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Sister Margaret Tournour

Wood-engraver and book illustrator

Wednesday 05 March 2003 01:00 GMT
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Margaret Ada Tournour, nun and wood-engraver: born Sutton, Surrey 8 September 1921; entered the noviciate of the Society of the Sacred Heart 1952, professed a nun 1960; died London 1 March 2003

Margaret Tournour could not recall when she did not draw – she would fill page upon page of the dummy books given to her by an aunt who worked for the Oxford University Press, continuing even when in bed.

She became an illustrator and wood-engraver before she became a nun, and only returned to wood-engraving in her retirement. Her 80th birthday in 2001 was marked by the publication of an eBook of her engravings, Bible Beasts, by the Stanbrook Abbey Press. The last months of her life saw two exhibitions of her work: the first, in November-December, at Durham University Library and a celebration, in the words of its organiser, David Burnett, of "an art of miniature"; the second, "Hampshire Inhabitants", at Westbury Manor Museum, in Fareham, which closed in January.

Margaret Tournour was born to Elizabeth and Albert Tournour in 1921, in Sutton, Surrey. Her father was a traffic manager for the Southern Railway at Waterloo Station – their "own" station, Tournour and her brother thought as children. Her father was very interested in music and there was some visual-art tradition in the family: she believed that her maternal grandfather had been an engraver.

She was educated first at Brenden House Kindergarten, Norbury, and from the age of eight at Old Palace School, Croydon, following which she attended St Anne's College, Sanderstead.

Tournour was awarded a scholarship to Croydon School of Art in 1938, at a time when most towns in England had schools of art – whose curriculum often reflected the needs of local industry. Croydon's headmaster at the time was George Hinchcliffe, an Australian by birth but trained in England. The strength of the system was that the teaching was conducted mainly by part-time staff commercially experienced in their field. Tournour thought the teaching very good but did not complete the course "because of bad health and the outbreak of the war. I was there for three years but I did take the Drawing Examination."

The aunt who was a children's editor with Oxford University Press secured Tournour some freelance work as an illustrator. At this time she was concerned with the care of her invalid mother. She had no studio but worked on her bedroom floor, storing her materials and work in progress in a trunk beneath her bed.

Tournour illustrated two titles for OUP in 1942, Men of Britain, verses by C.J. Kaberry, and Little Billy Brown of London Town, a child's evacuation story, followed by Kaberry's A Nonsense Who's Who (1943) and Yafflewood: a village nature book (1949). The designs for the covers her own series of eight Oxford Bible Booklets (1943), are very appealing, in bright crisp colour. The inner illustrations are taken from vigorously cut scraperboard drawings. Tournour thought she might have had some instruction in this technique whilst at Croydon. She found her own way as an engraver.

The galleys for the series were sent to her and she designed each page, disposing the illustrations and letterpress as she thought best. This freedom allowed her control of the pace of the narrative, with small cuts, page and double-page illustrations. The visual story-telling is clear, direct, and sensitively drawn with an eye to incident and the detail which children love. OUP generally accepted her designs – "They were good about that," she said – but she had to be vigilant with the typesetters, who would, if allowed, bring their sense of order to the page design.

In July 1943, Tournour was received into the Roman Catholic Church and in 1952 she was admitted to the noviciate of the Society of the Sacred Heart, at which time her personal possessions, including her engraving tools, were given up. She made her final profession in the religious life in Rome in 1960.

The society was founded in Paris in 1800. Primarily it is a teaching order, and has houses worldwide with some 3,500 sisters. Before the reforms after the Second Vatican Council, it was an enclosed order, habited in black with a white frilled cap. Sister Margaret recalled that she slowly adapted to the changes in liturgy and dress. When I met her two years ago she was wearing slacks and a cotton blouse. (Her voice was so soft and fugitive that when I got home my tape recorder had picked up not one of her answers to my questions.)

Sister Margaret taught in the society's schools and, apart from making an occasional drawing, perhaps for a Reverend Mother's feast day, she did no work of her own until her retirement in 1984, when her engraving tools were returned to her. She started to engrave and exhibited her prints in Durham, where they were seen and she was asked to illustrate books again. Publishers have served Sister Margaret sympathetically. Her books are well designed, printed and bound to high standards. In her "retirement" she illustrated at least 20 titles, including Bible Birds (1996), Bible Trees (1997) and Bible Plants (1999); and David Burnett's Twelve Poems (1994), Goat's Beard (1998) and Couples (1999).

Sister Margaret rose at 5.30 each morning and heard mass at the local church and attended a Community meeting each day. She worked in her room in the morning and after lunch.

She made few if any preparatory drawings, preferring to work directly on the block, though sometimes ("often") forgetting to reverse the image. Problems with mobility meant that she mostly worked from imagination. However, she was able to observe subjects from her window and she did for a time keep in her room a semi-secret pet, a hedgehog. If she needed other reference material, her helper, Sister Flora Macdonald, would seek it out.

Her workroom, formally a bedroom, was very small. Here she engraved seated with a magnifying lens slung from her neck, with a sandbag and the block in her lap, her back to the window but with a swivel-head electric lamp to either side. She used a range of woods – pear, lime, lemon, box – and for economy used both faces of the block. As a result of a hip operation she was confined to a wheelchair in her last years but she was able to move about the room with the aid of a walking frame.

Sister Margaret proofed her own blocks with a spoon as a burnisher. She preferred the softer, more subtle blacks gained with hand printing: "Printers seem intent on getting the blackest print they can and much is lost." However, she admitted that her delicate, shallow cutting made her a printer's nightmare.

She did no cutting in the evening but confessed that on occasion, continuing her habit from childhood, she took proofs to bed with her to consider the day's work.

William Connelly

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