The World of Tasha Tudor

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Unravel the Gavel April 1999
TUDOR: A NEW ENGLAND ILLUSTRATOR
by Wm John Hare
Copyright © Wm John Hare

Tasha Tudor, the New England illustrator, was born in Boston in 1915 but she is well-known to a worldwide audience. While it may be said that an artist is least appreciated in their own land, it must be admitted that Tudor is at least recognized throughout her native section of this country. She is a long-term habitu? of auctions and dealers' shops throughout New England. Roger Bacon was one of her famous suppliers. The story is told of Tudor attending her first auction when she was but ten years old. She spotted some old garments that she wished to buy but there was competition. The auctioneer assessed the situation and winked to the rest of the crowd to let the "little girl" have her purchase - which they did. She must have gone home a happy and most satisfied "little girl." But was this how auctions are really conducted?

That incident may not have been the only one to form Tudor's antique buying career, but it certainly indicates a pattern. At 83 years of age, Tudor can still be found examining wares at New England auctions and wayside shops. She takes great pleasure in saying that she always gets exactly what she wants. More poetically she quotes Thoreau: "If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

One would be hard pressed to name a person more settled into the life of her dreams that Tudor. Those dreams include antiques, children, toys, "smalls," multitudinous flowers of the softest hues - and books. Tudor was born in Boston to naval architect Starling Burgess, and his portraitist wife Rosamond Tudor. Both were well known in their respective fields. In his life, Starling Burgess was partner to Glenn Curtis designing early pontoon aircraft, and later with Buckminster Fuller designing their 1930s Dymaxion automobile. During the '20s the yachts Burgess designed were winning the America's Cup. Tudor's Beacon Hill genealogy descends from Frederic "The Ice King" Tudor who exported ice from a Saugus pond to the Caribbean as early as 1804. Tudor certainly was familiar with many fine antiques in her ancestral homes. Notable pieces of blue Canton china she has inherited find their way into her paintings. Indeed, they decorate her home to this day and provide the equipment for her regular custom of afternoon tea.

Tudor married Thomas Leighton McCready, Jr., at her mother's Connecticut home in 1938. The McCready's lived there (with books published as Tasha Tudor) until moving with their two children to the "Uncle Ed Gerrish" farm in Webster, New Hampshire, in 1945. The drafty old farm house was one of those 1790s "colonials" prevalent throughout Merrimack County and in a sufficient state of disrepair - no central heat, no running water, no electricity - to afford several years of fixing-up to the growing family.

Two more children were born after moving into the house, a dollhouse was built so large it nearly filled one room, many more animals acquired, and hundreds of paintings created. McCready, himself, died in 1964. The children grew and married and Tudor found herself with a too-large house to care for. So in the early 1970s, her eldest son Seth built her a replica of an even older Concord cape on property adjoining his Vermont homestead. It is there that Tudor lives, farms, and paints to this day. Oxford University Press published Pumpkin Moonshine, the first of Tasha Tudor's nearly one hundred books, in 1938. An earlier unpublished book dealt with the changing seasons on a New England farm. But now Tudor was published and in many ways this first book set the stage for the others Tudor was to write and illustrate in the ensuing 60 years. Pumpkin Moonshine is a small book measuring 5 by 4 inches. This is a clue to Tudor's love of all things miniature - those scaled to the size of a small child's hand. The protagonists relate the Fall activity of creating a jack o'lantern on an old New England farm. One may assume a Redding, Connecticut, farm since that had been her home for 15 years. The little girl Sylvie Ann is shown among the fields and farm animals typical of an old-fashioned farm. Eventually she must come to her kindly grandfather's study to make a confession. And the sharp collector's eye will admire Grandfather's lovely tambour desk - drawn small but accurately. Books line the top of the desk, of course, and there is a potted geranium for color. A pet dog sniffs at a mousehole in the mopboard.

Tudor's keen eye saw all these details in her world; her fine hand brought them to life for the rest of us through eighteen simple but descriptive watercolors.

Flowers form another leit motiv running through Tudor's books - flowers as main subjects and flowers as incidental decoration or as elaborate borders framing domestic tableaux. She collected notebooks of them as a teenager and has included flowers in every book she has created.

