Mabel Lucie Attwell was as a much loved artist – best known for her ability to make people smile. From Christmas cards for the Royal Family to magazine illustrations, advertising campaigns for the London Underground and illustrations of children’s classics, Mabel Lucie’s work was a huge commercial success. Her familiar illustrations of popular children’s classics from Alice in Wonderland to Grimm’s and Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales, Peter Pan and The Water Babies are recognised and loved around the world.
Mabel Lucie’s unique appeal was her ability to communicate with adults –whoever they were. Her messages appealed particularly to mothers as well as families and soldiers during both the First and Second World Wars.
‘Motherhood was the wonderful thing in my life,’ she said, reflecting on her own rather cold upbringing. ‘I draw mainly for adults... the message is between adults – me and any other,’ she says of her cheerful, witty messages that aimed to please and inspire everyone to calm down and carry on, whether in the face of World Wars or to take ‘the steam out of the family battleground’.
Born in 1879 to a large family in the East End of London, Mabel Lucie had a strict Victorian upbringing. Her father, a butcher, progressive thinker and homeopath (who had sea water brought especially to London for his baths) was eccentric and strict. She loved her parents and respected the perfection her father strove for, but her childhood lacked warmth and her early drawings reflect her yearning for comfort and affection.
But by the age of 16, she had sold her first drawings and was able to fund her own further education. At St Martin’s School, she fell in love with the carefree, warm and sociable artist Harold Cecil Earnshaw, who became her beloved husband and father of three children.
She adored her children and her only daughter, Peggy, who was also a talented artists in her own right, began helping her in the 1950s with postcard designs. Peggy’s grandson Webster Wickham is now the licensing agent for Mabel Lucie Attwell’s work.
Mabel Lucie led a full and lively life during which her characters were produced on everything from tableware to textiles, postcards and figurines. With her illustrations in much demand and although enjoying London socialising, she and Harold eventually settled for the country and bought a house in Coulsdon on the Farthing Downs in Surrey 1910. Her work here gathered pace and as well as illustrating many children’s classics, she invented the Boo Boos, cheeky ‘do-good’ fairies whose tales she wrote herself in a series of books produced by her long-time publishers Valentine & Sons. The Boo Boo’s adventures with a little girl called Bunty, went on to become extremely popular, both in Britain and abroad.
In 1922 she developed a relationship with the Queen of Romania and was invited out to stay with her Royal Highness in Bucharest. It was her first trip abroad: ‘Poor shy little me, pitched right in the very middle of a Royal Family. Ceremony and trappings complete.’ The two women had a remarkable affinity for each other, both with a love of children. But Mabel Lucie’s heart was with her husband and her children and she returned home because she was missing them so much.
Throughout her life, Mabel was extremely hardworking, producing a huge body of work. She had a strong personality, was a stylish London socialite and was fiercely independent. But her heart always lay at home with her family – beset with personal tragedy over the coming years as her son Brian died and her daughter Peggy suffered from an unhappy marriage. In 1937 her adored husband Harold eventually died of the effects of his war wounds, aged only 51.
Her characters, often seen to be ‘smiling through tears’, may have helped her during these difficult times, during which demand for her work never dwindled or lost its popular appeal.
Reflecting on her life in 1964, she said ‘My life has been good and sad. I have, according to many letters I have received, given a lot of happiness to a lot of people through two World Wars.’ Mabel Lucie Attwell died peacefully in Cornwall on 5 November the same year. Mabel Lucie’s illustrations are timeless and retain their familiarity and appeal today. In the face of adversity and in families around the world, her witty lines are as poignant as ever.