The current market indicates an increasing fascination with the fantastical world. Here are four of Australia’s greatest female illustrators you should watch out for at auction.
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite came from a gifted artistic family and was brought up in Melbourne’s inner suburbs. She began her artistic exploration by illustrating stories written by her sister Annie, one of which was published in 1903 when Ida was only 16. The story was titled ‘Mollie’s Bunyip’, and its Australiana themed illustrations delighted local audiences in the post-federation years. Kate Riley, who wrote about Ida’s success, stated that “the Victorian taste for fantasy, it seems, helped to create a lingering vogue for the fairy world, in children’s literature at least. Ida’s fairy world was special and successful because her sprites and brownies cavorted in distinctly Australian bushland settings, accompanied by possums and koalas.” She had a uniquely Australian vision which along with other artists of her period, such as May Gibbs, bore the way for the second generation of female illustrators.
After taking a break from her work following her marriage in 1909 and the birth of her four children, Ida re-entered the world of illustration a decade later with her book Elves and Fairies. This publication went on to be a huge success and is still marked as a pivotal moment in Australian publishing history. This book put Ida on the map and popularity for her whimsical fairy-tale scenes surged. Travelling through Europe, she was recognised for her unique Australian vision and handling of the whimsical subject matter and was likened to aesthetic illustrator Aubrey Beardsley.
Residing in Melbourne’s northern suburb of Coburg during the difficult years of the Great Depression, Peg Maltby supported the family income through her “chocolate box” creations to please the commercial market and finance her studio and gallery in the Dandenong Ranges. Her biggest artistic success came in 1946 when she published the extremely popular “Peg’s Fairy Book”, one of over 40 eventual publications, which despite wartime restrictions on paper and printing, ran into five editions and sold over 180,000 copies. This publication launched Peg’s career, and she became known for her enchanting illustrations of mystical garden landscapes complete with fairies, nut babies, elves and woodland creatures.
The magic surrounding her unfortunately faded when the federal government opened the floodgates to book imports in the mid-20th century and books by renowned British children’s author Enid Blyton usurped Peg’s position. Despite falling on hard times, the 1970’s saw a resurgence in “Peg’s Fairy Book” when it was reissued by Angus and Robertson. The original plates and artwork for the book were unfortunately lost, and at the age of 75, Peg was asked to recreate her special drawings. This book firmly established her as one of the greats of Australian children’s illustration and reintroduced her to a new generation.
Belonging to the second generation of Australian fantasy illustrators, Pixie O’Harris is an important, and often overlooked, addition to this period and style of Australian art. She is lovingly remembered for her large murals that she painted on the walls of hospitals, schools and orphanages. It was not until recently, after a resurgence in popularity, that 25 of Pixie’s murals were unveiled from storage at the Manning Hospital in Taree, NSW, delighting all generations. She was a predominantly self-taught artist and her accomplished work has been likened to that of Ruby Lindsay, an exceptional member of the Lindsay family of artists. Pixie’s works are rarely seen at auction, and her original watercolours and illustrations are highly sought after by collectors nationally.
One artist who deserves an important place among these other female artists is Margaret Clark. Similarly to Peg Maltby, Margaret supplemented her income in her early career by decorating and designing miniatures for confectionary boxes, and her work continued to appear in magazines and advertising from 1918-1930. Her career appears to have been relatively short and there is unfortunately little public record of her life and work during the Art Deco era. It is interesting to note that in 1924 she exhibited a handful of illustrations for the Sydney Society of Women Painters alongside some of Australia’s greats, Margaret Preston and May Gibbs. It seems a shame that her excellent work has fallen into relative obscurity in comparison to other artists in her circle. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading and soaking up the rich detail of Margaret’s fantastical works, with little fairies, elves and rabbits framed against rich black backgrounds studded with stars, moons and woodlands.
Recent market results indicate a resurgence in popularity for these artists, as their contribution is finally being recognised. Once dismissed as works of ‘mere feminine folly’, these artists have been given their rightful place in the development of Australian Art. We are currently consigning for our Women Artists auction, which features female artists who have been unrepresented and undervalued in their lifetime, and are welcoming entries for these four artists.
By Ella Perrottet
 Kate Riley, Elves and Fairies: A Case Study in Australian Art Publishing, published in the Latrobe Journal No 77 Autumn 2006
 Cathy Prior, Fairy-tales, feminism and fame: The story of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, 2018, ABC News