Pixie O’Harris: Australian children’s book author and illustrator
July 11, 2012 § Leave a comment
Pixie O’Harris was christened Rhonda Olive Harris, but on the way to Australia, she was given the name, The Welsh Pixie, by fellow passengers, and so it remained. O’Harris, was surrounded by art and artists from an early age, with the whole family drawing and inventing stories. She began her career in the midst of the art nouveau era which had a heavy influence on her work, especially in early years. Her autobiography (1983, pp. 6, 11 & 99), displays some of these early pieces which are particularly art nouveau in style. Extensive use of swirling lines and patterns can be seen, very similar to the work of Aubrey Beardsley. These drawings also contain the first of her goblins and fairies, which remained virtually unchanged throughout her career.
Holden (1993, p. 164), gives a list of the various avenues she worked in, which shows her great versatility as an artist – Newspaper and magazine illustrations, writing, broadcasting, mural painting, caricature and cartoon work, fashion, the designing of book plates, sheet music covers and stationary. She became particularly well known throughout Sydney and New South Wales, with the murals she painted on the walls of hospitals, kindergartens, libraries and Day Care Centres. These were to delight children for years to come and some are still faithfully restored to this day. This was actually a dream come true for O’Harris, after spending time in hospital herself giving birth to her children and finding hospitals to be cold and unfriendly places, she hoped one day to decorate the children’s wards of long-term patients.
Mural painting became a major part of her career, decorating over fifty hospitals in all! To transfer the images, the size of those found in books, to the walls of hospitals, showed that she had must have had some skills as an artist, despite the fact that Saxby (1969, p. 149) described her work as, quite unoriginal and lacking in artistic perception. Regardless of such criticisms, her efforts and service to the field of literature and the community was outstanding and were rewarded many times over the years. In 1976 she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (Civil) for services to the Arts. In 1953 she was awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal and in 1977 she received the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal. In 1977 she also became patron to the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in Sydney.
Perhaps her most popular children’s story, although now very difficult to come by, is Pearl Pinkie and Sea Greenie, published in 1935, which is similar in style and content to Gibbs’ Little Obelia (Saxby, 1969, p. 149). Pixie’s use of colour contains none of Outhwaite’s perceptions, and instead are rather gawdy and seem out-of-place with one another. The illustration entitled, ‘I will not have cow-fish in my garden’ (p. 47), is a particularly good example. The colours are strange in themselves, but as a whole composition become quite unappealing. The actual characters, Pearl Pinkie and Sea Greenie are pretty little fairy like creatures and the sea-horses and sea-weeds are very true to life, but her use of colour is poor and rather inappropriate. This unfortunately did not improve a great deal throughout her career, from an artist’s point of view, but the brightness and vast number of colours she used were obviously appealing to her child audience.
The majority of her illustrations though were in black and white, of which literally dozens appear. Typical of that era, vignettes were found on nearly every page, both decorating and illustrating each story. The vignettes in Pearl Pinkie and Sea Greenie (pp. 42 & 43), are typical of Pixie’s style. Here swirling lines, star-fish, fish and bubbles sweep across the pages, with the fish drawn very true to life. Throughout the book we can see the influence of the art nouveau style, with swirls of stars, the use of silhouettes, flowers and flowing curls. The little rock sprites have the same, extremely pretty faces that all of her fairy folk do, and with similar expressions, but her use of sea-weed for clothes and their whole underwater world make them very appealing for young readers. She seems to have a surprising amount of knowledge of the ocean, its creatures and their habits, as they are all very lifelike, despite the fact that many wear clothes. While her abilities as an author leave much to be desired, there are some clever word plays and humour, accentuated by the illustrations.
