Obituary: Eulalie Banks

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The Independent Culture
EULALIE BANKS illustrated over 50 children's books during her long lifetime. Never a great artist, she was always a popular one. She succeeded in charming thousands of children even in unlikely venues such as dentists' waiting rooms or shoe stores, where she installed a number of her distinctively upbeat murals during the 1930s.

Born in Brockley, south-east London, in 1895, she was the youngest of nine. The large family garden with its two greenhouses provided many memories to draw on over the years: her illustrations for Helen Bannerman's classic The Story of Little Black Sambo in 1926 show palm trees mixed with pine against a very British-looking stone cottage in the background.

By the age of 12, she was designing colourful Christmas cards for sale to friends. Two years later, she began illustrating the children's page in a women's magazine. In Eulalie Banks, an Annotated Bibliography (1992), her friend the writer Phyllis Barton recounts how schoolteachers discouraged the young illustrator from taking up formal art training, fearing it might ruin her natural style. Eulalie protested that she wanted to be able "to do something big". "Well, go home and wash an elephant," was the mystifying but final reply.

Even so, her first picture book, Bobby in Bubbleland (1913), was published when she was only 18. Sadly, the plates for this and other early books were destroyed during zeppelin raids over London.

In 1916 Banks married Arthur Wilson, a captain in the RAF Expeditionary Force. Two years later the couple moved first to Canada and then to the United States, where they were eventually naturalised. Arthur worked as a radio engineer, while his wife got on with the serious business of bulk illustrating. Conveniently out-of-copyright nursery rhymes, fairy tales and folk stories provided most of her material.

Her speciality was the humanised animal, neatly dressed, standing on two feet and as often as not grinning fit to burst. Her own signature by now was simply "Eulalie", accompanied by a little mouse wearing blue velvet trousers and an artist's smock. Years later, a child observing this trademark in one of the murals she was working on announced "Look, there's Mickey Mouse!" The artist, who painted directly on to existing plaster surfaces with oil pigments, immediately wiped this detail out. As she put it herself in a newspaper interview, "I was doing my mouse when Walt Disney was in diapers."

In fact, there was much in common with Disney in the instant sentiment found in Eulalie's art. In her illustrations for Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, the girl enjoying herself on the swing comes over as an essentially sweetened creation of streaming blonde hair, flushed cheeks and ever-winning smile. Cattle graze in the distance; lupins, Michaelmas daisies and poppies bloom in the foreground. This edition, still in print, has sold over two million copies. But despite this success, Eulalie herself was often badly off, too often receiving a flat fee - in this case $950 - instead of the royalties which could have helped her so much more.

In 1937, by now divorced and with a 16-year-old daughter, Eulalie bucked the current literary trend by returning from America to Britain, staying on with her sister throughout the Second World War. Busy as always, she illustrated numerous ABC and counting books, magazines, calendars and greeting cards, some of which, when exhibited at the British Industries Fair in 1948, received special notice from the then Queen. There was also her splendidly illustrated The Bumper Book (1946), frequently reprinted since and one of the last of those admirable, greatly missed collections of fine verse and prose put together specially for children.

Returning to California, Eulalie Banks continued to work well into her nineties. Under five feet in height, she was never anyone's pushover. When her bag was snatched by a mugger in the street, she "dashed home, called the police, had a drink of whiskey, and by the time the two detectives came, I'd already done a picture of him". Her attacker was located and arrested, no doubt wishing he had picked on a more acquiescent octogenarian.

Her final days were spent at the Beverly Health and Rehabilitation Centre in Sherman Oaks. But even at the age of 102 she was still signing books at meetings held in her honour, astounding those who had assumed she was already long dead. In her own words, "I've had an awful lot of setbacks and been broke often, but I've had a jolly life."

Such optimism can also be found in her illustrations, which during the great Depression as well as after provided easy but poignant reminders of a better life that could still be just around the corner.

Eulalie Minfred Banks, writer, illustrator and muralist: born London 12 June 1895; married 1916 Arthur Wilson (one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Sherman Oaks, California 12 November 1999.

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