Tasha Tudor (1915-2008), a prolific children’s book illustrator who published over 100 books during her lifetime, remains well known for her books as well as her early American 1830s New England lifestyle and the pleasures of a simple life.
Tasha was awarded her first Caldecott Honor Award in 1945 for Mother Goose; a second in 1957 for 1 is One and the prestigious Regina Medal for Children’s Literature in 1971. She was awarded the Walter Cerf Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts by the Vermont Arts Council in 2004.
Below, we share a longer biography that was developed by Tasha Tudor scholar Jeanette Chandler Knazek, in conjunction with the 2015 centenary exhibit in Brattleboro, Vermont. Printed copies are available in our online store.
EARLY YEARS (1915-1925)
In 1915 Tasha’s parents, William Starling and Rosamond Tudor Burgess, lived in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Each descended from noteworthy New England families; they were talented and creative individuals, well-acquainted with the highest echelons of Boston society. Their unique waterside home was built ten years earlier, adjacent to William’s business property upon which he had initially constructed a shipyard, primarily for designing and building race-worthy yachts. Many of the buildings had been converted for assembling naval airplanes by the time Tasha was born.
The Burgess couple hired a Scottish nanny to care for their new baby, who had been given the name of Starling after being delivered by Dr. Ernest B. Young in Boston’s New England Deaconess Hospital, now part of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Starling’s name was soon changed to “Natasha” (for the War and Peace heroine) and subsequently shortened to Tasha. Shortly after Tasha turned three, the Burgesses moved to North Chevy Chase in Maryland. Wm. Starling accepted a wartime commission with the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C. as an aircraft designer while Rosamond worked as a civilian within the Navy’s new Camouflage Section.
Tasha was occasionally separated from her parents during World War I while “Scotch nurse” Mary D. Burnett, whom Tasha called Dady, was essentially her constant companion. Encouraged by Dady, Tasha enjoyed acquiring many household skills including cooking and sewing.
There were other places in Massachusetts where the Burgess family lived: After the War, the entire family lived for relatively short periods of time in Provincetown, as well as Beverly and Holliston. Tasha’s early summers were sometimes spent in Nahant, where she played with her older brother Frederic and with her earliest friend, Jeanie Paine. From a very young age Tasha demonstrated a strong desire to create, even imagining an exclusive world no other person could enter–one in which she had private conversations with her dolls.
She was also eager to experience and understand living, growing things. Tasha was so impressed with the roses she saw while visiting Alexander Graham Bell in Maryland that she immediately decided to become a gardener. Tasha was most likely five years old at the time, possibly younger. Tasha met and spent time with other luminaries of the day during this time of her life. She came to greatly admire the art of John Singer Sargent, who did a charcoal portrait of Rosamond’s first child Henry; he was born during her earlier marriage to Boston socialite A. Henry Higginson.
In Boston, Tasha often visited her grandmother who lived in “The Tudor” apartment/hotel/office complex at 34 ½ Beacon Street and elegantly dined with other family members there. The nine-story building was built on land once owned by “Ice King” Frederic Tudor, Tasha’s great-grandfather. At an early age, Tasha learned about his business endeavors, particularly his success in shipping ice to warmer climes. She was enthralled by objects that had been shipped back to Boston—usually as ballast inside the Ice King’s ships–from faraway places including India. Tasha was delighted by the Chinese Export porcelain (primarily Canton) and German kugel Christmas ornaments once owned by her great-grandmother Euphemia Fenno Tudor (Frederic’s wife); the cherished items had descended through the family, eventually coming to Tasha herself.
Tasha was nine years old when her parents divorced; she then began a very different yet highly stimulating life with family friends who resided in Redding, a small southwestern Connecticut town. Tasha’s exposure to literature and the performing arts burgeoned while in Redding and also when visiting her mother who had moved to New York City to pursue her professional career. Tasha attended progressive Spring Hill School in Litchfield for a brief time, as well.
In 1930, Rosamond purchased a Federal-style farmhouse in Redding and soon afterwards, Tasha went to live with her mother once again. Rosamond continued her portrait work while she opened an antiques shop and also a tea room. Tasha assisted her mother with all these endeavors; she enjoyed learning more about art and antiques, especially old gowns and houseware.
Tasha’s desires to learn how to farm and to improve her homemaking skills became quite strong at this time. Her uncle gave her a milking cow and Tasha started caring for a number of chickens, later adding geese. She inherited a kitchen’s worth of old and heirloom utensils from her great-aunt Edith Burgess. Tasha even sewed a linen shirt by hand, beginning with growing the flax required and going through all the intermediate steps which included spinning the yarn and weaving the linen fabric.
Another longing was fulfilled in her late teens when Tasha exhibited her growing knowledge of New England farming life in earlier times by writing and illustrating a small book titled Hitty’s Almanac. She also expanded her artistry by creating New England Wild Flowers, another handmade, unpublished volume of flora she had studied during several summers in Connecticut.
