially those by Andersen and Grimm.

Attwell illustrated two gift books for Hodder & Stoughton, Peeping Pansy (1918) by Marie of Rumania , who also hosted Attwell's four-week stay at the Royal Palace at Bucharest, and Peter Pan and Wendy (1921) by J.M. Barrie, who was a great admirer of her work. In 1922, The Lucie Attwell Annual was launched and survived for half a century, undergoing occasional title changes.

In 1932, shortly after Attwell and her family moved to a new country home at West Dean in Sussex, her husband was taken seriously ill; he would die four years later. In 1934, her youngest son died unexpectedly of pneumonia. Despite these losses, Attwell continued her work, and in 1937 was honored with Royal patronage when she was asked to design a special Christmas card for Princess Margaret Rose . Attwell china was also ordered for the nursery of Princesses Elizabeth (II) and Margaret. Years later, Prince Charles would request her china in a nursery for his children.

Attwell spent the last 20 years of her life at Fowey in Cornwall, where she died on November 5, 1964. Her world of children is still admired by people of all ages throughout the world. She has been likened to the character of Peter Pan, who never grew up. Wrote Mary Anne Field : "Hers was a world peopled by children whose innocence, laughter and love dispel the reality. She saw the child in the adult and then drew the adult as a child."


Dalby, Richard. The Golden Age of Children's Illustration. NY: Gallery Books, 1991.

Field, Mary Anne. "The Cherubic Children of Mabel Lucie Attwell," in This England. Autumn 1989.

suggested reading:

Beetles, Chris. Mabel Lucie Attwell. London: Pavilion Books.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts