Outhwaite, Ida Rentoul (1888–1960)

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Outhwaite, Ida Rentoul (1888–1960)

Highly popular Australian children's fantasy illustrator who assisted in raising the status of illustration in her country and the quality of publishing for children. Signed work: I.S. Rentoul, I.S.R. Pronunciation: OOTH-wait. Born Ida Sherbourne Rentoul on June 9, 1888, in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; died in Melbourne on June 25, 1960; daughter of John Laurence Rentoul (a Presbyterian moderator-general and professor of theology) and Annie Isobel (Rattray) Rentoul (an amateur watercolorist); sister of Annie Rattray Rentoul (1882–1978); attended Presbyterian Ladies' College; married (Arthur) Grenbry Outhwaite, on December 9, 1909; children: Robert Rentoul (1910–1941); Anne Isobel Rentoul (b. 1911); Wendy Laurence Rentoul (b. 1914); William Grenbry Rentoul (1919–1945).

Published first illustrated stories (1903); began illustrating for magazines (1903); illustrated first book, Mollie's Bunyip, by A.R. and I.S. Rentoul (Melbourne 1904); began exhibiting in Australia (1907); published Elves and Fairies in Melbourne (1916); exhibited in Paris and London (1920); wrote and illustrated four

books (1928–35); earned last substantial commission for Legends From the Outback by P.M. Power (London, 1958).

Major works illustrated:

Tarella Quin's Gum Tree Brownie and Other Faerie Folk of the Never Never (Melbourne: G. Robertson, 1907); Annie R. Rentoul's The Lady of the Blue Beads (Melbourne: G. Robertson, 1908); Quin's Before the Lamps are Lit (Melbourne: G. Robertson, 1911); Annie R. Rentoul and Grenbry Outhwaite's Elves and Fairies (Melbourne: Lothian, 1916); Ida Rentoul Outhwaite and Grenbry Outhwaite's The Enchanted Forest (London:A&C Black, 1921); A.R. Rentoul's The Little Green Road to Fairyland (London: A&C Black, 1922); I.R. Outhwaite and Grenbry Outhwaite's The Little Fairy Sister (London: A&C Black, 1923); A.R. Rentoul, I.R. Outhwaite, and Grenbry Outhwaite's The Fairyland of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (Melbourne: Ramsay, 1926); I.R. Outhwaite's Blossom: a Fairy Story (London: A&C Black, 1928); I.R. Outhwaite's Bunny and Brownie (London: A&C Black, 1930); I.R. Outhwaite's A Bunch of Wildflowers (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1933); "Benjamin Bear" comic strip, Weekly Times (Sydney, 1933–39); Tarella Quin Daskein's Chimney Town (London: A&C Black, 1934); I.R. Outhwaite's Sixpence to Spend (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1935).

In September 1916, Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, a 28-year-old illustrator, witnessed the publication of her most ambitious project: Elves and Fairies. The book had been promoted, edited, and largely financed by her husband, the verse written by her sister and—the real draw—the full-page pictures, in watercolor and pen and ink, had been created by Ida. The originals of these pictures were exhibited at a Melbourne gallery and almost all sold in a matter of hours. Separate reproductions were produced and decorated the walls of kindergartens, schools and homes for decades afterwards. The four-color process used for Elves and Fairies had required the largest outlay known in Australian publishing history, but despite the consequently high price for a children's book, all 1,500 copies were quickly purchased. It was, in short, the most successful Australian art publication to date, much of its success due to timing. Ida Outhwaite's work tapped into a vogue for fairies; her illustrations, comprised of delicate forms and gracefully flowing lines, were influenced by art nouveau, a style then much admired, and employed by such well-known English illustrators as Arthur Rackham and Aubrey Beardsley; and, most important to the local audience, the pictures and verse depicted an Australian landscape and the book was an entirely Australian production.

Elves and Fairies can be seen as the pinnacle of Ida Outhwaite's long and highly productive career. She possessed abundant energy and an enthusiasm for drawing that lasted from her infancy to her final years. The history of her waxing and waning popularity is the history of changing tastes in children's literature and in art, and indicates the tenor of each new decade.

