Thursday, 15 May 2008

Rhona Harris migrated to Australia in 1920 when the young woman - her dark eyes troubling, serious, austere - was 17. Her father was an artist, a professional artist at that, and the young woman began publishing drawings and paintings in 1925, aged 22.

The book, The Pixie O. Harris Fairy Book (Adelaide: Rigby) includes poetry by the artist. It also has stories and poems by other, Australian, women writers. "She was asked to do drawings like Ida Rentoul Outhwaite," says my mother, who would know because we lived next door to the Pratts for some ten years.

Already, in this book, the style she would use for her professional work, is mature and the line confident. If we see a dozen fairies perched along a branch, they are all correct (though they follow the, admittedly, attentuated elegance already well established during the previous century by the Pre-Raphaelites).

They are talking to one another, too. This is what kids like: friends. There's a feeling of community, and this comes across equally strong in the poems. Somehow, this young woman is suddenly mature beyond her years and, despite the antipodean translation, none of her innate confidence is lost.

In her autobiography, Our Small Safe World, Pixie finishes the narrative at the moment of arrival, so (unfortunately) there's nothing here about this first book. Which is a pity - even Monash University's curt bio page has errors.

Surely Pixie - undoubtedly one of the first Australian women to earn a living by art - deserves a more thorough and painstaking appraisal? Surely, too, as the aunt of Rolf Harris, she could be invited to take a place closer to the spotlight of general acclaim. We've got a Miles Franklin prize - why not a Pixie O'Harris prize for children's literature?

"This is one Fairy Tale come true," writes Pixie in the brief dedication to her sister Pat. Fairies, she adds, "now-a-days are few". She's knowing, but her audience is not (they're unlikely to read this bit). The illustrations are not only in line but also "in Color" and "Half-Tone" (five shillings).

The first poem, 'The Spell', is stamped with antipodean emblems: wattle, ti-tree, golden wattle, baronia. But in the drawings, we don't see the kind of local flora Outhwaite made into a kind of brand - an antipodean antidote to climbing roses and lilies.

In addition to the trademark butterflies she would continue using for the next sixty years, we've got kookaburras (several - clearly the bird struck young Rhona) but that's about all. It would take a few more years before Pixie integrated local fauna and flora into her narratives.

The book cost about 70 dollars on eBay. The covers (back and front) have come away. The paper is dark with age. The corners are not crisp. Obviously, a well-loved copy.


Anonymous said...

Pixie O'Harris for a children's literature prize - why not indeed? The UK is currently mooting a 'Children's Booker' and they have a Children's Laureate. See my blog post of a few days ago here:

Ruby Hungerford said...

I'm well aware of how late this comment is being posted, but Pixie (or rather Rhona) waa my great-grandmother and I was just reading some pages on Google about her for a family tree project I have been assigned.
I couldn't help but notice your wish for Pixie to have an award named for her. Well, she already has one.
"The Pixie O'Harris award"
It was established in 1994 and is awarded for "distinguished and dedicated service to the development and reputation of Australian children's books"
Basically, yes. She has a childrens literature award.
Just thought I'd enlightnen you, lest you still be unaware.

Matthew da Silva said...

Thanks for that Ruby. I appreciate your commenting. Pixie was a good friend of my family's for many years but there are many things I don't know about her life.