Marmaduke the Possum and his various adventures were also very popular in their time. These contained dozens of vignettes as well as full-page illustrations, but all in black and white, although the Young Australia Series came out in full colour. Marmaduke, in the original version appeared both clothed and un-clothed, looking rather like a possum, but then again, not! The children are well drawn, but their expression changes very little, then neither do the expressions of the gnomes. Thankfully though they all where different coloured hats, so at least we know who’s having the birthday! (see Marmaduke the Possum in the Cave of the Gnomes). She uses a window effect in many of the illustrations in Marmaduke the Possum, where characters are framed by branches and seen through holes in trees (p. 47). Again in the later editions, her use of colour is most unappealing, but even more so is the text. Marmaduke’s adventures supplied the demand at the time for animal stories, as fairies were no longer ‘in’, but really his adventures are rather trivial and trite.
Despite the criticism, Pixie O’Harris is remembered fondly by all as McVitty points out (cited in O’Harris 1983, foreword), the reason for her success is her warmth of personality and her abiding faith in life, and the goodness of human friendships, which shines through her words and pictures. He also adds, a single lifetime of devotion to a noble craft, an act of faith – the making of beautiful books for children.
The name of Pixie O’Harris is also recognised in the Pixie O’Harris Award. Established in 1994, this award honours those offering ‘distinguished and dedicated service to the development and reputation of Australian children’s books’. Those eligible include publishers, editors, booksellers and publicists working consistently in the field of children’s literature and demonstrating a commitment beyond the call of duty.
For more biographies on Australian children’s authors and illustrators check out the Australian Children’s Literature website: http://www.australianchildrensliterature.com/title.htm
Works Written and Illustrated by Pixie O’Harris
1935, Pearl Pinkie and Sea Greenie, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, NSW.
1940, The Pixie O’Harris Story Book, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, NSW.
1941, The Babes in the Wood, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood (3 Vols.), New Century Press, Sydney, NSW.
1941, The Fortunes of Poppy Treloar, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, NSW.
1942, Marmaduke the Possum, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, NSW.
1943, Rondel the Fair, Currawong, Sydney, NSW.
1943, Goolara: Daughter of the Billabong, Currawong, Sydney, NSW.
1944, Rocks of Han, Currawong, Sydney, NSW.
1944, Poppy and the Gems, Currawong, Sydney, NSW.
1945, Pixie O’Harris Songs for Children, Davis, Sydney, NSW.
1945, The Fairy Who Wouldn’t Fly, (Publishing details unknown)
1947, Poppy Faces the World, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, NSW.
1953, Marmaduke and Margaret, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, NSW.
1953, Pixie O’Harris Gift Book.
1977(?), Marmaduke the Possum In the Cave of the Gnomes, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, NSW.
1978, The Teddy Bear’s Picnic, Golden Press, Sydney, NSW.
The Kangaroo Who Couldn’t Hop and the Cloud Wallaby, Golden Press Sydney, NSW.
1981, The Pixie O’Harris Nursery Rhyme Book, David Ell, Sydney, NSW.
1982, The Little Grey Mouse and her Friends, Golden Press, Sydney, NSW.
1985, A Cavalcade of Cats, Methuen, Sydney, NSW.
– Containing poems about cats
1985, Love leaves the Koala, Methuen, Sydney, NSW.
1988, Love leaves Returns to the Bush, Dent, Australia.
(Date Unknown), The Pixie O’Harris Treasury of Animal Verse.
Works Illustrated by Pixie O’Harris
Littlejohn, Agnes. 1924, The Lost Emeralds and Other Stories, Edwards Dunlop, Sydney, NSW.
Davison, Frank Dalby. 1936, Children of the Dark People, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, NSW.
Grahame, Kenneth, 1985, The Wind in the Willows, Rigby Ltd, Adelaide, SA.
Higgins, Kathleen, 1938, Betty in Bushland, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, NSW.
Carroll, Lewis, 1990, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, (125th Birthday Edition), Carroll Foundation, Melbourne, VIC.
– Featuring a modern day ‘Aussie’ Alice, wearing a t-shirt with a koala on the front and containing drawings designed to be coloured-in by young readers.
Liston, Maud, 1982, Cinderella’s Party, Rigby Ltd, Adelaide, SA.