Ida Sherbourne Rentoul was born in 1888 into a well-educated, artistic family in Melbourne, in the colony of Victoria, Australia. She had a sister, Annie Rattray Rentoul , six years her elder, and two younger brothers. Her parents were prominent figures in Melbourne society. Her father, the Reverend John Laurence Rentoul, had immigrated from Ireland in 1879 with his English wife, Annie Isobel Rentoul , to take up a Presbyterian ministry and later to become the Presbyterian Church's moderator-general. He was also a professor of theology, a supporter of Australian Aboriginal rights, and the author of various books of verse. Ida's mother was a skilled watercolorist and reportedly helped Ida learn to draw. Both parents, creative and intellectually active, encouraged their children, and the family bustled with drawn, written, and play-acted productions. They lived at Ormond College at the University of Melbourne and annual holidays were taken by the beach or in the country. Outhwaite remembered that as a child she spent hours looking intently into the grass, watching the "tiny things that grew and crept there and tried to draw them afterwards." She had begun drawing birds and her toy animals and dolls from the age of two; she continued to draw throughout her early childhood.

When she went to school, at Presbyterian Ladies' College in Melbourne, she did reasonably well in her studies, particularly modern languages. She might have been a better student if she hadn't drawn figures in the margins of her school books and practiced making long, smooth dashes in ink during the dull moments of her lessons. She later maintained she was hardly ever caught. In a 1947 article for the Melbourne Art Training Institute, Outhwaite recalled: "It was when I was eleven that someone gave me a bottle of indian ink and some Gillot nibs and I discovered the bliss of working in black and white, which has always been and always will be my favourite medium."

Ida's pictures were tending towards fantasy figures; large-headed, thin-limbed goblins with simple, grinning faces and fairies with fluted gowns and butterfly wings. These were unmistakably creatures of the European (including the British) folkloric and illustrative tradition. Outhwaite enjoyed the drawings of British and continental illustrators—she said that as a child she "pored over" the works of Beardsley and Daniel Vierge. Elements of her drawing style were, even at this early stage, identifiably influenced by such artists—her use of decorative detail was Beardsley-like, for instance, and the idealized prettiness and stillness of her child and fairy figures was reminiscent of the work of the popular English children's illustrator Kate Greenaway .

This kind of influence was to be expected. While Outhwaite was growing up in Australia during the 19th century, the books available were, on the whole, European, and primarily British. There were few Australian publishing firms producing stories and picture books for children—they could not compete with the volume of high quality imports. A large proportion of these imports were fairy stories, then in fashion. The interest had gained its initial impetus from the translation of the Grimm brothers' stories in 1823 and those of Hans Christian Andersen in the 1840s. As the century progressed, more stories involving magic and legend were translated from various cultures. Writers in Britain began to investigate their local folklore and create their own stories. Illustrators of these fantastic tales added to the popular enthusiasm for fairies and their kin. Outhwaite had been told fairy stories when she was a child: "I think it was through Hans Andersen," she said, "that I first fell in love with Fairyland."

There was another influence. Alongside her fantasy figures, Outhwaite drew eucalyptus trees, kookaburras, kangaroos, and teddy-bearish koalas. Although she had first fallen in love with fairyland through Andersen's stories, "it was in the bush that I really met the fairies."

Rentoul, Annie Rattray (1882–1978)

Australian educator and writer. Born Annie Rattray Rentoul on September 22, 1882; died in 1978; daughter of John Laurence Rentoul (a Presbyterian moderator-general and professor of theology) and Annie Isobel Rentoul (an amateur watercolorist).

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite 's elder sister Annie Rattray Rentoul found a particular interest in classics and ancient languages. In 1902, she became the first student at Presbyterian Ladies' College (PLC) to take the classics exhibition. She went on to earn a first-class honors degree at the University of Melbourne in 1905 as well as winning the Wyselaskie Scholarship in Classics and Logic and sharing the Higgins prize for poetry. From 1913, Annie was a well-liked and inspiring teacher of classics, ancient history and English literature at PLC. In addition to teaching classes, she also organized the PLC library and spent much time with her students, arranging clubs and excursions, writing limericks for them, providing afternoon teas and a sympathetic ear for their problems.

