Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
(1888–1960)
Described as being just as petite and dainty as her fairies, Ida Rentoul Outhwaite was the first Australian children’s book illustrator to achieve world fame. She loved to paint fairies that often played with the native kangaroos, koalas and kookaburras that populated her beloved bush land.

Childhood

Ida Sherbourne Rentoul was born in Melbourne, Australia on 9 June 1888 to Annie Isobel Rattray and John Laurence Rentoul, a Professor at the University of Melbourne. Having lost two older children while they were still quite young, the remainder of the family consisted of two boys and two girls. The Rentouls were a well-educated family, interested in all forms of literature, art and music.

Education

It has been said that Ida was able to draw birds before the age of two and that she was able to copy the images on her nursery walls. While it was the eldest sister Annie (b. 1882) that was scholastically inclined, Ida chose to doodle in the margins of her books. For fear of squashing Ida’s emerging style, her parents decided against sending her to drawing lessons. 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.”
She later attended Presbyterian Ladies’ College. 

Professional Career

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 sister Annie. This collaboration of the Rentoul sisters was a natural outgrowth of their collaboration on many childhood projects. Although Annie taught school, she would always find just the right words to accompany Ida’s images.

This first illustration soon led to a series of stories and illustrations as the Rentoul sisters gained popularity with the public. Although fairies were popular at the time, Ida’s illustrations were seen as refreshing because her fairies frolicked amongst native Australian animalia—kangaroos, koalas, and kookaburras.

1904 saw the first book published by the talented sisters. Mollie’s Bunyip contained 12 full-page black and white drawings. Two years later, the illustrations in Mollie’s Staircase demonstrated an increase in the young artist’s confidence and skill. This was the beginning of a very productive period in Ida’s career.

An unusual exhibit was held in Melbourne in the fall of 1907. It was the Women’s Exhibition, which celebrated the achievements of Australian women for the first time. It featured arts and crafts, orchestras, and choirs and was generally considered to be a grand social event. Besides Ida’s artwork being displayed, the exhibit coincided with the publication of their first songbook, Australian Songs for Young and Old, music composed by Georgette Peterson. The threesome also published two more books, Bush Songs of Australia for Young and Old in 1910 and More Australian Songs for Young and Old in 1913. These books featuring native Australian songs quickly became classics.

The publishing of Gum Tree Brownie and other Faerie Folk of the Never Never around Christmas of 1907 was the beginning of Outhwaite’s friendship with Tarella Quinn. They enjoyed a fruitful relationship collaborating on, Before the Lamps are Lit in 1911, Chimney Town and The Other Side of Nowhere both in 1934.

1907 was also the year she became associated with Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne, designing programs and costumes for the pantomime performances, and later, ballets.

In December of 1909, Ida married Grenbry Outhwaite, a successful businessman 13 years her senior, and they honeymooned in New Zealand. He bought a large house in Melbourne and commissioned a studio to be built in the garden for Ida to work in. Outhwaite’s production declined slightly during the next few years, no doubt due to the fact that she bore her husband four children, Robert Rentoul, 1910, Anne Isobel, 1911, Wendy Laurence (a reference to Peter Pan), 1914 and William Grenbry Rentoul, 1919. Her book, The Enchanted Forest written by Grenbry and published in 1921, was dedicated to her children, for which they also served as models.

A planned trip to England was postponed due to the outbreak of World War I. Grenbry had hoped to exhibit Outhwaite’s work in England in order to establish her reputation there, which he felt was vital to her success. Instead he partially subsidized his wife’s first published work in color, Elves and Fairies written by Annie, 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.

Outhwaite’s first one-woman exhibit coincided with the book’s publication in September of 1916. Notable occasions such as this were generally reported in the social columns of the newspapers. Never one to miss an opportunity for publicity, Outhwaite invited the Governor-General to open the exhibit.

After the war, they were finally able to travel to London where in May of 1920, Outhwaite had an exhibit at the Fine Art Society. She caught the attention of the publisher A & C Black, who published five of her books between 1921 and 1934, all lavish luxury editions. 

A second exhibit of Outhwaite’s work was held upon her return from England in 1921. Of note were purchases by Queen Mary and Princess George of Greece. It appears that her absence did nothing to diminish her popularity.