In 1937, one of Tasha’s engagement announcements revealed her plan “to make illustration her life work”. The following year, Tasha launched her professional career with the publication of Pumpkin Moonshine, a sweet story about a little girl and her runaway pumpkin. A few months earlier, Tasha started a family of her own by marrying Thomas L. McCready, Jr. Tasha and her husband welcomed two children (Bethany and Seth) into their life while residing in Rosamond’s Redding home. Tasha began designing greeting cards in 1942 for Herbert Dubler, Inc. and two years later, she illustrated Mother Goose. That children’s classic was Tasha’s eighth published book; it was selected as a Caldecott Honor Book for 1945.
NEW HAMPSHIRE (1945-1972)
The success of Mother Goose allowed Tasha to fulfill yet another longing: to own and run a large farm with an old homestead built upon it. The small family moved to Contoocook near Concord, NH in 1945 and a third child named Tom (Thomas) was born the same year. A second daughter, Efner, joined the family in 1949.
Various working animals plus many pets were added throughout the New Hampshire years. It was during this time period that Tasha instilled in her children an appreciation for living on the land. She also taught them how to celebrate life’s special events as well as the passing of the seasons. Christmas was her favorite holiday, with Valentine’s Day coming in a close second. The family’s seventeen-room home required a significant amount of work to restore and update it. Farming and household expenses plus a growing family inspired Tasha to begin an additional at-home business endeavor, the Ginger and Pickles Store, which opened its doors in 1949. Occasionally Tasha found time to render additional artwork for customers, all the while improving and expanding her techniques.
While living in New Hampshire, Tasha continued to garner praise and recognition for her charming stories and her pleasing drawings and watercolors, many of which highlighted or incorporated New England scenes or elements. The writings and artwork often featured her family, their animals and birds, the farmstead plus its surrounding gardens and fields, as well as local landscapes and buildings.
In 1947, Tasha began a 30-plus-year working relationship with the American Artists Group. The AAG’s Irene Dash Greeting Card Company published Tasha’s Christmas card designs which varied in number from year to year, but never less than ten were issued annually. The exhibit’s main image was one of Tasha’s first Christmas cards for Irene Dash. It is a joyful and forward-looking scene: a young girl with blonde, windswept hair (perhaps modeled after Tasha herself) is providing water to a group of barnyard fowl while she expectantly gazes into the distance. The models for the barn in the background plus the well for water, with its long-ago sweep that once raised and lowered buckets into the well, were owned by Tasha’s parents-in-law who also resided in Redding, Connecticut. Caring for birds and animals was not only a common theme of Tasha’s greeting-card designs but a personal pleasure she experienced throughout her lifetime.
Often Tasha illustrated two books a year, sometimes even three. The list of children’s classics that she illustrated steadily grew during this time, beginning with Fairy Tales for Hans Christian Andersen in 1945 and ending with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in 1969. Two “New England” books featuring her artwork were published at the end of the decade: The New England Butt’ry Shelf Cookbook (1968) and The New England Butt’ry Shelf Almanac (1970). She received a second Caldecott Honor Award in 1957 for 1 is One and the prestigious Regina Medal for Children’s Literature in 1971.
Tasha’s love of dolls and marionettes flourished during the New Hampshire years and she devised the Sparrow Post system of communications for them. Tasha continued to learn and perfect her skills for a variety of traditional handcrafts including weaving, calligraphy and basket-making.
By 1971, Tasha was eager to downsize and move to Vermont, where she had often hoped to live. Her children were now grown and out on their own. Her first marriage had ended in the early 1960s and a brief second marriage was over in 1966. The resounding commercial success of Corgiville Fair paved the way for Tasha to purchase secluded, forested acreage on a high hilltop. Her son Seth cleared enough land to build for Tasha a Cape Cod-style house (based upon a New Hampshire friend’s farmhouse built in 1750) now known as Corgi Cottage, with an adjoining barn and various outbuildings.
Moving and settling into her new home took over a year. Tasha had scaled back her illustrative work so that she was producing only an annual grouping of Christmas card designs until 1975, when she illustrated The Night Before Christmas for the fourth time (and the first in large-book format). Tasha was sixty years old and already had had a longer and successful career than most children’s book author/illustrators. Yet she continued to illustrate books until her last one was published in 2002. Corgiville Christmas completed the “Corgiville” trilogy begun thirty years earlier.
However, Tasha’s desire to learn new artistic skills, to master interests such as gardening, and to experience special times with friends and family (now including grandchildren) did not diminish during her Vermont years. She had more time to pursue longings such as hosting memorable teas and dances, finishing complex sewing and knitting projects for herself or the dolls, quilting, putting on intricate marionette shows, and even baking bread from her own wheat. She adapted to her new surroundings by raising goats instead of cows and by selecting more appropriate flowers and vegetables to thrive in her higher-elevation gardens.
Tasha became much better known to the general public in the 1990s after The Private World of Tasha Tudor, Tasha Tudor’s Garden, and Tasha Tudor’s Heirloom Crafts were published. She met and conversed with many more admirers in person during the last two decades of her life than probably in the previous forty years. She was admired and revered throughout the world, for not only her writings and artwork but for her varied interests and affection for rural living.
By the end of her days on earth, Tasha Tudor had succeeded beyond all expectations in not only making illustration her life work, but also receiving recognition for her appreciation of America’s past. And she had done it wonderfully…while at home, in her beloved New England.
By Jeanette Chandler Knazek, Guest Curator