Annie's many published fairy stories proved lastingly popular. The verses she wrote for Elves and Fairies and Fairy Land were not as well received—largely because, as reviewers recognized, she had written them not from her own inspiration, but in order to accompany her sister's pictures.

It was Annie that members of the Outhwaite family turned to in times of grief. She nursed her brother for years after his nervous breakdown and both her mother and her sister came to live with her when their husbands died. After retiring from PLC, she taught at Melbourne Grammar School between 1942 and 1945. She died, after living a generous life, at age 96 in 1978.

Rentoul, Annie Isobel (c. 1855–1928)

Australian artist. Born Anne Isoble Rattray in South America around 1855; died in Hawthorne, Melbourne, in 1928; married John Laurence Rentoul (a Presbyterian moderator-general and professor of theology); children: six, including Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888–1960) and Annie Rattray Rentoul (1882–1978).

Although little is known about Ida Rentoul Outhwaite 's mother, she was an artist in her own right. Born in England around 1855, she moved to Australia with her husband, the Reverend John Laurence Rentoul, in 1879. She was an amateur watercolorist and her interests lay in literature, art, and music rather than in the parish duties which at that time were the more usual occupation of a minister's wife. She and John had six children, two of whom died at an early age. Annie Isobel encouraged her daughters and sons in their artistic exploits. She and Ida collaborated in creating Mollie's Staircase in 1906. A writer for the Sydney Morning Herald said in 1917, Ida Rentoul's "mother is English; with an eye that can see the beautiful in art and a hand that can hold a pencil to illustrate it." When her husband died suddenly in 1926, Annie Isobel bought a house in Hawthorn, Melbourne, with her unmarried daughter, Annie Rattray Rentoul .

At about the age of 11, Ida received firm encouragement when a friend arranged to have a scene of hers reproduced in an English magazine. Over the next few years, she and various members of her family produced Christmas cards and illustrated serial stories for magazines. In 1904, when Ida was 16 and her sister Annie was 22, they published their first book, Mollie's Bunyip, a story about a small girl beckoned by the wind to explore the wilderness near her home. She becomes lost and only finds her way home the next day with the "gentle guiding," from a spirit of the bush, the Bunyip. Another story, Mollie's Staircase, followed in 1906, produced by Ida and her mother.

The Australian audience found these productions charming and whimsical, despite their clumsiness, and they sold well. Their popularity can be attributed partly to their being the creations of a well-known family, but the point most often commented upon by reviewers was their Australian content. Here were some works for Australian youngsters that portrayed the environment in which they were growing up.

There had been a gradual shift in the priorities of the expanding colonial community in the mid-19th century, from solely serving the empire to identifying local interests as well. A growing nationalism encouraged local artists. Painters such as Tom Roberts and others of the Heidelberg School of impressionists flourished, along with such writers as Henry Lawson, "Banjo" Paterson, and Miles Franklin , who contributed to defining national images and a national ethos. When Australia was federated in 1901, the enthusiasm for Australian symbols and a pride in local productions grew. It was not surprising that Outhwaite's work found a ready audience and that, encouraged by nationalistic praise, she continued to use Australian subject matter.

The striking thing about Mrs Outhwaite's pictures and her sister's verses is that they are Australian … and yet the fairies are fairies still.

Times Literary Supplement (1916)

During 1906 and 1907, Outhwaite was a regular illustrator for The Western Mail and The Native Companion. Her decorative vignettes showed a growing grasp of composition and a knack for drawing humorously as well as seriously. Some work by her and her sister was exhibited in the First Australian International Women's Exhibition, held in Melbourne in 1907. The sisters were commissioned to write and illustrate the stories of the pantomimes Humpty Dumpty in 1907 and then Peter Pan when it came to Melbourne in 1908. Outhwaite also had the pleasure of seeing her work come to life when she designed the costumes for Humpty Dumpty and several other children's plays and ballets.

The characters Outhwaite drew for the pantomime booklets were full of personality, and each scene filled the picture space solidly. Similar strengths were evident in her illustrations for Gum Tree Brownie and Other Faerie Folk by Tarella Quin, published in 1907. This was the first of many books that Ida and Quin completed together, within which Outhwaite did some of her most imaginative work. She felt that Quin's "ideas of weird beings were just what she had wanted to stimulate her imagination."