After another leisurely European trip in 1923, Outhwaite returned to Australia to work on the long-awaited sequel to Elves and Fairies, Fairyland. Unfortunately, Fairyland did not sell as well as hoped, partly because it was more expensive. This was also Outhwaite’s fifth colored book and her public already knew what too expect. In short, it was competing with her other books. 

Due to a lack of variety in her work, her popularity soon began to decline as well as her output. The depression saw an end to the luxury book. The new color lithography printing technology gave Outhwaite’s work an old-fashioned look. Tastes were changing too—fairies were out, animals and humor were in. Books like Dr. Dolittle, Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh and Babar had caught the imagination of the public. In 1933, Outhwaite wrote and illustrated A Bunch of Wild Flowers, an Australian version of Cicely Mary Barker’s popular Flower Fairies.

Outhwaite illustrated a comic strip for a children’s page of the Weekly Times from February 1933 until August 1939 when it was canceled due to the start of World War II. The main character, Benjamin Bear, was a combination teddy bear and koala bear.

It was in 1938 when Grenbry died. Great sorrow followed Outhwaite as the war took both of her sons from her, the eldest in 1941 and the youngest in 1945. After her daughters left home, she moved in with her sister Annie. It was here that she died on 25 June 1960. Annie died in 1978.

Influences, Style & Technique

She credits Hans Christian Anderson for introducing her to Fairyland but, in truth, it was her bush land countryside that caught her imagination. There is also an undeniable influence by Palmer Cox's Brownies. 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.”
Surely, as a child, Outhwaite must have been exposed to the color work of Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway. But as an adult in the publishing field, there is no doubt that the work of Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielsen caught her attention. Although she was an admirer of black and white illustrations, she felt that she had to learn color in order to keep up with the progression of printing technologies.

Her studio and working conditions as described by her daughter—

“Her table was laden with jars of sable brushes and paint boxes, and a circle of rainbow-coloured paint spots covered the carpet round her where she had shaken her brushes to point them. She worked on “ivory board” for pen and ink, and a very heavy watercolour paper glued to cardboard for her paintings.”
Outhwaite liked to silhouette her subject against a black background, which served to emphasis the subject but also enhanced the decorative aspect of her images. 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. She was also criticized for a lack of variety in her figures, relying more on her imagination rather than observation.

The real underlying problem with all of Outhwaite’s work was that Annie would write a story around her illustrations rather than the story dictating what the illustration should be. This is virtually unheard of in publishing today.

In her excellent book, The Fairy World of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Marcie Muir draws a parallel between the lives and work of Kate Greenaway and Outhwaite—they were both similarly criticized for poor anatomy and being overly sentimental, both were imitated by others less gifted, both outlived their popularity after early success and adoration, and both brought great joy to many children. I might add to this observation that both of their reputations were affected by the dawn of a new technology as well.

Raison d’Être

Much of Outhwaite’s success can be directly attributed to Grenbry’s business sense. While many fields were opening up to women, it was still customary 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, she 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?”
Certainly a sentiment that many can relate to, however it is amusing considering she had domestic help, a luxury that few illustrators today can afford.
 

Children’s Books Illustrated

  • Rentoul, Annie R., Mollie’s Bunyip, Melbourne, Robert Jolley, 1904.

  •  
  • Rentoul, Annie R., Mollie’s Staircase, Melbourne, M. L. Hutchinson, 1906.

  •  
  • Quin, Tarella, Gum Tree Brownie and other Faerie Folk of the Never Never, Melbourne, George Robertson & Co., 1907.

  •  
  • Rentoul, Annie R., Music by Peterson, Georgette, Australian Songs for Young and Old, Melbourne, Robertson & Co., 1907.

  •  
  • Rentoul, Annie R., Mollie’s Adventures, Melbourne, E. W. Cole Book Arcade, 1907.

  •  
  • Rentoul, Annie R., The Story of the Pantomine Humpty Dumpty, Sydney, J. C. Williamson, 1907.

  •  
  • Barrie, J. M., Peter Pan: the boy who wouldn’t grow up, Melbourne, 1908.

  •  
  • Rentoul, Annie R. (based on play by J. M. Barrie), The Story of Peter Pan, Melbourne, J. C. Williamson, 1908.

  •  
  • Rentoul, Annie R., The Lady of the Blue Beads, George Robertson & Co., 1908.

