Inspiring Women: Phoebe Traquair & Jane Yolen
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852-1936), who is celebrated today as "the first important professional woman artist of Scotland," was actually born and raised in Ireland, and studied art at the Royal Dublin Institute. She moved to Edinburgh, at the age of 21, upon her marriage to Scottish palaeontologist J. Ramsay Traquair (whom she'd met on an assignment drawing fossil fish), and it's there that she established her long, productive art career, and raised her three children.
A central figure in the Scottish Arts & Crafts movement at the end of the 19th century, Phoebe is often associated with "Glasgow Girls" (despite being a generation older than that group of artists, and based in a city farther north), for her work was shaped by some of the same influences: the Pre-Raphaelite art movement in England, the Art Nouveau movement on the Continent, traditional Celtic illumination and design, and the mural paintings of the Italian Renaissance. Like Jessie M. King or the Macdonald sisters, Traquair pursued her creative vision through a variety of fields: easel painting, mural painting, manuscript illumination, illustration, leather tooling & book cover design, enamelling, and embroidery among them. Although the range of her work is impressive to us today, the ease with which she moved between fine and applied arts counted against her back in 1900, when her nomination to the all-male Royal Academy was abruptly turned down. (She was not, they informed her, "an artist by profession.") Twenty years later, she was finally named the SRA's first honorary woman member.
My own introduction to the art of Phoebe Traquair came, years ago, from another Inspiring Woman: writer, editor, folklorist, teacher, lecturer, storyteller and "mythic mentor" Jane Yolen. Like Phoebe, Jane followed a scientist husband to Scotland (albeit somewhat later in life), where she now makes her home for part of each year; like Phoebe, she raised three children while simultaneously building a distinguished career; and like Phoebe, she works her singular vision into a wide variety of creative forms. I can't imagine that anyone reading this blog needs an introduction to Jane's glorious, multi-award-winning work; your bookshelves are probably already packed with her mythic novels for children and adults, her story and poetry collections, her picture books, her anthologies, her folk and fairy tale compilations, her books about writing and the importance of stories...over three hundred volumes in all. (If, however, through some strange chance you've not encountered Jane Yolen's work before, you can read one of her fairy-tale-inspired stories here , and her poetry here, here, and here.)
I was inspired by Jane before I ever met her, awed by her ability to create original fairy tales that read with the understated lyricism and emotional power of the classics, re-told for generations. A publishing colleague introduced us in the early 1980s, knowing me to be an admirer of Jane's tales for children. I was a painfully young book editor back then, still wet behind the ears and trying desperately not to show it. When Jane kindly agreed to write a story for an an adult fantasy anthology I was working on (and, eventually, a novel based on that story: the extraordinary Cards of Grief), I was thrilled beyond measure. It was the start of a working relationship that has continued to this day. (Better still, it was the start of our long friendship.)
Here is why Jane inspires me most: She lives an art-filled and vibrant life, one that is richly colored by family and friends, full of travel and worldy experience and deep, daily communion with nature...and yet, despite this full and busy schedule, Jane never strays very far from her core as a writer. She is always spinning tales, always weaving words and images together on the page or screen, always transforming the things she thinks about, feels, and imagines into stories and into books. She teaches, she mentors, she raises kids and grand-kids...all the things that could so easily drain her of the time, energy, and focus needed for creation...and yet she never stops writing. She honors her Muse. She honors the tales that build up inside her by giving them the time and serious attention that they deserve. And that, dear Reader, is not always easy for women. Hell, that's not always easy for anyone. Yet Jane has been doing it steadily, expertly, and beautifully for four decades now.
After all these years, I still don't quite know how she does it. It's a kind of magic, I suppose...which Jane (true to her word) touches lightly, and then passes on to the rest of us.
All of the images above are by Phoebe Anna Traquair. Visit the Mansfield Traquair Trust page to learn more about the preservation of her famous murals at the Catholic Apostolic Church in New Town, Edinburgh; and the National Library of Scotland site to view her illuminated mansuscript of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Sonnets from the Portuguese."