Outhwaite was a member of the Victorian Artists' Society in 1908 and 1909. It was one of the few prolonged contacts with other professional artists she made, for one of the main characteristics of her artistic career was the lack of formal training. It was this factor that reviewers most frequently blamed for the stiffness of Ida's figures and her overuse of formulas instead of obtaining variety and verve by drawing from life. Outhwaite appears later to have regretted the lack. "I just had to plod along without having any teaching, which was a pity. I should have been a much better artist if I could have studied more and amused myself less." At the same time, however, she had her own approach. She felt that imagination was highly important and this was best cultivated by "watching, always watching, and putting down impressions afterwards." Indeed, in her Who's Who in Australia entry she described her recreations as drawing, reading and "standing and staring."

When Ida was 21, she married Grenbry Outhwaite, a 34-year-old barrister and solicitor, on December 9, 1909. Many found the match improbable. One man recalled "wondering how such a great bullock of a man as A.G.O. could possibly have anything to say about fairies. He had a voice like a foghorn." Nevertheless, Grenbry was a patron of the arts and an experienced businessman who took the job of managing the promotion of Outhwaite's work, an aspect she preferred not to deal with. The couple had a son in 1910, and a daughter a year later. (Another daughter, Wendy, was born in 1914, and their last child, William, in 1919.) Despite these changes, Ida maintained her illustrating, though at a slower pace. "One's work must suffer," she told an interviewer for Women's World in 1923. "How can one remain really inspired when 'legof-mutton' matters constantly intervene." She was able, however, "to spend seven of her precious twenty-four hours in her tiny studio, nestled away in the quietest spot of a very beautiful garden." Having hired help eased the domestic workload. Over the next few years, Outhwaite painted a mural for a children's hospital ward, illustrated song books, drew for The Lone Hand from 1909, and illustrated another Quin story, When the Lamps are Lit, in 1911.

Outhwaite's style was now well defined and fairly fixed. Historian H.M. Saxby has said that art nouveau, strong in art and design in Europe, influenced most Australian artists from 1895 to 1905, and that some of them continued to use the style through the first decades of the new century. The emphasis on decorative, sinuous lines and typical and symbolic natural forms common to art nouveau was a strong part of Ida's work. Her reviewers often remarked on the influence of particular artists, particularly Beardsley, Rackham, and Edmund Dulac, but also recognized that her style was her own. One of the unique characteristics of her work was fastidious detail. She would create intricate silhouettes of trees and hills against a finely streaked night sky. One could see the roughness of bark, the delicate fronds of ferns, waves of countless tiny stars carrying a crescent-moon boat, and large portions of her landscapes were often filled with the leaves and flowers of minute vines. In a piece she wrote for young artists in 1947, Outhwaite noted: "There is something magical in seeing what you can do, what texture and tone and color you can produce merely with a pen point and a bottle of ink; to find out that wind can be suggested with a few long sweeping lines, and a quiet moony sky by a few straight ones round the outline of a halfpenny."

Some, including a reviewer for the Bulletin in 1923, felt that her "darkling backgrounds" were too ominous for children's stories, being "more suggestive of demon kings" than fairies and bluebirds. It was more generally agreed, however, that her pictures were far more gentle than the frequently grotesque distortions and alarming creatures rendered by Beardsley or Rackham.

The First World War curbed Ida's plans to exhibit in England, so she and Grenbry concentrated on launching her in Australia instead. Despite the shortages and preoccupations that attended a world war, Grenbry pushed through the triumphant publication of Elves and Fairies and, with the 1916 edition and 1919 reprint, found it welcomed by a British and American audience as well as an Australian one. Ida had found time to complete the 15 watercolors and 30 black-and-white illustrations in between contributing to group exhibitions to raise funds for the Red Cross. The proceeds from Elves and Fairies were also donated to the Red Cross.

