First published in the 1930s, the illustrated stories of Orlando, his "dear wife" Grace and their three kittens, Blanche, Pansy and Tinkle, have delighted children since, and are regarded by adults as classics of children's literature. What makes Kathleen Hale's work so special and so captivating is its wit, its tongue-in-cheek detail and the complete integration of words and images on the page.
Her admirers put her firmly in the tradition of William Blake - the 18th- century pioneer of illustrated text. "She follows on from him," says Professor Christopher Frayling of the Royal College of Art (owner of a ginger cat called Orlando, and a passionate Kathleen Hale fan since the age of five). "She's not like Beatrix Potter, whose little rabbits are simply plonked alongside the stories. With Hale, image and words are simultaneous, a complete artistic expression. She is a marvellous artist and lithographer."
At Kathleen Hale's retrospective exhibition, which began last week at London's Gekoski Gallery and continues until 21 December, visitors can judge her work and reputation for themselves. Most of the paintings and illustrations on display have never been seen by the public before. At the age of 97, the artist has decided to sell the entire contents of her studio.
"At my age," she says unsentimentally, "I have to think of what I'm leaving to my sons for them to cope with. There are far too many paintings for them to house. I might have to leave my home and go into care, and there would be no room for all these paintings there." Rick Gekoski, organiser of the sale, confirms that Hale's concerns are as much financial as pragmatic. "I hope we do well for her," he says, "because she really does need the money."
The show includes oil paintings, drawings and watercolours, ranging from beautiful portrait studies from the 1920s to recent paintings of Kathleen Hale's Oxfordshire cottage - the lifetime oeuvre of a woman who was an artist as well as an illustrator. The undoubted stars, however, are the Orlando pictures - sketches for the books, designs for Christmas cards and friezes, even artwork for the Orlando ballet that was staged at the Festival of Britain in 1951.
Very few Hales have ever appeared on the art market before, and Rick Gekoski admits that pricing the pictures has been very difficult. He tested the water earlier this year when he sold some of the original dummies for the books; prices in the current show range from around pounds 350 for a drawing to pounds 5,000 or so for the finest, finished Orlando pictures. "I think they are very reasonably priced compared to the current values of other great illustrators," he maintains.
Hale certainly has a wide following. Her adult admirers include Margaret Drabble, who recently declared that the Orlando stories were her favourite books of all time. Contemporary illustrators, too, acknowledge her as a major influence. First editions of her books can fetch pounds 100 or more, and when Rick Gekoski - who is a book dealer - announced his intended sale, he was overwhelmed by the response. Buyers have come in droves with their chequebooks, he says - "not established book or art collectors, but people who had been Orlando lovers as kids."
Today, children are still attracted by the humour of the characters, the magic of their adventure and the affectionate warmth of the feline family (Frederick Warne, publishers of the Orlando books, have reissued eight titles since 1990 and more are scheduled). But the halcyon and seductive image of childhood portrayed is very far from the author's own experience. Her father died (from the effects of venereal disease) when she was just five years old, and she lived with an aunt for over four years because her mother had to work. In her autobiography, A Slender Reputation, she explains that the Orlando books were written "with the subconscious desire to create for myself the united family ... I had never had".
Kathleen Hale was born in 1895. As in the Orlando books, the family consisted of two girls and a boy - but there the resemblance ends. Her childhood was a cruel and charmless one: she describes her Aunt Eileen as a bitter and "brittle thin" spinster who ate raw liver every morning to cure her anaemia, forced Kathleen to wear a placard inscribed "I wet my drawers" and beat the children frequently with a bristled whalebone hairbrush. Kathleen Hale adds with satisfaction that the unkind Aunt Eileen eventually became as "bald as an ostrich egg".
In a loveless environment, Kathleen consoled herself with befriending the servants, keeping animals (her pet rat went to school inside her blouse), painting and drawing. She drew the whole time, using lavatory paper and brushes made from her own hair when her artistic materials ran out. Her powers of observation and recall are clearly supreme and many of the objects from her childhood - Persian carpets, stuffed furniture, a snowstorm containing a magical castle - re-emerge in her books, giving them both a nostalgic charm and an Edwardian sense of place.
