Eileen Soper - a look at the work of Enid Blyton’s illustrator
PUBLISHED: 14:25 12 February 2020 | UPDATED: 16:31 12 February 2020
courtesy of the Chris Beetles Gallery on behalf of the AGBI
Thirty years after her death, the little-known yet fascinating Hertfordshire wildlife diaries of Enid Blyton illustrator Eileen Soper are being collated into a book
Eileen Soper is best known for her instantly recognisable illustrations of Enid Blyton's The Famous Five children's books, but she was also an exceptionally gifted wildlife artist and illustrator, admired for her prolific book commissions, paintings and etchings. She was also a founder member, with Robert Gillmor, of the Society of Wildlife Artists and featured annually in its exhibitions in The Mall Gallery, London.
Eileen was born in 1905, the second daughter of successful illustrator George Soper who moved out of London to bring up his family at Harmer Green near Welwyn in Hertfordshire. George bought a plot of land and had a house built to his own design with a print room, pottery kiln and studios that became known as Wildings. The family loved the country setting and liked to paint, draw and model the wildlife attracted to what became a garden nature reserve around them.
Both Eileen and her sister Eva were taught at home and became highly accomplished artists. Eileen took to applying her drawing skills to the etching press and became one of the youngest artist, at 16, to have work accepted for the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition. Eva concentrated on portraits and home-fired ceramics which included harvest mice and cuckoos in beautiful china models.
Eileen's superb etchings of children at play led to a long career illustrating Blyton's books but she also wrote her own charming books for children. Although children were the usual subjects of Eileen's early watercolours and etchings, she developed a naturalist's eye for flowers, birds and mammals. Her study of a song thrush used in the Medici series of postcards is a fine example. Her wildlife paintings were used in wall charts in schools which meant her work became familiar to generations of young people through their nursery and primary school education. Today her wildlife illustrations have an international following with many collectors in America and Japan.
Her father taught Eileen a good business head for managing her sales to publishers and authors and, following his death in 1942, she became the main breadwinner for the family, producing an incredible amount of work over the next 40 years, always in demand for her book illustrations especially. She also cared for Eva who became an invalid after their mother died.
Eileen began to keep a detailed diary of her wildlife watching in the area around Wildings in 1951 when she was preparing to write a book on badgers. This led to When Badgers Wake (1955) written and illustrated by her and based on her diary records. She drew the wildlife, their habitats and the Hertfordshire landscape in her pictures and sketches. Her fieldwork meant long evenings spent on cold hedge banks and in woodland. She reworked drawings and paintings over and over again until she was satisfied.
Eileen and Eva never married and when Eileen died in 1990, followed by Eva a few months later, their vast collection of pictures and drawings, along with George's prints and remaining legacy of pictures, were passed to Chris Beetles to sell at his gallery in Piccadilly on behalf of the Artists' General Benevolent Institution. The institution has helped numerous artists who have fallen on hard times. The Soper gift has considerably helped the organisation to continue its work, thanks to the generosity of Eileen and Eva.
Eileen's diaries were given to a local naturalist friend who had helped with the garden and kept her informed of the local wildlife in her declining years when she was less able to get outdoors to watch her beloved birds and mammals. She maintained her father's superb fern collection in the garden and Wildings has been kept much as she left it, after two admirers of her work bought the property from the estate. Part of the grounds are maintained by the RSPB.
Thanks to the dedicated editorial work and field studies of two Hertfordshire naturalists, Stephanie Marshall and Peter Oakenfull, the beautiful nature diaries of Eileen Soper are being collated into a new book. The diaries run to over half a million words which meant a huge project when Stephanie came to transcribe and edit them over two years, carefully transferring Eileen's fine handwriting from her foolscap Boots Diaries to a digital format.
Peter returned to the badger setts where Eileen spent night after night for over a quarter of a century watching and recording the observations of badgers and other wildlife. Using trail cameras, he has brought modern recording devices and photography to the studies started by Eileen. We can compare the modern day fortunes of the wildlife at the same spots where Eileen watched the animals of the 1950s to the 1980s.
What the diaries give us is the vivid background to Eileen's work. They show her real-life experiences, her observations and her frustrations of being an observant artist-naturalist. By also documenting the species present she shows what has been lost from our countryside since those days. It is a dramatic contrast with today's surviving varieties of birds, flowers, insects and mammals.
The compiled diaries, The Badger Diaries of Eileen Soper, under preparation, is illustrated throughout thanks to the Chris Beetles Gallery image bank and other private collectors. For the first time we are able to read the unique record of the hardships and dedication it took for Eileen to achieve her legacy of beautiful and important work.