Ipswich Icons - Artist Margaret Mary Tempest brought Little Grey Rabbit to life

Margaret Tempest

Margaret Tempest - Credit: The Ipswich Society

Margaret Mary Tempest was born at 28 Fonnereau Road on May 15, 1892 to Charles and Frances Tempest, writes John Norman, of the Ipswich Society.

Little Gray Rabbit's Christmas, Pictures by Margaret Tempest

Little Gray Rabbit's Christmas, Pictures by Margaret Tempest - Credit: Archant

This address was within 100 yards of the Ipswich Art School in the High Street, a location that was to prove valuable.

Margaret attended Ipswich Art School and she may have been a contemporary there of another distinguished Ipswich artist; Leonard Squirrell. Margaret later moved to London to study at the Westminster School of Art from which she graduated in the summer of 1914 on the eve of the Great War.

She went on to the Royal Drawing School but was already planning the formation of a society of women illustrators with 20 other talented women from the School of Art. They planned to teach, create and sell art and to that end a studio was rented; an old barn at 59a Park Walk, Chelsea, SW10. The war came and temporarily curtailed their plan but the landlord promised to keep the barn for them until the hostilities ceased.

In 1919 they moved in and commenced decorating and refurbishing the rooms. A floor was laid of “chicken coop roofing felt”. Margaret was not only a founder of the group but also its honorary secretary and bookkeeper. The group designed a very distinctive letterhead and installed a telephone.

Illustrations by Margaret Tempest

Illustrations by Margaret Tempest - Credit: Archant

Margaret told the East Anglian Daily Times in 1971: “People say that women can’t work together but we did for 20 happy years.”

Between 1919 and 1939 they put on annual exhibitions and ran a successful business, selling their work and producing commercial material including Christmas cards. It was during the 1920s while taking the group’s work round to publishers that Heinemann offered her the first Little Grey Rabbit story by Alison Uttley: The Hare, the Squirrel and the Little Grey Rabbit.

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Her attention to the detail in the little animal’s lives, their personalities and particularly her concern with the design of the books, made them extremely attractive. It was Margaret’s idea to surround all the pictures with the coloured borders which make them so distinctive. Her style reflected some of the artists who she admired from an early age, particularly Kate Greenaway.

She began illustrating Little Grey Rabbit books in 1929 and continued to do so into the 1960s, by which time 34 titles had appeared.

Alex Paton, Margaret Tempest’s step grandson, said she had a particular affinity with children and “at their frequent visits she would sit each on her lap, ask them which animal they liked best, and proceed to draw it for them.”

Tempest wrote and illustrated children’s books of her own, with characters called Curley Cobbler and Pinkie Mouse. She illustrated books by Elizabeth Laird, Rosalind Vallance and Myfanwy Evans.

She came back to Suffolk on many weekends to indulge her great passion for sailing. This she often did around the Suffolk coast with her brother Frank. She was eventually elected commodore of the Pin Mill Sailing Club.

In 1939 Margaret returned to the Ipswich area permanently and in 1951 she married her cousin: the widowed Sir Grimwood Meers a former Chief of Justice in Allahabad. They moved into 3 St Edmund’s Road soon after the death of her brother Frank in January 1951 who had been the previous occupant of that house.

Sir Grimwood died in 1963 at the age of 93 and Lady Mears continued living in St Edmund’s Road. She was a long-time member of the Ipswich Art Club only retiring from the committee in 1974. She was still exhibiting artwork at that time at the age of 82.

Margaret Tempest (Lady Mears) died in 1982 aged 90.

There is an Ipswich Society Blue Plaque on 3 St Edmund’s Road commemorating the life and work of Margaret Tempest, illustrator of the Little Grey Rabbit books.