Indeed it was drawing that rescued her from a rebellious childhood at what she later referred to in her books as "boredom school". She won a two-year art scholarship to Reading University, and then - at the age of only 19 - set off for London to become an artist.
Kathleen Hale fitted into the bohemian artistic world of Soho, Chelsea, Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, finding her spiritual and creative home. "She knew absolutely everbody," says the RCA's Professor Frayling. "All those people we now read about in historical biographies were friends, workmates or dancing partners." She was a regular guest at Jacob Epstein's Sunday afternoon tea parties and was secretary to Augustus John at a salary of pounds 2 a week (though she always had to wheedle the second pound out of him). She succumbed only once to his legendary attentions, noting that his usual opening gambit with female admirers was "I'd like to knock a baby out of you".
Andre Breton, Stanley Spencer, Elsa Lanchester, Nina Hamnet, Duncan Grant and Antonia White were among her like-minded friends. Many of her companions and experiences turn up in the Orlando books. Though wealthier artists occasionally entertained her at Simpsons and the Cafe Royal, she was extremely poor, scratching a living by producing anything from book covers to murals. She lined her bed with newspaper to keep warm, and sometimes didn't eat for two days at a stretch.
In 1925 Kathleen Hale married Douglas McCleen, a doctor, and their turbulent and unconventional relationship lasted until Douglas's death in 1967. The marriage produced two sons, and it was they who provided the catalyst for the Orlando books.
"There were far fewer good books for children in those days," Kathleen recalls. Bored with the endless re-reading of Babar and Beatrix Potter, she decided to write and illustrate her own stories. A Camping Holiday was published in 1938, and was followed by 17 other Orlando titles. Then, as today, children believed utterly in the feline fantasy and adults enjoyed the books' witty visual and verbal puns. They were a huge success.
Kathleen Hale was awarded the OBE for her services to children's literature in 1976; like Winnie the Pooh, Peter Rabbit and Rupert Bear, Orlando has become part of our national culture. Yet many of her contemporaries felt she had sacrificed her art to juvenile illustration: "Do you mean to tell me, Kathleen, that you have hung your slender reputation on the broad shoulders of a eunuch cat?" commented the acerbic artist Cedric Morris, indirectly providing the title for her autobiography.
Whether the current sale of her work at the Gekoski Gallery will rescue her financial fortunes remains to be seen. According to Chris Beetles, a leading dealer in the field of British illustration, the best works by the likes of Arthur Rackham and Beatrix Potter can fetch pounds 20,000-pounds 35,000 and pounds 40,000-pounds 50,000 respectively. The current Christmas exhibition at his gallery in London's St James's includes four beautiful Kathleen Hales alongside some Rackhams, Potters and Ardizonnes. They are priced at pounds 3,500 each. "Like other illustrators of that period," Chris Beetles says pragmatically, "she is logged into the memory and appreciation of a generation that is now in the disposable income bracket."
It is not just quality that will inspire people to buy Kathleen Hale's pictures, but nostalgia for their own childhood. This can be a powerful incentive, as I know to my own cost. My mother loved the Orlando books as a child; she read them to me, and I now read them to my five-year-old son. It might be more sensible to spend the money on a vacuum cleaner that doesn't spew dust on to the floor, but I'm going to buy a drawing instead. What chance does domestic practicality have against fantasy and three generations of happy memories?
! 'Kathleen Hale, Artist Illustrator: a retrospective exhibition' is at the Gekoski Gallery, Pied Bull Yard, 15a Bloomsbury Square, London WC1A 2LP (0171-404 6676) until 21 December. 'The Illustrators: The British Art of Illustration 1800-1995' (with Kathleen Hale works for sale) is at Chris Beetles, 8-10 Ryder Street, London SW1Y 6QB (0171-839 7551) until 16 January.Reuse content