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Mabel Lucie Attwell

Mabel Lucie Attwell was a children's author and illustrator, known for her trademark comical depictions of chubby children. Her illustrations can be found in books, postcards, advertisements, calendars and other consumer products, including popular children's books like Alice in Wonderland (1911), Peter Pan and Wendy (1921), The Water Babies (1915) and Grimm's Fairy Tales (1910).


Mabel was born as Mabel Lucy Attwell in London, England on June 4, 1879. She was the ninth child of Augustus and Emily Ann Attwell. In some accounts, she is reported as the sixth child, as three older siblings unfortunately died as infants before her birth. One final sibling came after her. Her father was a second-generation butcher; his firm, Attwell and Co., operated in 3 locations in East London.

The young Mabel, like many younger children in large families, was often overshadowed by her older brothers and sisters. She enjoyed making up stories with one of her sisters and loved to sketch illustrations to go along with their stories. This early interest in drawing was not seen as anything out of the ordinary.

Mabel was privately educated at the Coopers' Company School and studied art at Regents Street Polytechnic (now University of Westminster) School of Arts and Heatherley's School of Arts. She did not complete either art course, leaving voluntarily; she already had a clear vision of the type of art she wanted to pursue and disliked the formal training methods.

Commercial Success

By the age of 16, Mabel had amassed an impressive collection of drawings of children and fairies. She decided to approach a London artist agency with her portfolio, to see if they would represent her and help sell her work. It is said that the initial reaction she received from the agency was not favorable, as they doubted her style would be commercially viable. This view was quickly amended when her early work sold quickly.

Her initial sales helped fund her way through college at St. Martin's School of Art, in London's Soho district, which is where she met her future husband, Harold Cecil Earnshaw.

From her early student days at St. Martin's, Mabel's work was constantly in demand throughout her long career. Initial sales were mainly to magazines, like Tatler and The Bystander (which later merged with Tatler), and poster advertising. By the start of the 20th century she also began receiving commissions to illustrate books for W & R Chambers Publishers (now most well known for their Chamber's Dictionary). It was also around this time that she changed her middle name from Lucy to Lucie.

Family Life

Both Mabel and Harold Earnshaw were seeing some success in their respective careers as illustrators when they married on Mabel's 29th birthday, June 4th 1908. After spending their honeymoon in Babbacombe Bay, Devon, they set up home in Dulwich, South London. Their first child, a daughter, was born on May 13th 1909. Much as A.A. Milne was inspired by her son Christopher, Mabel's daughter Marjorie Joan, known as Peggy, was the inspiration for Mabel's Chubbies, as they were affectionately known; the chubby toddlers that became her trademark. The family moved a little to the south of London to a larger home in the more rural North Downs before adding 2 brothers for Peggy; Max (known as Peter) in 1911 and Brian in 1914.

The expanding family did not slow down either parent's career. Harold, who was a member of the all-male London Sketch Club, a social club for artists, illustrated a wide range of books, including The Pretenders - A School Story by Meredith Fletcher in 1908. Mabel struck two significant deals, one to illustrate children's books for Raphael Tuck & Sons in 1909 and the other, in 1911, to create postcard illustrations for Scottish publishing company, Valentine & Sons. The relationship with Raphael Tuck lasted almost a decade and Valentine & Sons was a lifelong partnership.

While illustrating well-known books, like Mother Goose and Grimm's Fairy Tales for Raphael Tuck, Mabel churned out postcard illustrations for Valentine & Sons at a rate of 24 each year. They were immensely popular, each design selling as many as half a million copies in a single month. They were translated into multiple languages for worldwide distribution and were commonly sent to cheer up the troops during World War I.

Unfortunately, while the war was helpful to Mabel's career, it effectively put an end to her husband's career. Harold lost his right arm serving his country and, despite persevering and learning to draw with his left hand, he never achieved the success he might otherwise have seen.

The Later Years

The popularity of Mabel Lucie Attwell continued through the rest of her life and beyond. In all she illustrated over 1000 postcards and 50 books, as well as a Lucie Attwell annual that ran from 1922 to 1974; her art was reproduced as calendars, posters, plaques, jigsaw puzzles, comic strips, greeting cards, dolls, figurines and nursery-ware. From a poster campaign for the London Underground to china used in the Royal Nursery of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, her influence on British life was as great as that of any illustrator. In 1925 she was elected to the Society of Women Artists, a society founded in 1855 to promote art by women.

In the mid-1930s, Mabel lost both her youngest son Brian (1934) and her husband Harold (1937). She continued working through this difficult period but when her 2 London homes were damaged during the blitz, she moved first to Wiltshire and then in 1945 she relocated to Fowey, Cornwall, to live with her son Peter. She remained in Cornwall until her death on November 5, 1964. Today, a Mabel Lucie Attwell museum exists in Fowey in remembrance and celebration of her life and works.

Mabel's daughter Peggy Earnshaw became an artist in her own right. She married Michael Wickham and went under Peggy Wickham for much of her work. Peggy reluctantly stepped in to continue her mother's work after her death, releasing unpublished illustrations that kept the Lucie Attwell annual going for another 10 years after her death. Peggy passed away herself only a few years later, in 1978.

Her Legacy

Mabel Lucie Attwell has left behind such an enormous body of work in so many formats. Parents remember reading her annuals or using her tableware when they were young. Some of this is still in use as it is passed across generations, but much of her original works, be they postcards, books or ceramic goods, are now collector's items. There is an active secondary market for these collectibles.

Even today, her work is still being licensed for new merchandise. Enesco licensed her illustrations as the basis for their Memories of Yesterday figurine collection in the late 1980s. This popular line ran right the way through to the end of the millennium.

The Memories of Yesterday figurines were not the first figurines that came from her work. Way back in 1926 Mabel worked directly for Shelley Pottery, creating tableware, and a series of figurines based on her illustrations was introduced in 1936. Shelley is an old English pottery company dating back to 1860, although not officially known as Shelley Pottery until 1925. It lasted until 1966, when it was sold to Allied Potteries. No new Shelley wares were manufactured after this time but the Shelley trademark remains registered to Waterford, Wedgewood and Royal Doulton, as the result of a 1971 acquisition.

Artistic Style

Mabel Lucie Attwell worked mainly in pen-and-ink and watercolor. Her early works were similar in style to that of Hilda Cowham, as well as several other illustrators of the period. It was also Hilda Cowham's successful association with Shelley Pottery that led to them approaching Mabel.

Mabel's style became more distinctive after her children were born. The children she illustrated were cutesy, rotund, cheeky and innocent. They had wide-spaced eyes, high rounded foreheads, rosy cheeks and chubby bodies. The situations the children found themselves in were often far from innocent however, usually intended to communicate adult themes. Clever titles and sayings accompanying the illustrations would often help convey a dual message.

It was arguably her greatest talent to produce art that would use the charm of innocent children to appeal to adults, allowing delivery of a social message, a double entendre or a sales pitch. To children, her illustrations were just funny pictures of other children playing or being naughty. To adults, there was humor, innuendo, cheerleading, social commentary and more.

While her work was often criticized for being over sentimental or lacking in variety, it continued to resonate with the public and with publishers and advertisers.

There are a couple of specific characters created by Mabel Lucie Attwell that are worthy of note, characters that occur in several illustrations and books. One of her best known characters is a chubby toddler called 'Diddums'. The other favorite character is an elf in a green suit, known as 'Boo Boo'.

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