The 1920s were Outhwaite's most productive years. She accepted a great many advertising commissions and contributed to exhibitions throughout Australia while also holding many solo exhibitions and illustrating more children's books, several of which she wrote herself. Despite the long hours, she and Grenbry enjoyed an active social life. Journalists were keen to obtain news and interviews from the famous illustrator many Australians considered "their own." Consequently, this period provides most of the rare glimpses of Outhwaite's personality and voice, for she left no personal papers.

One interviewer for Woman's World described her as unassuming, being "infinitely happier discoursing on her sister's talent." Another, for Melbourne Punch in 1921, said "she admits to loving a risk," and reported a placidity of demeanor that would be "struck aside for a moment by a flash of romanticism" when she spoke of her love for poetry or flying by airplane. "She is little and dark," reported the Sun in March 1917, "with bright, quick eyes and a manner that makes you understand why the fairies have stayed with her."

Several interviewers in the early '20s commented resentfully that Outhwaite's family responsibilities were keeping her from illustrating and exhibiting more. Indeed, Ida seems never to have met with anything but encouragement to pursue an intense, personal career that kept her in the public eye. Feminism had long been a strong force in Australia, and a career in art—even in a commercial art such as illustration—had become an acceptable occupation for women by the time Ida was born. Fantasy illustration in Australia was, in the 1920s, actually dominated by women. One of these was May Gibbs , creator of the Snugglepot and Cuddlepie children's stories and, consequently, of some of Australia's most loved national symbols. Gibbs distilled—more completely than Outhwaite had—the essence of the Australian bush into unique fantasy characters. Other fantasy illustrators such as Christian Yandell, Pixie O'Harris and Harold Gaze relied, as Ida did, more on the European fantasy tradition. Some artists were inspired by Outhwaite's style and drew in the same vein, as did Edith Alsop and Ethel Spowers , for instance. Ethel Jackson Morris was likewise inspired, but her designs were clearer, simpler, and free from the ornamentation of Ida's work.

In 1920, the Outhwaites were able to travel to Europe for a year. Ida's exhibitions in Paris and London drew crowds, much praise and even royal commendation, for Queen Mary of Teck of Britain and Prince George of Greece both purchased pictures. While in London, the Outhwaites had arranged a publishing contract with A&C Black, a firm with a reputation for high-quality children's books. On returning to Australia, Grenbry (possibly with Ida) wrote The Enchanted Forest, a story about a girl's explorations of a magical forest full of frightening goblins and witches, friendly fairies, and bumbling koalas. Reviewers found Ida's illustrations charming, entertaining, and the stronger part of the book. Her next book, The Little Green Road to Fairyland, written by Annie, was of a similar size and skill (1922). This, according to Muir and Holden, was one of the best loved of all Australian children's stories from the 1920s to the 1950s. In 1923, the sisters produced The Little Fairy Sister, also published by the London firm.

All these books were popular; fairies were still a cherished subject. They were viewed with fondness and the possibility of their existence was occasionally entertained by adults as well as children. When an English man claimed to have photographed some fairies and a gnome playing with his daughters, the photographs were reproduced in newspapers and their authenticity hotly debated for some time. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, seriously, it seems, supporting the possible authenticity of the photos. Outhwaite told an interviewer that she did not agree with Doyle. "To her," said the Melbourne Punch in February 1921, "these elf children merely represent a world of beautiful nonsense."

Her next production, in 1926, was The Fairyland of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, a lavish volume similar to Elves and Fairies. However, Fairyland was not greeted as the earlier book had been. It received brief, non-committal reviews and did not sell well, being more a collector's piece, because the subject matter was too similar to all of Ida's other works to entice her more general public to pay the five guineas required. Her A&C Black storybooks could be bought for much less and were more entertaining.

As the 1920s drew to a close, Outhwaite's audience dwindled. The decade of over-abundance brought the Depression of the 1930s in its wake. It was an adverse period for the publishing industry worldwide and the quality of production plummeted. In addition to being less able to afford the lavish Outhwaite books, the public was no longer much interested in fairies and frivolities. Outhwaite's work—both new offerings and reprints—were not purchased as often as before. Her style and subject matter had not changed over two and a half decades, and there were complaints of a feeling of sameness.

