Wednesday, June 25, 2008

She Lived in and Painted the Past

The modern world held few charms for Tasha Tudor, the eccentric and adored children's book illustrator who died last week at the age of 92. In both her life and her work, Tudor exuded an unabashed nostalgia for a vanished time that she never knew first hand. She was born in 1915, but was so intensely fond of the 1830s that she sought almost her whole life to pursue the rural manners of that era.

Decades before it was fashionable to go "back to the land," for instance, Tudor was raising four children in a New England farmhouse with no electricity or running water. She cooked on a wood-burning stove, wove her own fabrics, and dressed in the style of the early 19th century in long home-sewn calico dresses and starched white bonnets. She played the dulcimer, made dolls and marionettes, and liked to go about barefoot.

All the while she produced elegant, delicate drawings for children's books, such as her own "Pumpkin Moonshine" (1938), "Mother Goose" (1944) and "Corgiville Fair" (1971). She also illumined numerous classics, such as Robert Louis Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses," Clement Moore's "The Night Before Christmas," and Frances Hodgson Burnett's "A Secret Garden" and "A Little Princess."

In old age, Tudor resembled a kindly granny from her own illustrations, down to her gray bun, gentle smile, and rumpled linen apron. And indeed, she appeared to have none of fastidious modernity's terror of death. She told an interviewer in 1996 that she believed in Albert Einstein's theory of time as a kind of river. If we could get around the river's bends, Einstein (and Tudor) thought, we could travel in either direction. "When I die," she concluded, "I'm going right back to the 1830s."

You are likely to know Tudor's style, even if her name is only faintly familiar and her lifestyle utterly unknown. A person who illustrates more than 80 books infiltrates a lot of lives, and even those who avoid children's literature may easily have encountered her work on a card or a calendar.

Hers was a distinctive, delicately watercolored evocation of all that was tender and lovely in the lives of children of yore. Think of a nursemaid cuddling a small boy in breeches in a rocking chair before a crackling fire, or girls in pinafores and sunhats romping past flowering foxgloves, or a corgi panting contentedly beside a boy playing at tin soldiers, and the images you conjure are likely to be Tudor's.

She commonly enclosed her drawings with intricate borders of entwined violets or roses or scampering bunnies, or maybe just a long twist of gold. The effect was to create a lovely protected world, a walled garden of the imagination where bands of little children might spend the afternoon playing fairies or pretending to be pirates.

Does this sound cloying? Mawkish? If so, it's only a measure of how adult tastes have changed.

The vogue now in children's illustration is for harsh lines, garish colors, and almost violently impressionistic figures. It is perhaps an open question whether children really enjoy this trend. They endure it, for sure; children will look at almost any picture book if an adult can be bothered to read it aloud to them.

With Tasha Tudor's work, there was no doubt that children responded. The idyll she set before them was irresistible. In her depictions of an idealized early industrial world, a child might catch an exciting glimpse of a steam locomotive but there was never any whiff of the workhouse -- or, in contrast to the ubiquitous lavatory humor of today, the outhouse. Even when she drew street urchins, as in "A Little Princess," she invested them with quiet, tidy dignity.

Only occasionally did Tudor's illustrations stray toward the saccharine, most obviously when she depicted innocent, round-cheeked youngsters at prayer. But this was rare. Almost always she got the balance exactly right. And she did it serenely for decade after decade, even as the rest of the country was lurching from one hysterical pop fad to another and evolving from a culture of patriotic prewar earnestness to the widespread snarkiness we enjoy today.

Tasha Tudor was born Starling Burgess, in Boston, but acquired the nickname Natasha from her father, a fan of Tolstoy. Eventually she took her mother's maiden name, Tudor, as her surname. When Tasha was 9, her parents divorced and she was sent to live with family friends in Connecticut. It was there that her affection for the 19th century became manifest: She began collecting antique children's clothing and, at the age of 15, bought a cow.

Subsequent years brought marriage to Thomas L. McCready, with whom she had four children and from whom she was divorced after 23 years. A second marriage lasted only briefly. During these decades, Tudor lived first in New Hampshire, on a 450-acre farm bought with the proceeds of her early success, and later in Vermont in a self-designed replica of an early 19th century house that was hand-built by her son Seth.

Tudor seems sometimes to have found the world's acclaim faintly exasperating. "Everyone who likes my illustrations says, 'Oh, you must be so enthralled with your creativity,'" she once remarked. "That's nonsense. I'm a commercial artist, and I've done my books because I needed to earn my living."

Still, what a way to live. It's fair to say that, like Oscar Wilde, Tasha Tudor put her talent into her work and her genius into her life.

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