Sometimes, flowers were the central theme of a book even when Tudor was not the author. Mary Mason Campbell of Salisbury, NH, wrote The New England Butt'ry Shelf Cookbook (1968), The New England Butt'ry Shelf Almanac (1970) and Betty Crocker's Kitchen Gardens (1971); she was a contributor to A Basket of Herbs (1983). Tudor illustrated all these books with the flowers and natural growth she had known all her life. The ultimate floral tribute is Tasha Tudor's Garden (1994), a lavish photographic tour of Tudor's Marlboro homestead by Richard Brown. Tudor is well-known for the gardens she has created there, and Brown's stunning photographs of those gardens are featured in three calendar desk books for 1996, 1997 and 1998.

By 1945, Tudor had published eight books. In New Hampshire, Thomas McCready also began to write children's books about the farm animals, books illustrated with his wife's autobiographical paintings and drawings. In Biggity Bantam and four other McCready books one sees the family quite realistically portrayed at their activities.

The endpapers of McCready's first book shows the barnyard pasture at the Webster house. Mt. Kearsarge is close-at-hand on the farm in this book, and it forms a backdrop in many of Tudor's illustrations from her thirty years in New Hampshire. Mr. Stubbs and Increase Rabbit feature only two of numerous family pets. All these were brought to life through the pictures of Tasha Tudor. Tudor combined a skill for the miniature, her love for her personal antique dolls and children as models in such sought-after books as Thistly B and A Dolls' Christmas. She has owned at least three impressive dollhouses. An early house was actually built by Tudor's mother Rosamond and appears in the book about a canary Thistly B who builds his nest in the upstairs bathtub. One from the Webster House was so large and impressive that it became a tourist attraction when out-of-town visitors were in the region. This was especially true of people from the old Northwest for Tudor's popularity in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan has never waned. This house had to be dismantled to remove it from the Webster house. But it was also too large to move to Vermont, so it remained behind in New Hampshire. A final elaborately furnished house inspired a reproduction built by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1996. It featured silver candlesticks and a working miniature spinning wheel. Drawn From New England is the only book length biography to Tasha Tudor to date. Pictured in it are tiny letters that Tudor wrote to her children - or ostensibly, that dolls and toy bears wrote to the children. We have found them when Tudor's dolls wrote them to others, especially artisans who were being solicited to help furnish the dollhouse. At one point the proprietor Mr. Shakespeare describes how the house is being built on the seven-year plan. It is easy to imagine the excitement out-of-town visitors must have felt at being able to view the dollhouse at the McCready's Ginger & Pickles Store. This was the home business-arm of family enterprises where Tudor's books were sold. Both the store and the dollhouse are featured in Hopkinton photographer Nell Dorr's enchanting film The Golden Key (1955). One more of Tudor's fantasies is played out here. She has two of her dolls marry in an elaborately staged garden wedding in June. Not only did Dorr shoot a movie of the event. Life magazine also attended and ran an article featuring the event in a September issue.

Beginning in the mid '40s and continuing for more than thirty years, Tudor created designs for a series of Christmas cards celebrating her favorite of holidays. First for Ars Sacra and largely for the Irene Dash Greeting Card Company, Tudor painted an astonishing array of secular and religious images. Because her family served as models in her sketchbooks, Tudor's children and grandchildren appear on these cards kneeling at cr?che in woods and barn, gathering greens for holiday decorations and generally participating in all phases of the holiday. Often they appear with images of the Madonna; but still interpreted with Tudor's brush as a New England stable scene. These cards are found and traded regularly. New Hampshire residents readily identify local churches and buildings from the Webster and Contoocook area, Harrisville and Warner.

Many other forms of Tudor's art may appear on the shelves of your village antique shop. At one time diaper services distributed gift kits for baby's care in a box of Tudor's decoration. The Wilton, NH, Scarborough Company created at least two specialty soaps with Tudor designed boxes. Corgi dogs have long been a love and a subject of Tudor for her paintings. A six-sided tin decorated like a garden gazebo features six of these corgis. Platt & Munk, Tudor's New York publisher at one time sold four different boxes of puzzles derived from The Tasha Tudor Book of Fairy Tales (1961). Tudor's publishers have often created art prints of her paintings. Original art also appears on the market as Tudor has sold her illustrations all her life and retained little of her voluminous output. Yet other owners prize quick charcoal drawings from illustrated public talks even though these drawings are on a fairly unstable medium. These have generally been auctioned the day of an appearance to benefit the sponsoring organization.

