Queen of Fairy illustrations: Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

August 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

 A biography of Ida Sherbourne Outhwaite (nee Rentoul)  illustrator of Childrens books

Ida Sherbourne Outhwaite (1888-1960), illustrator, was born on 9 June 1888 at Carlton, Melbourne, second surviving child of Rev. John Laurence Rentoul and his wife Annie Isobel, née Rattray. Encouraged by her gifted literary and artistic family Ida drew prolifically from childhood, snatching time from her formal education at Presbyterian Ladies’ College to contribute to magazines produced in the family home at Ormond College, University of Melbourne. Her talents complemented the literary ability of her elder sister, Annie Rattray (1882-1978) who was born on 22 September 1882. After a brilliant career at P.L.C., culminating in the classics exhibition, Annie took a first-class honours degree at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1905), where she won the Wyselaskie scholarship in classics and shared the Higgins poetry prize.

In 1903 six fairy stories written by Annie and illustrated by Ida were published in the New Idea. Next year the sisters collaborated on Mollie’s Bunyip which delighted the public with its representations of fairies and elves in a recognizably Australian setting. Mollie’s Staircase, with text by Mrs Rentoul, appeared in 1906. At the Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work in 1907 the Rentoul sisters displayed their Australian Songs for Young and Old, with music by Georgette, wife of Franklin Peterson. With its sequels of 1910 and 1913 it was ‘the most Australian of all the Outhwaite publications’. That year Ida illustrated Tarella Quin’s Gum Tree Brownie, using pen and ink, as in all her previous work, to depict her own stylized fairyland. In 1908 the Rentoul sisters published their first substantial story book, The Lady of the Blue Beads.

On 9 December 1909 Ida married Arthur Grenbry Outhwaite (1875-1938). He had been admitted as barrister and solicitor in 1899 but in 1904 became manager of the Perpetual Executors and Trustees Association of Australia Ltd; in 1915-22 he was managing director.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, as she was now known, published little in the decade following her marriage; during those years four children were born. But in 1916 she brought out her first coloured work, Elves and Fairies, a de luxe edition produced entirely in Australia by Thomas Lothian. The success of the book, with its delicate water-colour plates, was due both to Ida’s artistic talent and to the business acumen of her husband, who provided a £400 subsidy to ensure a high-quality production and consigned royalties to the Red Cross, thereby encouraging vice-regal patronage. Journalists who interviewed the now-famous illustrator were charmed to find her small, whimsical and piquant, like her creations.

Visiting Europe in 1920, Ida exhibited with great success in Paris and London. Critics discerned the technical influence of Beardsley, Rackham, Dulac and Greenaway but affirmed the originality of her vision. She signed a contract with A. & C. Black who published five books for her over the next decade, including The Enchanted Forest (1921), with text by her husband, and, probably the most popular of all the Rentoul sisters’ collaborations, The Little Green Road to Fairyland (1922). The Fairyland of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1926), another sumptuous volume, with text by her husband and sister, was less successful. In 1930 came the last of her books published by A. & C. Black. Angus & Robertson brought out two more books in 1933 and 1935 but they received relatively little attention. Her last two exhibitions, which in 1916-28 were almost annual events, were held in 1933.

After World War II Ida said that ‘the war stopped the taste for fairies—in parents anyhow—and the fairies fled, appalled at the bomb’. But in fact her popularity had waned steadily over the previous decade. Her early work, with its successful marriage of the then popular European fairy tradition with an Australian context, had delighted generations of readers. But her illustrations, finely executed, decorative and whimsical, had developed little over time. The spontaneity, grace and creativity of her earlier work had rigidified in images which had become over-worked and banal. Moreover most of her books had suffered from having texts devised to fit the illustrations, and although those written by Annie had charmed an earlier generation, by the 1930s they appeared sentimental and old-fashioned.

Grenbry Outhwaite died on 16 June 1938 and both their sons died in action in World War II, during which Ida worked in censorship. Annie Rentoul had retired from P.L.C., where she had taught Greek, Latin and ancient history since 1913. ‘Tiny, with grey hair and great luminous brown eyes’, she had encouraged and inspired generations of schoolgirls. Ida shared her last years with her sister in a flat at Caulfield, where, survived by her two daughters, she died on 25 June 1960; she was cremated. A portrait by Amalie Colquhoun is in the National Library of Australia. Annie Rentoul died unmarried on 24 July 1978.


Australian Dictionary of Biography: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/outhwaite-ida-sherbourne-7933

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