Like many of us, my love affair with reading books began with pictures. I was given Peg’s Fairy Book by my Great Aunt and Uncle on my fourth birthday and I was enchanted from the moment I ripped off the wrapping paper until…well, her illustrations still captivate me. There’s so much vibrant detail and whimsy in each picture. They influenced how I imagined the worlds of other books I read, especially Enid Blyton’s enchanted forest.
I particularly love how her illustrations have a British woodland feel with native Australian flowers and animals. Which makes perfect sense when learning about her life.
Peg (1899 – 1984) was born Agnes Newberry Orchard in Leicestershire, England. Her father gave her and her siblings a love of drawing nature, especially wildflowers. She trained as a poultry keeper but kept drawing in her spare time. In 1922 she married Major George Maltby and they emigrated to Melbourne, Australia in 1924.
She continued drawing and took classes at the National Gallery Art School and joined the Victorian Artist’s Society. During the Depression she was able to supplement the family’s income by painting chocolate box lids and greetings cards.
Her drawings were first published in book form in 1944 and the publishers persuaded her to write stories to go along with them. Peg’s Fairy Book was the result and it sold over 180,000 copies.
In 1947 the family moved to Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges (a beautiful mountain town not far from where I live :)) where she built a studio and public gallery to exhibit her work. Peg continued to produce children’s books and published over 40 in the next three decades.
In 1975, publishers Angus and Robertson wanted to reprint a new edition of Peg’s Fairy Book. Sadly (unfathomably!), all of the original drawings had been lost so A&R requested that Peg, already in her seventies, re-illustrate the book. She did so, and the new drawings were considered to be even more beautiful than the original.
I never saw the original, but I think I might agree.
One of our large department stores in Melbourne, Myer, puts together a stunning multi-window display every Christmas which showcases a particular childhood theme. For most children, this is an annual pilgrimage, worth the trip into the city and battling the crowds. I’m not sure if it’s still as popular now, but during the 70’s and 80’s it was a magical experience.
In 1976 the theme was ‘Peg’s Fairy Book’ and I have very faint memories of pressing my nose to the windows and being completely enchanted as the colourful images of fairies and talking mice and witches and mermaids came to life before my eyes.