The originality of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite lies in the way that she grafted elements of the Australian outback onto the English fairy tradition and so created a mythology that is at once national and personal.
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite was born Ida Rentoul in Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, on 9 June 1888, the younger of the two surviving children of the Reverend John Lawrence Rentoul, a Presbyterian minister and professor of theology at Ormond College, University of Melbourne, and his wife, Annie (née Rattray). She was educated at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melbourne, where she proved herself to be academically brilliant.
In 1903, at the age of 15, Ida began to work closely with her writer sister, Annie, and in that year they contributed six illustrated fairy stories to the weekly magazine, The New Idea: A Woman’s Home Journal for Australasia. They refined their collaboration in the following year in their first book, Mollie and the Bunyip, which was well received. The collaboration was then developed in the first of their famous songbooks, Australian Songs for Young and Old, with music by Georgette Peterson, which was launched at the Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work, Melbourne, in October 1907. In the December of the same year, the sisters produced a pantomime book, The Story of the Pantomime Humpty Dumpty, to accompany a production at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, for which Ida had designed the costumes.
Printed in chromolithographic colour, its illustrations – inspired by the work of Walter Crane – indicated a greater versatility and a particular feel for comedy. The many strands of Ida’s early work were brought together in 1908 in both the first Australian edition of her sister’s version of Peter Pan and their first substantial story book, The Lady of the Blue Beads.
In 1909, Ida married Arthur Grenbry Outhwaite, manager – and later managing director – of the Perpetual Executors and Trustees Association of Australia. Together they had four children, all of whom served as models for the figures in her later illustrations. The second phase of her career was launched by an exhibition at the Fine Art Society, Melbourne, in September 1916. This coincided with the publication of Elves and Fairies, which made much of the ability of new printing processes to reproduce the subtleties of watercolour. Further shows followed and, on her first trip to England in 1920, Outhwaite exhibited at the Fine Art Society, London. Her success led to a series of five colour-plate books by A & C Black. These included The Enchanted Forest (1921), the first of her collaborations with her husband, and The Little Green Road to Fairyland (1922), probably her most popular collaboration with her sister. In her later books, fairies were displaced from their central position by animals, a change that reflected wider shifts in fashion. Unfortunately, this did not prove popular with her readership.
Ida’s husband, Arthur Outhwaite, died in 1938, and both their sons died in action in the Second World War, during which she worked in censorship. She spent her last years with her unmarried sister living in a flat in Caulfield, a suburb of Melbourne.
She died in Caulfield on 25 June 1960.
Further reading Diane Langmore, ‘Outhwaite, Ida Sherbourne (1888–1960)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/outhwaite-ida-sherbourne-7933/text13807, published first in hardcopy 1988; Marcie Muir and Robert Holden, The Fairy World of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Sydney: Craftsman House, 1985