Today, I wanted to look at Sybil Tawse. One, she had a fabulous name. Two, I just found her while looking at some Talos stuff – yeah the big bronze guy. Her work is very much in the style of Heath Robinson and Edmund Dulac. And even though she doesn’t have their clout today, she was illustrating popular classics in an unabashedly “feminine” style in her day.
Sybil Tawse was born in Sunderland, England. She studied at Lambeth School of Art and The Royal School of Art in London. Tawse won many scholarships during her studies and went on to have a successful career in London illustrating books, designing posters, portrait painting, and even designed some elegant ceramics.
A lot of the books she illustrated are classics from female writers. Like a few of my favorites, Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell and Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. If you haven’t heard of Cranford, think Dickens meets Jane Austen. (Yeah, I said it.) I highly recommend Cranford, whether in book form or the BBC serial. It’s a series of vignettes about a small Cheshire town that touches upon the daily lives, tribulations, and hilarious daily adventures of Victorian women. You can read the Sybil Tawse illustrated version on Archive.org.
Anyway, Sybil Tawse lovingly illustrated the domestic sphere a lot of these women inhabited.
Also, here are two of her illustrations for Anne of Green Gables.
Tawse also illustrated other classics like Silas Marner, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Thomas Bullfinch’s Stories of Gods and Heroes.
But, and maybe it’s just my interpretation, but her depictions of women are more nuanced than your usual temptress madonna/whore figures.
The Sirens here seem to be more like the fates. There are symbols of death and skulls, but there are also blooming flowers and masses of gulls. (Goodness, it must stink there.) Women as bringers and takers of life.
Medea is a straight up boss here. With her wits, she often saves the day. I may do a post on her later – she’s a fascinating figure and artists have tried to wrestle power from her.
You can see more of their female artists and a rather interesting history of women in illustration in general here.
I really enjoyed looking into this lesser known illustrator, who by the looks of it, must have been in high demand in her day.
- By a Woman’s Hand: Illustrators of the Golden Age
- London Transport Posters: A Century of Art and Design
- Anne of Green Gables (Everyman’s Library Children’s Classics Series – illustrations by Sybil Tawse)
- Cranford (Oxford World’s Classics)