Obituary: Sheila Hawkins

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The Independent Culture
SHEILA HAWKINS was one of the most innovative children's illustrators of her generation. Among the earliest artists to contribute to the seminal series of Puffin Picture Books, she embodied the Puffin philosophy: she used striking design and draughtsmanship both to educate and entertain.

Her abilities as painter and writer also ensured that each of her books had visual and verbal substance. Born a rural Australian, in 1905, she had grounding in a very particular environment which equipped her with a valuable and singular expertise, and enabled her to imbue even her most comic drawings with a tangible sense of reality.

Hawkins spent her early childhood in the bush, and there amassed a large collection of animals and insects. During the First World War, she moved with her family to Perth and then Melbourne, attending Toorak College and studying briefly at Melbourne Art School. Financial hardship forced her to take what she considered unappealing work as a commercial artist, and she was able to paint only in her spare time.

In 1931, Hawkins left Australia for Europe, spending a year in Spain and then settling in England, where she lived, almost without a break, for the remainder of her life. She soon became the first woman to be employed in the famous advertising studio of Shell Mex. However, while looking for work, in Depression-hit London, she had written and illustrated her first children's book, Black Tuppeny (1932), about a small child who visits London to see the King. Its successful reception encouraged her to develop in this vein and it is as a children's illustrator that she made her name.

During a brief marriage, to Max Bowden in 1934, Hawkins created her second, and more characteristic book, Eena-Meena-Mina-Mo and Benjamin (1935), which drew on memories of a childhood holiday picking fruit in Tasmania. Then in her third book, Pepito (1938), inspired by her experiences of Spain, she established her ability for strong design and layout. She was immediately rewarded, for her following ground-breaking book, Appleby John, the Miller's Lad (also 1938), printed entirely in offset lithography, was praised at the Times Book of the Year Show.

Hawkins revealed in Little Grey Colo (1939) how much she had become acclimatised to England, and how much she could mediate the Australian experience for the juvenile English reader; for it has been said that the bush setting for these adventures of a koala more closely resembled Kensington Gardens.

Yet a decade later, her illustrations to Bush Holiday (1948) by Dale Collins were praised by the author for their authenticity: "These pictures are almost uncannily the scenes which remain bright in my memory . . . This effect is really quite weird - just as if I were revisiting the actual scenes in a dream." Despite the fact that she had produced these illustrations during a cold English winter, she could always, if required, depict the essence of antipodean atmosphere.

In 1939, Hawkins began a collaboration with another writer, Geraldine Elliot, on The Long Grass of Whispers, the initial volume of a series of retellings of African folk tales. This confirmed her talent for humorous animal illustration, and led to her become one of the first artists to contribute to Puffin Picture Books with her adaptation of Aesop's Fables (1942). However, she continued to illustrate her own original texts, as with Bruzzy Bear and the Cabin Boy (1940) and stories concerning the Bear Brothers (1941, 1942).

A career as an illustrator did not inhibit Hawkins entirely from working as a painter, and in the late 1930s she exhibited at the Goupil Gallery and with the Society of Women Artists. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, she worked unofficially to produce a mural of the activities of Australian forestry units in Scotland, and drawings of women operating the coal barges on London canals. Then, as an official artist for the Australian Air Force, she painted portraits of airmen.

The second of her contributions to Puffin Picture Books affirmed her identity as an Australian artist, for Animals of Australia (1947) has great authority. This is manifest even in the degree to which she stretched accurate natural history drawing towards lightly humorous anthropomorphism. One strip of illustrations shows a young koala trying to jump from tree to tree: it is captioned "Can I?" "Yes" "I" "-think-" "I can!"

In 1948, Hawkins finally made a return trip to Australia, and remained there for four years. During that period, she produced a coloured strip for the Sydney Morning Herald, based on her earlier book Bruzzy Bear and the Cabin Boy; she illustrated the New South Wales School Magazine; and she designed six posters for schools on Australian birds, commissioned by Vincent Serventy.

Back in London, in 1951, The Times Educational Supplement reviewed an exhibition of Hawkins's paintings at the Geffrye Museum and, in doing so, neatly encapsulated her art in the phrase, "She fantasticates animals exactly into a children's idiom."

Hawkins sustained this view of herself through the 1950s with some of her most successful collaborations. Her work with Peggy Barnard on Wish and the Magic Nut (1956) won a Picture Book of the Year Award. And late in the decade, her illustrations to a series of books by Aaron Judah, including The Adventures of Henrietta Hen (1958) and Basil Chimpy Isn't Bright (1959), showed her at the height of her powers. In the early 1960s, she again applied her confident yet relaxed draughtsmanship to a strip cartoon, "Little Colo", which appeared in the weekly magazine Mother.

Continuing to illustrate into the mid-1960s, Hawkins maintained her distinctive balance between educational and imaginative projects, her last books being Robert Nye's retellings of Welsh traditional tales March Has Horse's Ears and Taliesin and Maurice Burton's More Animals (all 1966).

However, she became gradually disillusioned by the constraints of the career of an illustrator, and worked increasingly as a painter. She exhibited landscapes and abstracts regularly as a member of both the Society of Free Painters and Sculptors and the Ridley Society and, until the beginning of this present decade, mounted solo shows. Her range of talents and her dedication would have made her a distinguished exponent of any art that she practised.

David Wootton

Sheila Hawkins, artist, writer and children's illustrator: born Kalgoorlie, Western Australia 20 August 1905; married 1934 Max Bowden (deceased; one daughter; marriage dissolved); died London 10 January 1999.