One of the most beautiful and contemporary wonder tale books I’ve seen, My Favourite Book of Fairy Tales, was published near the end of the Golden Age of illustration in 1921. It is illustrated by an exceptionally talented artist, acclaimed in her own lifetime, who history has transformed into an elusive mystery: Jennie Harbour.
The fairy tale book was printed by Raphael Tuck, Publishers to Their Majesties the King and Queen of Great Britain, and Harbour’s illustrations (especially the black and white images) still feel exciting and fresh when I open the book today. Here are a few examples (you can see them all at Project Gutenberg, although the digitized images there don’t really do the book justice).
Upon first seeing these pictures, I was curious about this fantastic artist and tried to track down more information about her. It was easy to find accolades. For example:
“[T]he artistic and quite incomparable work of Jennie Harbour, [is from] an artist in a class by herself.” The Stationary World, June 1920, p335.
“[H]er Majesty the Queen, accompanied by Princess Mary, honoured the exhibits of Messrs. Raphael Tuck & Sons by her inspection. . . . The delightful colour facsimiles of early Victorian subjects, after Miss Jennie Harbour, which have become so popular, came in for special Royal commendation.” The Stationary World, March-April 1919, p142.
“Miss Jennie Harbour’s pictures [in My Book of Favourite Fairy Tales] are a delight to the eye, with their firm, graceful outlines and their original colour schemes. ‘The Goose Girl’ and ‘The Magic Mirror’ are our favourites. . . . The children will love this book.” The Bookman, Christmas 1921, p44.
“‘Favourite Fairy Tales,’ with illustrations by Jennie Harbour, should enjoy considerable popularity. It is so eminently attractive.” The Play Pictorial No. 226, Vol. XXXVIII (1921) p134.
“[The] famous collection of Jennie Harbour pictures [is] known all the world over.” The Stationary World, February 1920, page 89.
But it was nearly impossible to find anything more about her.1 (Adele C. Geraghty has even launched a website, with the hope of writing her biography, asking for “[a]ny information concerning this enigmatic artist [which] would be very much appreciated, especially from any persons who may have had a personal tie with her in some way.”) Unfortunately, as many have noted, and The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History states: “From antiquity forward, most tales of great artists and litanies of notable women included a small sampling of women artists . . . . often described as unusually talented women who overcame the limitations of their sex to excel in a masculine endeavor.” Indeed, Harbour’s arguably most popular picture, “Hansel and Gretel” from 1921, is quite possibly known largely because it was “borrowed” by J. R. R. Tolkien as inspiration for his drawing of trolls in The Hobbit in 1937. You can see the two pictures here side by side.
The children’s book historian Brian Alderson notes in The Hobbit, 50th Anniversary Edition that the basic composition of “The Trolls” was borrowed from Harbour. John Garth claims that Tolkien, however, “denied that his ‘imagination had fed on pictures, as it clearly had been by certain kinds of literature and languages,’ declaring himself ‘not well acquainted with pictorial Art.'”2 In a September 19, 1971 letter to Carole Batten-Phelps, Tolkien goes further:
“[A visitor] had been much struck by the curious way in which many old pictures seemed to him to have been designed as to illustrate The Lord of the Rings long before its time. He brought one or two reproductions. I think he wanted at first simply to discover whether my imagination had fed on pictures, as it clearly had been [fed] by certain kinds of literature and languages. When it became obvious that, unless I was a liar, I had never seen the pictures before and was not well acquainted with pictorial Art, he fell silent.”3
I leave you to your own judgment.
Regardless, I hope you enjoy Jennie Harbour’s masterful work, which reminds me, in its best moments, of a more compositionally ambitious, less detailed Harry Clarke. You can (sometimes) purchase a hard-to-find used copy of My Favourite Book of Fairy Tales here, or her Hans Andersen book here, can find Harbour’s other illustrations scattered about the world and cyberspace, and her pictures remixed into the book Mirror Mirrored, such as the images below.
1. There is a site that claims her father was an immigrant milliner from Poland to London, she went to a boarding school in Kent, never married, and died in 1959 after which her remains were interred in London’s Hoop Lane cemetery—unfortunately, the site neither provides any citations nor clues as to where it found this information. See http://collectingvintagecompacts.blogspot.com/2014/11/compacts-by-rex-prints-by-jennie.html
2. John Garth, “Artists and Illustrators’ Influence on Tolkien” in J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, ed. Michael D.C. Drout (Routledge, November 2006).
3. Letter from J. R. R. Tolkien to Carole Batten-Phelps, September 19, 1971, viewable at http://theamericanreader.com/19-september-1971-jrr-tolkien-to-carole-batten-phelps/