Mary Tourtel (nee Caldwell) was the last child of Sarah and Samuel Caldwell. She was born in 1874 in 52 Palace Street in Canterbury, where she grew up. Her father and one brother were stonemasons and stained-glass designers at Canterbury Cathedral. Her eldest brother, Edmund, was also an artist with an interest in painting animals.
Mary went to school in Canterbury. Like her father and brothers, she had an interest in art and attended the Sidney Cooper School of Art under Thomas Sidney Cooper. She had a particular fondness and ability for capturing the likenesses of animals. Before becoming the writer and illustrator of Rupert Bear for the Daily Express in 1920, she created characters and scenes more akin to the Kentish landscape.
Animal books for children featured greatly in Mary’s career as an illustrator. Her first publications A Horse Book and Three Little Foxes appeared in 1897 when she was only 23. The Rabbit Book are other examples of her early work. A handkerchief book, When Animals Work, was published in 1919 by Sefton.
The scenery drawn by Mary is idealist, often featuring vast green spaces, country cottages, and animals that can be seen in the Kentish countryside. Mary’s early life in the county of Kent and studying under the landscape and cattle artist Thomas Sidney Cooper has greatly influenced her work.
This clear influence is highlighted in the diary of Herbert Tourtel, Mary’s husband. On 21st August 1899, he wrote of an outing with Portia (his nickname for Mary): “We came on to the Patrixbourne farm in the hope of sketching some carthorses, but just arrived as they were going into the stables for their dinner. We came on to my rooms, had lunch, then returned and Portia sketched the horses. One man was very fond of his horses & quite in rapture with a sketch of his head which Pet made.”
It was not only the natural landscapes that inspired Tourtel’s work. She also created artworks inspired by the architecture, including the Cathedral at Canterbury, where her father worked as a stonemason and stained-glass designer. This watercolour is entitled ‘Canterbury Cloisters,’ and was painted by Mary in 1894 when she was 20 years old.
Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society (2015) Mary Tourtel (1874-1948): Illustrator & Author. Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society. Accessed 26 February 2021. [http://www.canterbury-archaeology.org.uk/tourtel/4590809564].
Tourtel, Mary (1901) A Horse Book. London: Grant Richards.
Tourtel, Mary (1903) The Three Little Foxes. London: Grant Richards.
Tourtel, Mary (1904) The Rabbit Book. London: Anthony Treherne & Co. Ltd.
Tourtel, Mary (1919) When Animals Work. London: Sefton Fabrics.
With thanks to Canterbury Museums and Galleries for use of their collections and images.