One of the pleasures of the exhibition of Children’s Book Illustrators currently showing at the former Art School, Ipswich is the inclusion of Margaret Tempest and her illustrations for the Little Grey Rabbit books. She is often forgotten or overlooked these days, yet many of us have grown up with her drawings of the sweet little Grey Rabbit, the vain Squirrel, Hare, Moldy Warp, Fuzzypeg the hedgehog, and the others. With their simple lines and warm colours she brought the stories to life for thousands of small children over several generations, and indeed still does. Sadly there was little love lost between Margaret Tempest and Alison Uttley who wrote the stories, each resenting the other having any limelight, especially Alison Uttley.
Margaret Tempest was born in 1892 in Park Road. Her father was a solicitor, a partner in Kersey Tempest & Latter, a magistrate and Mayor of the town. She went to the Ipswich High School until she was about nine and remembers spending most of her time lying on the floor drawing, while recovering from an illness which kept her from attending school. She particularly enjoyed the illustrations of Kate Greenaway and Arthur Rackham, and reading the stories of Mrs Ewing. Later in life she was delighted to find she was teaching the children of Mrs Ewing’s brother.
At 15 she went to the Ipswich School of Art and then art schools at Westminster and Chelsea. With a friend, she started the Chelsea Illustrators, a group which flourished from 1919 to the outbreak of war in 1939. It was while taking the Group’s work round to publishers that Heinemann offered her the first Little Grey Rabbit story by Alison Uttley: The Hare the Squirrel and the Little Grey Rabbit. Her attention to the detail in the little animal’s lives, their personalities and particularly her concern with the design of the books, made them so attractive. It was her idea to surround all the pictures with the coloured borders which make them so distinctive. To my surprise I discovered from interviewing a friend of the family that she was not wildly interested in animals, apart from the odd cat. I had imagined she would be a Beatrix Potter type.
During that period she lived in London during the week, and apart from her illustration work she taught drawing to the children of most of the aristocratic houses in London – including the Elphinstone’s, the Queen’s cousins. She realised that these children led such cloistered lives that she was one of the few who brought news of the outside world! Years later one of them told her that when she came it was like a visit from Father Christmas.
At weekends she was a keen sailor with her brother Frank. Watching them sail on the Orwell, their friend Arthur Ransome christened them “the natives”.
The family moved to 28 Fonnereau Road, and then during the war to Capel St Mary. Afterwards they moved to 3 St Edmunds Road. In 1951 she married Sir Grimwood Mears, former Chief of Justice in Allahabad. He died in 1963.
Apart from the Grey Rabbit books she produced friezes and picture postcards of rabbits, squirrels and teddy bears for the Medici Society, and later an illustrated edition for children of the Lord’s Prayer book for them. She also wrote and illustrated the Pinkie Mouse books and Curley Cobbler series. Her work is now highly collectible and she has become a “classic” children’s illustrator, along with those like Rackham that she once admired.
She died in 1982, aged 90 and I went to interview her in Park Road in 1978, and found a very charming but slightly confused old lady. I have no copy of the tape I made but in the letter I wrote to William Collins, the publishers, I described the house as a cross between a surrealist painting and the house of Miss Havisham. She had been a longtime member of the Ipswich Art Club, only retiring from the Committee in 1974, in which year she was still exhibiting. At 82!
Back to Latest News