Artist's Biography

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888-1960) is one of Australia’s most famous and beloved artists. She rose to fame in the early 1900’s as an illustrator of children’s books, working in watercolour and pen and ink. Her beautiful and exquisitely delicate artworks, which depicted mostly magical creatures, such as elves and fairies, were exhibited throughout Australia, as well as in London and Paris, mainly between 1907 and 1933.

Rentoul Outhwaite’s much admired work is now very valuable, highly collectable, and very rarely appears for sale.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite was born on 9 June 1888 in Carlton, Melbourne. She grew up in an artistic and literary family. Her father, the Reverend John Laurence Rentoul, a Presbyterian minister and professor at Ormond College at the University of Melbourne. When World War I broke out, he became chaplain-general of the First Australian Imperial Force.

Encouraged by her gifted family Ida drew prolifically from childhood. She and her elder sister Annie, attended Presbyterian Ladies’ College and whilst still at school Ida contributed to magazines produced in the family home.

Ida’s artistic talents complemented the literary ability of her sister, Annie Rattray (1882-1978). Annie was a brilliant student at PLC, going on to complete a first-class honours Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Melbourne where she won the Wyselaskie scholarship in classics and shared the Higgins poetry prize.

In 1903 when Ida was just 15, she published an illustration in the “New Idea” magazine, the first of her works to appear in print. Her illustration was accompanied by a story written by Annie.

In the years that followed the sisters collaborated on numerous stories using their combined talents. Ida’s illustrations and advertising images were also published in “The Native Companion”, “Australia Today”, and the “British-Australasian”.

At that time, commercial art and illustration were one of the few areas  open to women to make an independent income, providing Ida and Annie ways to forge  professional careers.

In 1904 Ida, then 16, and her sister Annie published their first book,  “Mollie’s Bunyip” which delighted the public with its representations of fairies and elves in recognizably Australian settings with motifs such as kookaburras and billy tea. A sequel “Mollie’s Staircase”, with text by Annie, was published in 1906.

In 1907 at the important “Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work” in Melbourne (a showcase of women’s achievements in art, music, craft and other pursuits), the Rentoul sisters displayed their “Australian Songs for Young and Old”, with music by Georgette Peterson, wife of Franklin Peterson. Then, in 1908 the Rentoul sisters published their first substantial story book, “The Lady of the Blue Beads”.

The following year in December 1909, Ida married Arthur Grenbry Outhwaite (1875-1938), who had been admitted as barrister and solicitor in 1899 but from 1904 worked as the manager of the Perpetual Executors and Trustees Association of Australia Ltd becoming the managing director from 1915 to 1922.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, as she was now known, published little in the decade following her marriage and spent most of this part of her life caring for her four children Robert, Anne, Wendy and William who sometimes served as models for her illustrations.

In 1916, Ida published her first book that featured colour illustrations, “Elves and Fairies”, a deluxe edition produced in Australia by Thomas Lothian. This book represented a pivotal moment in Australian publishing history as one of the first fine art books printed entirely in this country. “Elves and Fairies” was released just a few months after Lothian published a similarly lavish production on the art of Frederick McCubbin.

With its cloth-bound cover and delicate watercolour images on high-grade paper, “Elves and Fairies”, and the exhibitions of Ida’s work that followed, propelled her onto the world stage, bringing her fame in Australia and overseas, with a following from some of Australia’s greatest social, artistic, and cultural figures of the time.

The success of “Elves and Fairies” was due both to Ida’s artistic talent and to the business acumen of her husband, who provided a £400 subsidy to ensure a high-quality production and consigned royalties to the Red Cross, thereby encouraging vice-regal patronage. Journalists who interviewed Ida, the now-famous illustrator, were charmed to find her small, whimsical and piquant, just like her creations.

Ida’s work, with its successful marriage of the then popular European fairy tradition set within an Australian context, delighted generations of readers and during the height of her fame, Ida’s exhibitions were opened by the likes of Dame Nellie Melba, and the governor-general. Royalty also bought her paintings, and one of her books, “Fairyland”, was gifted to an infant Queen Elizabeth II.

Visiting Europe in 1920, Ida exhibited with great success in Paris and London. She signed a contract with the publishers A. & C. Black who released five books for her over the next decade, including collaborations with her husband and her sister Annie. In 1930 came the last of Ida’s books published by A. & C. Black. Angus & Robertson brought out two more books in 1933 and 1935, but they received relatively little attention. After exhibiting almost annually from 1916 to 1928, Ida held her last two exhibitions in 1933.

Ida’s husband Grenbry Outhwaite died on 16 June 1938 and tragically, both their sons died in action in World War II, during which Ida worked in censorship.

Ida’s unmarried sister Annie, after working for decades teaching Greek, Latin and ancient history at Presbyterian Ladies College, retired from teaching and Annie and Ida shared Ida’s last years in Annie’s flat at Caulfield. Ida died on 25 June, 1960, survived by her two daughters. Annie died on 24 July 1978.

Ida’s portrait painted by Amalie Colquhoun hangs in the National Library of Australia, a fitting reminder of her significant contribution to Australian illustration. Her work is also depicted in four stained glass windows in an adjoining hall at St Mark’s Anglican Church in Fitzroy, Melbourne. In 1985, Ida she was honoured on an Australian postage stamp that depicted an illustration from “Elves and Fairies”.

Since her passing, Ida’s beautiful paintings have enjoyed a renaissance amongst art collectors and are now very valuable and highly prized, with very few of works appearing for sale on the open market.

Ida’s work is immortalised in the numerous publications that carry her illustrations, including:

– “The Fairies of Fern Gully” (1903)

– “Mollie’s Bunyip” (1904)

– “Mollie’s Staircase” (1906)

– “Gum Tree Brownie and other Faerie Folk of the Never Never” (1907)

– “Before the Lamps are Lit” (1911)

– “Elves and Fairies” (1916)

– “The Enchanted Forest” (1921)

– “The Little Green Road to Fairyland” (1922)

– “The Little Fairy Sister” (1923)

– “The Sentry and the Shell Fairy” (1924)

– “Fairyland” (1926)

– “Blossom: A Fairy Story” (1928)

– “Bunny and Brownie: The Adventures of George and Wiggle” (1930)

– “A Bunch of Wild Flowers” (1933)

– “Sixpence to Spend” (1935)

– “Australian Bush Songs” (1936)

– “The Lost Princess” (1937)

– “A Bunch of Wild Flowers” (1942)

– “Musical Nursery Rhymes” (1945)

– “The Puddin’ and the Pixie and other songs” (1949)

– “The Guinea Pig that wanted a Tail” (1951)

– “Legends of the Outback” (1958) by Phyllis Power