A Life Well Lived
By Laurie McGill
On June 18, 2008 I turned on my computer to find an email from the Tudor Family:
Dear Laurie, it read, it is with great sadness that we must tell you Tasha Tudor passed away in her Vermont home on June 18, 2008 surrounded by family and friends…We thank you for supporting Tasha Tudor’s lifestyle and artwork during her long career. We hope that Tasha’s message of ‘taking joy’ in all that one does will be remembered as we pass through this difficult time together. Signed: The Tudor Family
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It was 1962 when I first became aware of Tasha Tudor.
Texas summers can be extremely hot, and during the 1960s air-conditioned homes were somewhat rare. To keep us content, our mother would take us to the library every week or two, and I would find myself continuously checking out a small book called “The Dolls’ Christmas.” I can still visualize the shelf upon which the book was kept. I would march into the library, cross the creaky wood floor, veer a little to the left, look straight and there at my eye-level would be the little book seeming to wait just for me on the dark musty shelf. Racing home to sit in front of the table-top, wide-blade black General Electric fan, I would pour over the book as though it was for the very first time.
The soft, gentle illustrations of the beautiful old dolls appealed to me. The story appealed to me. The very size of the book appealed to me. I could easily hold it, look at it, read it and carry it around with me. My habit was to keep the book for the allotted week and then renew the book for another week. I would have to return the book to the library so someone else could check it out, but as soon as possible, I would borrow the book again, only to renew it for another week. It was a comfortable cycle which continued for several summers until my mother decided to purchase a copy of the book for me.
Happily I happened upon another Tasha Tudor-illustrated book, “The Dolls’ House,” penned by English author, Rumer Godden. “The Dolls’ House” is a beautifully-written tale about Tottie Plantaganet, a small Dutch doll “made long time ago.” Much later I would learn that Tasha and Rumer had been friends—bound together by their interest in dolls and dollhouses, children and literature.
Small letters would fly across the Atlantic—sent via Sparrow Post from Tasha’s dolls in New England to Rumer’s dolls in England. Sparrow Post was a doll-sized mail system devised by Tasha. Tasha would create tiny letters and the postmark would be “Sparrow Tracks” made by Postmaster Sparrow. All the dolls’ letters were sealed with a tiny wax seal. Not much larger than a penny, the letters would sometimes spill over onto more than one page. Each page bore the latest news in Tasha’s tiniest handwriting.
Sometimes the hand-made envelope held Valentines or Christmas greetings. Also sent by Sparrow Post were Tasha’s Mouse Mills catalogs, for ordering dolls clothes made by mice—mice who took buttons for pay.
Tasha’s dolls were always busy. They held Doll Fairs. They enjoyed tea parties. And as in the book “The Dolls’ Christmas,” they celebrated holidays. Tiny thimble-sized cookies would be made by Tasha and her children. Doll-sized gifts would be wrapped and carefully placed beneath the Christmas tree in the dollhouse.
Tasha owned at least three dollhouses during her life. An early house was actually built by her mother, Rosamond, and appeared in the book about a canary “THISTLY B” (Oxford University Press, 1949), who builds his nest in the dollhouse’s upstairs bathtub.
One dollhouse from her home in Webster, N.H. was so large and impressive that it became a tourist attraction when out-of-town visitors were in the region. This dollhouse was on display at Tasha and her husband, Tom McCready’s shop in New Hampshire: Ginger & Pickles Store/Doll Museum. (Tasha had been an admirer of children’s book author, Beatrix Potter and named her shop after Beatrix’s book: “THE TALE OF GINGER & PICKLES”). The dollhouse was too large to move to Vermont when Tasha relocated, so it remained in New Hampshire.
Tasha and her husband sold Tasha’s books and cards, as well as 10 photographic postcards of the dolls and the dollhouse in the Ginger & Pickles Store. Small advertisements for the store can be found in Hobbies magazines from this time, as well as in Elizabeth Andrews Fisher’s magazines. Tasha’s dolls were mentioned in at least two early doll reference books. In “The Dolls Of Yesterday” by Eleanor St. George, Tasha’s doll, Sethany Ann, is discussed in great detail. And she is pictured in the form of an original water color by Tasha (Mrs. McCready).