Yet, now in her 40s, Outhwaite had not lost her energy or interest in illustration. She turned her hand to the new trend in children's books: animal stories. She had illustrated a series of animal stories back in 1918, the "Wee Willie Winkie Zoo Books" written by Annie Osbourne , but these new works were completely her own creation. Outhwaite wrote with fluidity, and with an understanding of what interested a child. Blossom; a Fairy Story (1928) and Bunny and Brownie (1930) were substantial stories with exciting, magical journeys that involved animals as major characters who could talk to the child characters. In 1935, she wrote Sixpence to Spend, a story for young children about Albert the koala and his difficulties in finding a present for his mother's birthday. The pictures are simple and clear, the characters are drawn close to the viewer and fill the picture frame with an intimacy not seen in her earlier works. Her koala character was based on the comic strip she had been drawing for the Weekly Times between 1933 and 1938. He was similar to the koala in Dorothy Wall 's Blinky Bill stories, but Albert lacked the freshness of the more popular Blinky. Despite Outhwaite's adoption of a clearer, looser style and the change to animal stories, there was the difficulty, as Holden and Muir have suggested, that the public identified Ida so closely with fairies that when she turned to other subject matter they lost interest.

On June 16, 1938, Grenbry died at age 63, and Ida soon moved into an apartment with her sister in central Melbourne. During the Second World War, Outhwaite worked in the censor's office, translating the letters of prisoners of war. It was a tragic time. She lost both her sons to the war: 32-year-old Robert in 1941 and her youngest, William, in 1945.

In her last decades, Outhwaite illustrated several more story books and some crudely printed nursery rhyme and song books. She had enjoyed a successful career, but it had clearly possessed difficulties; she concluded her 1947 article for budding artists: "Cultivate a rhinoceros hide. You will need it." Ida Rentoul Outhwaite died on June 25, 1960, age 72.

Although Outhwaite's popularity ebbed in the later part of her life, during the height of her career, writes Saxby, she "recognised and catered for the imaginative needs of childhood." Through her work, her frequent exhibitions, and wide acclaim, Outhwaite helped to raise the status of illustration as an occupation and encouraged many younger artists. Her popularity was rekindled in the last few decades of the 20th century, and the antics of her koalas, fairies and elves are delighting children and adults once again.


Bulletin. November 8, 1923, p. 28.

"A Creator of Fairies," in Punch (Melbourne). February 10, 1921, p. 11.

"Elves and Fairies: The Art of Ida Rentoul," in Sydney Sun. March 15, 1917, p. 5.

"Elves and Fairies," in The New York Times. January 19, 1919, Section 8, p. 24.

Holden, Robert. Koalas, Kangaroos and Kookaburras: 200 Australian Children's Books and Illustrators 1857–1988. Exhibition catalogue. NSW: James Hardie Industries, 1988.

"Ida Rentoul Outhwaite: the Peter Pan Artist," in Woman's World. December 1, 1923, pp. 19, 47.

"Illustrated Books," in Times Literary Supplement. December 13, 1917, p. 613.

Langmore, Diane. "Ida Rentoul Outhwaite," in Ritchie, J. (gen. ed.), Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 11. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1988, pp. 109–110.

Muir, Marcie. A History of Children's Book Illustration. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1982.

——, and Robert Holden. The Fairy World of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite. Sydney: Craftsman House, 1985.

Saxby, H.M. A History of Australian Children's Literature 1841–1941. Sydney, 1969.

Smith, Spartacus. "Catching Fairies in the Camera," in Sydney Mail. January 19, 1921, pp. 10–11.

suggested reading:

McVitty, Walter. Authors and Illustrators of Australian Children's Books. Sydney: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989.

Outhwaite, Ida Rentoul, and Annie Rentoul. Elves and Fairies. Melbourne: Lothian, 1992.


Correspondence of Outhwaite's and Annie R. Rentoul with Lothian Publishers, Lothian Papers, La Trobe Library, Melbourne.

Original works, art galleries of New South Wales (Sydney), Victoria (Melbourne), Hobart and Launceston.

Original works, illustrated books and ephemera, James Hardie Library of Australian Fine Arts.

Postcards produced by A&C Black, from The Enchanted Forest, Terry O'Neill Papers, National Library of Australia, Canberra.

Jenny Newell , researcher, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia