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  • The Fantasy Artwork of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
    Artist Spotlight
    by Giovanna Adams

    It has been said that Ida Rentoul Outhwaite was able to draw birds before the age of two and that she was able to copy the images on her nursery walls. (1) While it was the eldest sister Annie that was scholastically inclined, Ida chose to doodle in the margins of her books. For fear of stifling Ida's emerging style, her parents decided against sending her to art school. Speaking about her early work, she had this to say: "I used to find great difficulty in drawing feet in those days, and was almost in despair until I hit on the happy plan of hiding them in deep luxuriant grasses, which was no doubt very wicked. 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." (2)

    The New Idea published Ida's first professional illustration in August of 1903 when she was just 15 years old. It accompanied a story entitled "The Fairies of Fern Gully" by the author Billabong, who later turned out to be none other than Ida's sister Annie. This collaboration of the Rentoul sisters was a natural outgrowth of their collaboration on many childhood projects. This first illustration soon led to a series of stories and illustrations as the Rentoul sisters gained popularity with the public. Six fairy stories written by Annie and illustrated by Ida were published in The New Idea. (3)

    In December of 1909, Ida married Grenbry Outhwaite, a successful businessman 13 years her senior. He bought a large house in Melbourne and commissioned a studio to be built in the garden for Ida to work in. However, Ida's production declined slightly during the next few years, due to the fact that she bore her husband four children.

    While many fields were opening up to women, it was still customary during this time to shield them from business matters. Grenbry actively sought out many of the publishers and never missed a promotional opportunity for his wife. He was a strong supporter and encouraged her to devote her time to her artwork. Domestic help relieved her of most of her household and child-rearing duties. In an interview with Woman's World, a Melbourne publication, Ida gives us a glimpse of her feelings on the difficulties in combining family and art: "One's work must suffer. How can one remain really inspired when 'leg-of-mutton' matters constantly intervene?" (4)

    Ida's first published work in color, published with Elves and Fairies written by Annie, was a lavish and ambitious publication virtually unheard of in Australia in 1916. As an act of wartime patriotism, the artist offered her royalties to the Red Cross. She also presented a copy of the book to Queen Mary, which gave her the much-needed publicity she desired in England.(5)

    She credited Hans Christian Anderson for introducing her to Fairyland. Other artists that she admired were Phil May, Aubrey Beardsley, Daniel Vierge and Gordone Browne, citing her passion for black and white art.

    "It was when I was eleven that someone gave me a bottle of Indian ink and Gillot nibs and I discovered the bliss of working in black and white, which always has been and always will be my favourite medium. There is something magical in seeing what you can do, what texture and tone and colour 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." (6)

    Her black and white work was very spirited, using hatching, stippling and striated surfaces. But her colored work received much criticism for being too romantic and sweet. Still it had its followers who admired its decorative quality and sentimentality.(7)

    Holden (1992, p. 50) describes her work as having 'technical and imaginative excellence'. Each illustration was extremely detailed, with the flowers and fairy dresses often created using hundreds of pin-prick sized dots, making for quite beautiful patterns. Or, in the case of 'Anne Rides on the Heavenly River', she individually drew literally thousands of tiny bubbles. Swirls of lines, stars and leaves, are also a prominent feature. Her use of line to depict movement was quite stunning, with grasses, leaves, hair and dresses all swirling with the wind across each page. Her attention to detail was also outstanding with each tiny flower and each strand of hair meticulously drawn, making for an entirely new fantasy world. Fairy wings, too, were presented in exquisite detail, with each one unique, showing Outhwaite's limitless imagination.(8)

    Her ability to blend colors and create mood and atmosphere was outstanding. She was a master at combining various tones and shades creating harmony within each composition. 'Potty talks to the forest creatures', contains autumn tones of different browns and greens, with the goblins' red hats and Potty's red jumper providing wonderful contrast. 'The wee sick goblin' instead uses warm pinks, yellows and oranges against the dark black of the night forest. 'Anne plays the pipes' is quite different again; with the sky a soft cream; the leaves and grasses, green; the rabbits and Anne's billowing hair, brown; with her wings providing the finishing touch, in soft shades of pink. The Enchanted Forest (1921) was one of her most famous works. Written in collaboration with her husband Grenbry, this book lends itself perfectly to being read aloud, with the authors occasionally speaking directly to the reader. This story is sheer fantasy, full of everything that magic and fairies can provide. We are introduced to the magic almost immediately as Anne is plunged head first into the forest, only to discover she, of course, has wings! This is the fantasy world of many little girls, with fairy wings and butterfly chariots, goblin homes in hollowed out trees and fairy-lines to travel on. Speaking directly to the reader, the authors ask the question, 'Haven't you felt sometimes as if something like a silken thread caught across your face? [It might just be a spider's web,] but it might be one of the fairy-lines that the fairies put up for the use of the guests'. This encourages the imagination of the reader to believe that fairies exist.(9)

    Ida Rentoul Outhwaite died in 1960, aged seventy-two, after a long and illustrious career. Her works are still treasured to this day, though now extremely rare. Many are truly unforgettable, remembered years after early childhood readings, to live on in the hearts and minds of readers for many years to come. (10)

    Notes

    1 Muir, Marcie and Robert Holden, The Fairy World of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Australia, Craftsman House, 1985, 1996. p 12-14

    2 Dalby, Richard, The Golden Age of Children's Book Illustration, New York, Gallery, 1991

    3 Muir, Marcie and Robert Holden, The Fairy World of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Australia, Craftsman House, 1985, 1996. p. 23

    4 Dalby, Richard, The Golden Age of Children's Book Illustration, New York, Gallery, 1991 p.55

    5 Dalby, Richard, The Golden Age of Children's Book Illustration, New York, Gallery, 1991 p.65

    6 Dalby, Richard, The Golden Age of Children's Book Illustration, New York, Gallery, 1991 p.52

    7 Dalby, Richard, The Golden Age of Children's Book Illustration, New York, Gallery, 1991 p.51

    8 Holden, Robert, A Golden Age: Volume I Visions of Fantasy; Australia's Fantasy Illustrators: their lives and works, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, NSW. 1992, p. 24

    9 Holden, Robert, A Golden Age: Volume I Visions of Fantasy; Australia's Fantasy Illustrators: their lives and works, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, NSW. 1992, p. 28

    10 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ida_Rentoul_Outhwaite



    Giovanna Adams
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