Sunday, 23 March 2008

Meet Gladys Peto

Elusive, enigmatic, an artisan of extraordinary originality and talent, it's difficult to understand why an illustrator and writer as accomplished and pioneering as Gladys Emma Peto was during the 1920s and 30s is not recognised today as one of the greatest artists of her time.

What little is known about her has been gleaned from hours of research of obituaries, magazines and publications from the 20s and 30s, and piecing together evidence from the few letters and articles about her that still exist.

It is known that she was born in Maidenhead, Berkshire in 1890.  As child, she went to Maidenhead High School, then Harvington College in Ealing.  She later went on to study at the Maidenhead School of Arts in 1908 and the London School of art in 1911.  She then undertook a design course at the John Hassall Correspondence school in 1918.

She married Cuthbert Lindsay Emmerson in 1922.  He was in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and they travelled extensively throughout Egypt, Cyprus and Malta between 1924 and 1928.  They went on to live in India between 1933 and 1938, and finally settled in Northern Ireland in 1939.  She died in 1977.

It is not known whether Gladys and Cuthbert had any children, nor if they have any living relatives remaining.  To the best of my knowledge, there is no archive of her original artwork, which is extraordinary given the vast amount of illustrations she produced.

If you are a relative of Gladys Peto or Cuthbert Lindsay Emmerson, or have any information to share, please get in touch - maybe we can shine a light on this supremely talented artist and bring her work to the attention of a whole new generation.

Colour Plates

Gladys Peto's children's books contained between four and eight colour plates. Here is a selection of my favourites:

Black and White Illustrations

Gladys Peto's children's books were profusely illustrated with black and white illustrations.  Here is a selection of my favourites:

Handkerchief Books

During the 1920s and 1930s, several 'handkerchief books' were produced depicting Gladys Peto's artwork.  These charming publications contained six square children's handkerchiefs made from Irish linen, and covered subjects such as schooltime, nursery rhymes and Alice in Wonderland.

Schooltime Handkerchiefs

Alice in Wonderland Handkerchiefs

Nursery Rhyme Handkerchiefs

Costume Design, Fabrics, and the "Gladys Peto Dress"

Gladys Peto's inimitable style was in such high demand that she was often called upon as a costume and set designer for the theatre.  Here is a selection of images showing what a fabulous transition her designs made from the storybook to the stage.

Ceramics: Tuscan Nursery Ware

Gladys Peto's illustrations were proving so popular, that in 1929, the pottery company R H & S Plant Ltd., manufacturers of porcelain and china at the Tuscan Works in Longton, England, produced an exquisite range of children's nursery ware decorated with her artwork.

Travel Writing

During the 1920s, Cyprus became a British Crown Colony, and many military personnel and colonial officials were posted there to administer the island. Gladys Peto's husband, Cuthbert Lindsay Emmerson was one of those officials, and between 1924 and 1928, he was stationed in Cyprus, Egypt and Malta.

Gladys accompanied him on his travels, and her experiences in the Far East had a considerable influence on her writing, resulting in stories such as Cynthia in Cairo and On the Nile popping up in otherwise typically British children's books.

Furthermore, her experiences resulted in two travel guide books published by J. M. Dent & Sons as part of The Outward Bound Library; Malta and Cyprus (1926) and The Egypt of the Sojourner (1928), the only two non-fiction books that Gladys wrote. These books provide a superb and often hilarious insight into the daily life of an upper class woman abroad, and are a unique mixture of historical and cultural observation and social critique. In keeping with her enthusiasm for style and fashion, there are frequent references to the appearance of the locals:

" The Greek women of the Troodos district are much addicted to wearing a blue frock with an apron of a particularly delightful shade of salmon pink, both made of the local fabric alaja. They are a mostly friendly folk. If you are able to talk to them, the women have the most curious habit of patting you upon the cheek when they take leave, which is rather disconcerting. They also uphold the fallacy that if they speak Greek to you very, very slowly and incredibly loud, you are sure to understand every word."

In addition to these publications, Peto's artwork was used to illustrate the cover of the 1931 magazine Egypt and the Sudan, for which she also supplied heading flourishes for the interior articles.

In 1998 the Laiki Group Cultural Centre and the Leventis Municipal Museum of Nicosia produced an exquisite limited edition, linen-bound book called In the Footsteps of Women: Peregrinations in Cyprus. The book is beautifully produced and includes a chapter on Gladys Peto, and reproductions of her illustrations from Malta and Cyprus.