  •  
  • Rentoul, Annie R., Music by Peterson, Georgette, Bush Songs of Australia for Young and Old, Melbourne, George Robertson & Co., 1910. 

  •  
  • Quin, Tarella, Before the Lamps are Lit, Melbourne, George Robertson & Co., 1911.

  •  
  • Rentoul, Annie R., Music by Peterson, Georgette, More Australian Songs for Young and Old, Melbourne, Robertson & Co., 1913.

  •  
  • Rentoul, Annie R., Elves and Fairies, Melbourne and Sydney, Lothian, 1916.

  •  
  • Outhwaite, Grenbry, The Enchanted Forest, London, A & C Black, 1921.

  •  
  • Rentoul, Annie R., The Little Green Road to Fairyland, London, A & C Black, 1922.

  •  
  • Outhwaite, Grenbry, The Little Fairy Sister, London, A & C Black, 1923.

  •  
  • Annie R. Rentoul and Grenbry Outhwaite, Fairyland, Melbourne, Ramsay Publishing, 1926.

  •  
  • Outhwaite, Ida R., Blossom: a fairy story, A & C Black, 1928.

  •  
  • Outhwaite, Ida R., Bunny and Brownie: the Adventures of George and Wiggle, London, A & C Black, 1930.

  •  
  • Outhwaite, Ida R., A Bunch of Wild Flowers, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1933.

  •  
  • Daskein, Tarella Quin, Chimney Town, London, A & C Black, 1934.

  •  
  • Daskein, Tarella Quin, The Other Side of Nowhere, Melbourne, Robertson & Mullens, 1934.

  •  
  • Outhwaite, Ida R., Sixpence to Spend, Syndney, Angus & Robertson, 1935.

  •  
  • Rentoul, Annie R., Music by Peterson, Georgette, Australian Bush Songs, Melbourne, Allan & Co., nd (1937).
unpublished
Rentoul, Annie R., Music
by Peterson, Georgette,
Australian Songs for
Young and Old,
Melbourne, Robertson &
Co., 1907.
Rentoul, Annie R., Music
by Peterson, Georgette,
More Australian Songs for
Young and Old,
Melbourne, Robertson &
Co., 1913.
Rentoul, Annie R., Elves
and Fairies, Melbourne
and Sydney, Lothian,
1916.
Rentoul, Annie R., Elves
and Fairies, Melbourne
and Sydney, Lothian,
1916.
Outhwaite, Grenbry, The
Enchanted Forest,
London, A & C Black,
1921.
Outhwaite, Grenbry, The
Enchanted Forest,
London, A & C Black,
1921.
From an advertising
booklet entitled When
Winter Comes c. 1922.
Outhwaite, Grenbry, The
Little Fairy Sister, London,
A & C  Black, 1923.
Outhwaite, Grenbry, The
Little Fairy Sister, London,
A & C Black, 1923.
Rentoul, Annie R. and
Outhwaite, Grenbry,
Fairyland, Frederick A.
Stokes, 1926.
Rentoul, Annie R. and
Outhwaite, Grenbry,
Fairyland, Frederick A.
Stokes, 1926.
Rentoul, Annie R. and
Outhwaite, Grenbry,
Fairyland, Frederick A.
Stokes, 1926.
Outhwaite, Ida R., Bunny
and Brownie: the Adven-
tures of George and
Wiggle, London, A & C
Black, 1930.
Outhwaite, Ida R., Bunny
and Brownie: the Adven-
tures of George and
Wiggle, London, A & C
Black, 1930.

Benjamin Bear strip from 1933
Sources
Edens, Cooper, The Glorious ABC, New York, Atheneum, 1990.
Dalby, Richard, The Golden Age of Children's Book Illustration, New York, Gallery, 1991.
Horne, Alan, The Dictionary of 20th Century British Book Illustrators, Suffolk, Antique Collector’s Club, 1994.
Muir, Marcie and Robert Holden, The Fairy World of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Australia, Craftsman House, 1985, 1996.
Prentice, Jeffrey and Bettina Bird, Dromkeen, A Journey into Children's Literature, New York, Holt, 1987.
© 2000–2002 Denise Ortakales
All Illustrations are copyright by their respective owners.
This page last updated on 24 August 2002.

If there is not a frame to the left, please click here to go to the home page.

Visitors since
1-1-2001


FastCounter by bCentral