Mabel Lucie Attwell developed her own imaginative, and often amusing, imagery through annuals and postcards. Then, as her popularity increased, she applied it to a wide range of products. She was a household name by the 1920s, by which time no home was complete without an Attwell plaque or money-box biscuit tin.
Mabel Lucie Attwell was born at 182 Mile End Road, London, on 4 June 1879, the sixth child of the butcher, Augustus Attwell, and his wife, Emily Ann (née Harris) . She was educated privately and at the Coopers’ Company Coborn School, in the Bow Road, where she showed an early talent for art. She funded her own studies at Heatherley’s and St Martin’s School of Art (1895-1900), and, while at the latter, met fellow student, Harold Earnshaw, who would become a painter and illustrator.
They married in 1908, and would have three children.
Disliking her formal training, Attwell completed neither course, and turned with some relief to contributions to periodicals and commissions for illustrated books, including several in Raphael Tuck’s series, ‘Raphael House Library of Gift Books’ (1909-25), including a successful edition of Alice in Wonderland (1910). Her work as an illustrator was admired by Queen Mary of Romania, who invited her to stay at the royal palace in Bucharest and collaborated with her on two children’s books, Peeping Pansy (1919) and The Lost Princess (1924). Influences on her work included her friend, Hilda Cowham, and such members of the London Sketch Club as John Hassall and William Heath Robinson.
After her husband lost his arm, through active service in the First World War, Attwell became the mainstay of the family. In 1922, she produced the first of her hugely successful children’s annuals. Three years later, she was elected to the Society of Women Artists. A rapid and prolific worker, with a keen business sense, she also designed cards, posters, calendars, figurines and wall plaques, and saw her creations turned into crockery patterns and soft toys.
For most of her career, Attwell lived between London and Sussex with her husband, Harold Earnshaw. Following the deaths of their son, Brian (in 1935), and then of Harold (in 1937), and bomb damage to her two London homes (in 1940), she moved to Foxfold, Wiltshire. At the end of the Second World War, she settled in Fowey, Cornwall, with her son, Peter, as a companion, and remained there until her death on 5 November 1964. Her business was carried on by her daughter, Marjorie (known as Peggy).
Further reading Brian Alderson (rev), ‘Attwell [married name Earnshaw], Mabel Lucie (1879-1964)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 2, pages 885-887