Obituary: Margaret Potter
Monday 10 November 1997
Margaret Potter was one of those children's illustrators still instantly recognisable to any-one who first enjoyed her work 50 years ago. Her bright colours and easy, good-humoured line always managed to impart an immediate feeling of general well-being, whatever the accompanying text.
She was born Margaret Whittington, the daughter of a farmer living in a Tudor farmhouse where Heathrow Airport is now situated, and studied at the Ealing School of Art and Chelsea Polytechnic. This training made her proficient in draughtsmanship with pen and pencil; she later added lithography and animal portrait painting to her skills.
After a spell as a commercial artist, she turned briefly to domestic science, becoming a travelling cookery demonstrator illustrating her points with cartoon sketches drawn on the spot. In 1939 she married Alexander ("Alick") Potter, an architect who was also a conscientious objector. The couple spent the Second World War running a hostel for Irish agricultural workers in mid-Wales, and it was here that their first joint work, A History of the Countryside (1944), was created.
This became number 37 in the famous Puffin Picture Book series, conceived by Noel Carrington. While the first titles, launched with typical Allen Lane optimism in December 1940, concentrated on wartime topics, later editions were influenced by the perceived needs of evacuated children to learn more about the countryside. One title, S.R. Badmin's Trees in Britain, was so successful it was later adopted as a set text in an agricultural college.
The Potters' book was much more innovative, starting briskly with the Stone Age and ending 32 pages later with a severe indictment of 1930 "ribbon development". Even here, Margaret's high spirits still broke through: the offending suburban street stretching into the distance through otherwise virgin countryside is coloured a very jolly red, and an ice-cream man is seen plying his trade while horses gambol in the fields beyond. In other pictures, running jokes help make a somewhat didactic text extra palatable. The alternating black and white ink drawings also provide children with enough detail to warrant constant re-reading. This lively little book was chosen by the National Book League as one of the 50 best published that year.
The next Puffin commission, The Buildings of London (1945), was equally good, and with its predecessor played an important part in raising children's consciousness about their environment while very possibly stimulating some of the future architects and town planners still to come. More Puffins followed, including two of those magical "cut-out" books written by L.A. Dovey: The Cotswold Village (1947) and A Half-timbered Village (1948).
With Alick again, Houses (1948) described some of the great buildings of Britain, a number of which were by then in a bad state. Their loving depiction in these pages could only have added to the growing national mood that eventually caused the Government, somewhat late in the day, to do something more positive to ensure the survival of those notable houses that still existed.
In 1957 Alick Potter was appointed Founder, Head of Department and Professor of Architecture at the University of Khartoum. Margaret's official position was Women's Student Warden, but she did much more, in particular building up an excellent slide library of Islamic architecture. The busy couple also travelled widely in Africa, India and Pakistan, leaving no time for further writing or illustrating after the appearance of Interiors (1957), an amusing, historically accurate account of changing tastes in domestic design through the ages.
But in 1984 Margaret and Alick Potter produced their swan-song, Everything is Possible. This describes their life in Sudan, takes the story on to Belfast, where Alick moved as Professor of Architecture in 1965, and finally ends with Gorsfach in North Wales, the couple's beautiful retirement home. Margaret's last five years were spent in hospital following a severe stroke. She is best remembered, however, by an active life always lived to the full and as part of a creative and loving husband-wife team that enriched everyone and every place encountered along the way.
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