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Barbara Vernon Bailey (Sister Mary Barbara)
Barbara Vernon Bailey is the originator and illustrator of the Bunnykins range from Royal Doulton.

Barbara was born in Woore, Shropshire, England, on Jun 27, 1910, to Cuthbert and Constance Bailey. She was the second of seven children, with four brothers and two sisters. Woore is a village to the west of Stoke-on-Trent. It offered plenty of interesting countryside, wildlife and farm life to inspire the young Barbara.

As a child Barbara loved animals and showed an early interest and talent for drawing. She would often be found sketching pets, farmyard animals and wild animals, including the wild rabbits she saw in the fields around her home. She was educated at home by a series of private tutors. Although her talent for drawing was noticed, her father would not let her take lessons to hone her skills. He believed artistic talent was better left to develop in its own way and that formal training stifled it.

As a young teenager, Barbara was sent away for her schooling to the Priory of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Haywards Heath, Sussex. After finishing school, she trained as a nurse at Guy's Hospital in London.

At just 19 years of age, Barbara decided to return to the convent school in Haywards Heath and commit her life to the church. The convent was run by the Augustine Canonesses of the Lateran, which Barbara joined with the name Sister Mary Barbara. She taught both history and French at the school she previously attended, and later taught Russian also.

Outside of her teaching, Barbara was confined to the convent and had little contact with the outside world. Even family visitors could only speak to the nuns through a grille. This was not conducive to conversation and Barbara's father, Cuthbert, would often sit silent on his visits. However, it was during one of these visits in the early 1930s that Cuthbert, who was the then General Manager for the Royal Doulton Burslem factory, asked his daughter if she would produce some illustrations for a new line of nurseryware. It is hard to say whether the idea was inspired by the illustrations Barbara used to decorate her letters with or whether it was a coincidence of timing that Doulton was intending a nursery range and Cuthbert simply saw it as an opportunity to build a closer bond with his daughter. Whatever the reasoning, Barbara was happy to oblige her father and thus the range we now know as Royal Doulton's Bunnykins was launched in 1934.

Although Barbara was happy to produce illustrations for her father, the Prioress of the convent was not so sure. A Belgian, who took her responsibilities for the convent, school and canonesses very seriously, the Prioress made it clear that Barbara's duty was to her teaching and religious devotions. In order that it would not detract from the work and purpose of the convent, or encourage others to start their own side projects, it was agreed that Barbara must perform any illustrating either late at night, after her daily duties were done or early in the morning before her daily duties began. It was also agreed that it would be kept a secret and neither Barbara nor the convent would accept any payment for the work. This forced Barbara to sketch and paint in her small cell by candlelight before bed or occasionally in the pre-dawn hours.

For her illustrations, Barbara drew heavily on her childhood memories of her family life, her childhood games and the animals she loved. She created a family of rabbits living in the village of Little Twitching, based loosely on her own family, with a father rabbit (Mr. Bunnykin) closely resembling her own father, Cuthbert Bailey. The rabbits were dressed in human clothing and were engaged in everyday human activities, often portraying humorous observations within a carefree, idyllic lifestyle.

The early Bunnykins dishes produced were an instant success. This led to a demand for more illustrations, challenging Barbara to find time around her other duties, and with the reluctant agreement of the Prioress, to deliver more designs. She continued illustrating in the late hours and delivering new designs to her father right up until the start of the second world war in 1939. By that point she had been responsible for all 66 Bunnykins designs produced to that time and had provided many more illustrations. Maintaining a daily routine, starting at 5am, teaching 6 classes, performing her devotional duties and other convent chores, and illustrating late into the night, had led her to the point of exhaustion. She knew something had to give and she decided to stop illustrating to refocus on her religious calling.

The Bunnykins range has continued long after Barbara gave up designing for it. Royal Doulton found other designers to continue the range, closely following the style and character of Barbara's illustrations. Barbara's designs were withdrawn in 1952. Today, earlier pieces featuring her designs are highly sought-after.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, there were several changes to convent life. The Vatican Council announced several changes to modernize the practices of the church, which included changes to the dress of the canonesses. Barbara was a traditionalist and not pleased with the changes. In 1978 the nuns moved out of the convent, where they had lived since 1898, to Sayers Common, and the convent/school building was converted to restaurant, office and conference facilities. Had the Prioress accepted royalties from Royal Doulton for Barbara's work, this move may have been unnecessary.

Barbara died on May 4, 2003, aged 92. A few years earlier, on Aug 28, 1999, The Independent newspaper in England featured an interview with her, by Maggie Parham, which does a wonderful job of capturing her independent spirit and sharp wit, still very much in evidence in her later years. She admitted to still loving animals, especially rabbits, and young children. If she had any regrets at all about her involvement with Royal Doulton, it was that they insisted she stick to painting rabbits and showed no interest in her ideas for a family of ducks.

In 2005 Royal Doulton produced a Bunnykins figurine called Sister Barbara (DB334) in her honor. It depicts a Bunnykins nun at a drawing table, painting her famous rabbits by candlelight.

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