We've seen them regularly bring several hundred dollars each. One at a major book and toy show in New York City sold for $1800 in 1995. Drawings from Tudor's purported "last public appearance" at the Conner Prarie Museum in 1991 brought much more.

The Franklin Mint commissioned Tudor to design Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth in porcelain to commemorate the Little Women (1982). Tudor, herself, has been business partner to two companies in the last ten years. The Jenny Wren Press and Corgi Cottage Industries have produced reprintings of out-of-print books, ceramic plates and mugs, cloth toys, covered boxes, replicas of Tudor's own antique furniture, small ceramic statuary of corgis, pewter key tags, note paper, and new greeting cards in a damp wash watercolor technique. Such diversity provides material for any collector of Tudor designs. There is more than enough to go around. And we haven't even mentioned numerous magazine articles about Tudor and her life style. Victoria has featured Tudor many times since 1989; the magazine's editors even named her Artist-in-Residence in 1996. Elaine Holla- baugh's fan magazine from Michigan is devoted to all things Tudor; The Letter has published successfully since 1980. Take Joy! a similar magazine of glossier finish and shorter life published eight issues in 1997-98, and then died. As many dealers will attest, Tasha Tudor is a durable seller in antiquarian shops. Her books, while certainly common, still do not often appear; and when they are offered on dealers' shelves or in catalogs, these books move quickly. They are collectable and they are sought after, just as they have been since 1938.

It should be clear that there are many facets to comprehending the sixty-year output from Tasha Tudor's pen and paintbrushes. Not the least is the task of unraveling the differences between the original editions of her books and numerous later reprints. As collectors and dealers of her used books, we began to compile our personal notes fifteen years ago. The notes accumulated and the project grew.

We are now most pleased to announce that Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, Delaware, published our definitive bibliographical study of Tasha Tudor in November 1998. Tasha Tudor: The Direction of Her Dreams is that study. In its 560 pages we describe nearly 1100 books in extensive detail, including color illustrations of many of them. There is a 50-page listing of magazine appearances. Dorothy Haas and Patricia Gauch wrote chapter recollections of their work with Tudor for our volume. Haas edited Tudor's books at Rand McNally, Gauch did the same at Philomel Books.

Tudor's two daughters Bethany Tudor of West Brattleboro, Vermont, and Efner Holmes of Hopkinton, New Hampshire, have both published books of their own clearly showing their mother's influence. Each of these daughters also wrote for our book.

As Tudor would say, we feel inordinately proud of our work. We are extremely grateful for the assistance of many friends in the antiquarian field. We could not have accomplished the task without your help. We feel we have done a good job at gathering extensive information to assist the collector and the dealer in under- standing the details of Tudor material.

Tasha Tudor: The Direction of Her Dreams is $85, plus $5.00 S&H ($9 Priority) from the authors Wm John and Priscilla T. Hare. Dealer discounts apply. Hundreds of other books written and illustrated by Tudor are also available at Hare's Cellar Door Books, 61 Borough Road, Concord, NH 03303-1833. Call 603-225-2012. FAX 603-753-1099; visit his website at www.cellardoorbooks.com or Email to sales@cellardoorbooks.com

About the author: Wm John Hare, a Kansas native who makes his home in Concord, NH, split his youth between Kansas and northeastern Pennsylvania. A graduate of Kansas State Teachers College, Emporia, he also holds a Masters Degree in Library Science from the University of Illinois.He has been on staff at Coffeyville (Kansas) College and Simpson College, Indianola, Iowa. Since 1975 Hare has been the Director of Learning Resources at the New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord, a few miles from where Ms Tudor made her home for many years. He is a member of various local and national library associations.

Hare owns the mail-order CELLAR DOOR BOOKS, and has written the definitive work on Tasha Tudor's books Tasha Tudor: The Direction of Her Dreams. He and his wife have three children.

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