We have had, for quite a while now, in our to-show-soon drawer, a little gem of vintage children’s book illustration. Now, in finally focusing on it, I realize how great a master of visual expression has been resting there, patiently waiting to be discovered.
The book is Round the Mulberry Bush (1933) and the illustrator is Fern Bisel Peat. Whereas the writer, Marion L. McNeil, has produced a rather precious and humdrum tale about a grandmother reminiscing to her two granddaughters (told by one of them, now an adult), she has, all the same, in setting up a perspective telescoping far back in time, given an opportunity for an alert, sensitive and supremely skilled illustrator to, in a context of poignant ageing, bring to us a rich and vibrant sense of the beauties and joys of life beginning to bud.
Here we have one of the grandmother’s older sisters delighting in ironing at the playhouse their father built for them. The modelling of sister Harriet’s face and the chromatic and textural features of her clothes speak to the bracing thrill of discovery and development touching each and every generation. An unobtrusive framing in pale green catches the perky ribbons in her hair and close to her intent consciousness.
Their grandmother, Carey, proudly and a bit galvanized in in being challenged by one of her older sisters that she would not do a good job of cleaning the playhouse. The artist signs the work with great restraint at bottom right. Her portraiture here is an offering of the magic of conscious life, the color and drawing touches conveying a labor of passion and love. Again, green ribbon in her hair, but here secured for the rough and tumble of being with others.
Here is grandmother’s other sister, Jane, closely attending to the canary installed in the playhouse.The text is such that the reader has to gather that it’s Jane, from an earlier clue, since no direct naming takes place at this point. (Part of the fun and the reading gains in motion here.) She had just been told a tale that the yellow color derives from an ancient canary (at that time colored grey) who had flown to the sun and thus brought about the big change.
The black slippers with varying soles are a joy in themselves and another little test of noticing variations. The billowing dresses connote being being chicks emerging from an egg.
We have to infer that the girl depicted here is Martha, one of the twins from next door (to grandma), and described as, along with Harriet, “being the oldest…” The veritable Maypole she has in her hair implies her sense of responsibility and attentiveness. Are those gloves she’s wearing? Yes they are! Time flying!
Here’s Mary, the other twin, back to the playhouse with groceries for a dinner the five girls were happy to plan and prepare. Gloves again. And a grown up set to her face. The color patterning of the girls’ outfits is a feast in itself.
We find that Fern Bisel Peat’s feats are still extant in some quantity. But apart from her birth and death dates (1893-1971) nothing is known of her life.
Now we are shown the girls who help now aged Carey as she negotiates uneven terrain. Here is Ann, who is told a story to bring her to a better state of mind about vegetables. Look closely and you see a less voluminous and elaborate dress. Also the hair is far less elaborately set.
An encore for Harriet who kicked things off. Here she’s in the garden by the playhouse, looking fabulous, as usual.
Here’s Mary having to be identified as making her bed, a peppy ribbon to mark the event, at the tail end of a story about Carey’s granddaughters spending a rather scary sleepover at the playhouse, due to a cow coming by in the middle of the night. Domestic chores taken very much to heart. Just as the reader of the book takes the children depicted very much to heart, especially due to the supernal illustrations of an unrecognized genius, namely, Fern Bisel Peat.