Both the store and the dollhouse were featured in Hopkinton, Mass. photographer Nell Dorr’s enchanting film, “The Golden Key.” Two of Tasha’s dolls marry in an elaborately staged garden wedding in June 1955. Not only did Nell Dorr shoot a movie of the event, but Life magazine also attended and ran an article featuring the event in the Sept. 12, 1955 issue. There were nine photographs spread over four pages with a short story line about the dolls’—Thaddeus and Melissa Crane’s—wedding and the numerous children who helped with the festivities.
I was too little in 1955 to know of Tasha’s store or the dolls’ wedding, but eventually sometime in the late 1960s another doll-themed book was added to my growing collection of Tasha Tudor tomes. “A Is For Annabelle” came to reside on my bookshelves. “A Is For Annabelle” is an alphabet book and begins with “A is for Annabelle, grandmother’s doll.” I was given the paperback edition, but my childish heart longed for a hard-backed copy…
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Time passed and I never lost my appreciation and admiration of Tasha Tudor
In the mid-1980s an idea suddenly occurred to me. I decided to write a letter to Tasha Tudor. I would tell her how much “The Dolls’ Christmas” meant to me. The Farm House in Lock Haven, Penn. advertised in “Early American Life” magazine and the advertisement stated the shop carried Tasha Tudor greeting cards. They also carried a cache of some of her original paintings. I mailed my letter to Tasha in care of the shop, asking the proprietor if she would forward it to her.
Thus began a long and rewarding friendship between Tasha Tudor and me.
Not long after I sent my letter via The Farm House, I received a letter from Tasha. She had just made the doll, Emma Birdwhistle, and many of our letters were about Emma’s clothing and accessories. Tasha told me about a small shop in Austria that carried just the right-sized printed fabric for Emma’s attire. She told me of Emma’s penchant for gardening. I mailed Emma half a dozen small clay flowerpots from Marshall Pottery of Marshall, Texas. Emma herself wrote me a tiny letter sent via Sparrow Post!
Emma Birdwhistle appears on the cover of the 1999 book “Tasha Tudor’s Dollhouse—A Lifetime in Miniature.” This dollhouse was built by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, but the items in the dollhouse came from Tasha herself. I’ve often wondered if the small clay pots pictured with Emma Birdwhistle in the Greenhouse are the clay pots from Marshall, Texas.
In addition to painting, Tasha was an avid photographer. Pictures of Emma and her china Corgi, Jones, reading by candlelight arrived in one letter. Another picture arrived of Emma warmly clad in attire fashioned by Tasha and standing n the Vermont snow with Jones.
Tasha’s interest in photography stretched far back into her career. John Cotton Lightner of Marion, Ohio owns a lovely photo album of black and white pictures of Tasha’s doll family involved in various doll-sized activities taken by Tasha and sent to his mother, Virginia Lightner, in the 1950s. Virginia was a close friend of Tasha’s and during her lifetime she amassed an important collection of original paintings and early editions of Tasha’s books. The two women enjoyed a close long-distance relationship for many years.
Virginia owned a Sparrow Post box made by Tasha—a small box covered in paper and locked with a miniature pad lock. The Lightner children received tiny Sparrow post-marked letters from Tasha’s Sparrow Post Box to theirs.
When John decided to part with some of his mother’s collection, I was able to acquire a book inscribed to his mother from Tasha. It was the long-wished-for hand-backed copy of “A Is For Annabelle.” And when he offered the original painting of Tottie from Rumer Godden’s “The Dolls’ House,” I knew I must add this one-of-a-kind treasure to my doll and book collection.
One day I received a list of Tudor items from another collector and on it was an original painting from my long loved book, “The Dolls’ Christmas.” Today it decorates a wall in my doll room—an ever present reminder of my carefree childhood days and of Tasha Tudor. And not long ago I was able to secure the cover art from “The Dolls’ Christmas.” How interesting it was to discover that Tasha’s original watercolor boasted a paper chain around the edges of the picture but for some reason the publisher chose to eliminate the chain when the cover was printed.
But the most meaningful treasure I have of Tasha Tudor is a painting she rendered just for me. It came in response to my first letter to Tasha, the one sent in care of The Farm House, the one in which I told her how much “The Dolls’ Christmas” meant to me. In her letters she referred to her dolls as “The Three Girls” (Sethany Ann, Nicey Melinda and Melissa) and one day I came home to discover a parcel form West Brattleboro, Vermont. Inside was a painting of “The Three Girls”—seated in their dollhouse living room, a Corgi at their feet. In the border she artfully, thoughtfully wove an envelope from Sparrow Post that read: To—Laurie McGill, Texas.