Illustrator put a nostalgic touch on children’s books

Times Staff Writer

Tasha Tudor, a children’s book illustrator and author whose delicate and dreamy artwork was featured in about 80 books, including a 1944 edition of “Mother Goose” that was so successful it enabled her to buy a farm and create a lifestyle rooted in the early 19th century, has died. She was 92.

Tudor died Wednesday of complications related to old age at her home in Marlboro, Vt., her family announced.

Long admired for their charm, her books were filled with sentimental yet realistic illustrations of quaint New England settings, intricate floral borders and often-barefoot children whose clothes reflected the 1830s, her favorite time period.

After publishing her first book, “Pumpkin Moonshine” in 1938, Tudor illustrated a number of classics, including 1962 editions of “The Secret Garden” and “The Night Before Christmas.” Her final book, “Corgiville Christmas,” published in 2003, reflected her passion for the Welsh corgi dogs she surrounded herself with and also featured in the book that was her favorite -- “Corgiville Fair” (1971).

Twice, she was a runner-up for the Caldecott Medal, in 1945 for her artwork in “Mother Goose” and in 1957 for “1 is One,” her book of verse.


With the royalties from “Mother Goose,” Tudor purchased a rundown house from the 1790s in New Hampshire that had no electricity or running water. On 450 acres, she raised four children, who sometimes posed for illustrations in period garb.

Her chosen lifestyle came from “nostalgia for a day and time that was more peaceful and slow,” Tudor told the Chicago Tribune in 1991. When she went to town, her children “were very careful to walk a good 10 or 12 feet behind me so that they wouldn’t be associated with . . . a rather different-looking woman.”

Later, she figured she must have done something right when three of her children adopted her lifestyle as adults.

She credited the commercialism of her art to the need to earn a living after divorcing her husband, Thomas L. McCready, whom she married in 1938. An author and suburbanite, he was not cut out for such a rural existence.

“If I had married a man who could have supported me I would have ended up making paper dolls and gardening. But the wolf at the door is very good for people,” Tudor said in the Tribune.

The nearly 40 books she illustrated for others often featured popular fairy tales, nursery rhymes, prayers and Scripture. Her artwork also appeared in books written by her former husband and in others by a daughter, Efner.

Reviewers often praised the 44 books Tudor wrote and illustrated for evoking the beauty and ideals of an era long past. Often working in watercolor and pen and ink, she had a style that critics called peaceful, that showed an appreciation for family life, animals and nature. Painting at her kitchen table, she wore handmade, ankle-length dresses that were fashionable in the early 1800s.

In 1971, she moved to Vermont and lived in a replica of a house from the mid-1700s that was built with hand tools by her son Seth, who lived next door.

“I ask people how old they think it is, and they always guess 150 years, if not more,” Tudor said in the Boston Globe in 1994. “It’s lots of fun to fool them.”

She grew most of what she ate, kept a menagerie of animals, and spun and wove flax into fabrics. Her main concessions to modern convenience were a telephone and a car.

In the early 1990s, Tudor announced that she was quitting public appearances, partly because it was hard to find someone who could watch the house and knew how to milk a goat.

Unconventionality was a hallmark of her life.

She was born Starling Burgess on Aug. 28, 1915, in Boston, the daughter of yacht designer William Starling Burgess and portrait painter Rosamond Tudor.

Her father called her Natasha, after a favorite literary heroine. She later legally changed her name to Tasha Tudor.

After her parents divorced when she was 9, her mother opened an art studio in New York but didn’t want to raise her daughter there. Tudor was sent to Redding, Conn., to live with close friends, a rambunctious family that emphasized imaginative play, Tudor later recalled.

Her formal education ended in eighth grade, but she had already begun selling small drawings to classmates for 25 cents apiece.

Over the years, Tudor created hundreds of Christmas cards for the Irene Dash Greeting Card Co. that became collectibles. Several of her books showcased her gardening, crafts-making and cooking.

Her work has been shown in museums, including the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Colonial Williamsburg and the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va.

After the first of three coffee table books about her -- “The Private Life of Tasha Tudor” -- was published in 1992, interest in her books increased. People realized her art was not fiction but came from her life.

“I believe in moderation in all things,” Tudor once said, “except gardening and antique collecting.”

Tudor’s survivors include her four children, Bethany Wheelock, Seth Tudor, Thomas Strong and Efner Strong Tudor Holmes; and her grandchildren.