Helen McKie – The Soldiers’ Friend

Helen McKie

Helen McKie

By special request, here’s something on the artist and illustrator Helen McKie. I am very grateful to Alan Hewer for making the suggestion, for sending some scans, and also for his quite splendid http://www.greatwardustjackets.co.uk website. He is a remarkable book-collector and his website has become an increasingly valuable resource for the study of all the nuances of the early twentieth-century British dust-jacket.

Helen Madeleine McKie (1889-1957) is rather better documented than other early dust-jacket artists. There is a good deal of information out there, and barring mild discrepancies over the spelling of her middle name, most of it reliable. I’ll go with the spelling Madeleine as that is how her birth was registered – it’s also the form given when probate was granted on her estate.

With My RegimentThere are always things to add to any biographical account. Helen McKie was born in Bayswater, London, on 11th October 1889, the first child of Douglas Allan McKie and his wife Lucy Anne Wernham, who had married in London the previous year. Her father was a twenty-four year old bank clerk of Scottish descent, born in Brisbane, Australia, her mother the twenty-five year old daughter of a builder from Newbury in Berkshire. In 1891 the family were living in the top-floor flat at 28 Craven Terrace, Paddington. As the family expanded with a brother, Douglas Hamlin McKie, born in 1892, and a younger sister, Katharine (Kitty) Anne McKie, born in 1894, they moved out to the suburbs, living in Thornton Road, Clapham, and later at Brunswick Road, Kingston-on-Thames.

Hospital DaysHelen was educated at the Tiffin Girls’ School in Kingston and later studied at the Lambeth School of Art. She earned her living from the outset as an illustrator, early on sending back illustrations from a visit to Russia to British newspapers. In 1914 she was in Paris. The following year she joined the permanent staff of the Bystander magazine, where she remained until 1929, also contributing freelance work to numerous other periodicals, as well as producing artwork for numerous dust-jackets.

A Kiss from FranceBy 1920, if not earlier, she had her own studio at 8 Jubilee Place, Chelsea. Her work was written up in glowing terms by the Hippodrome magazine in 1925 – “In the pages of our bright and leading contemporary, the Bystander, each week the refreshing and clever drawings of Miss Helen McKie are known to all lovers of the black and white art. Few are better able to appreciate the power of characterisation than this gifted exponent of draughtsmanship, and her many military types – from the characteristic and humorous point of view – have won for her the sobriquet of ‘The Soldiers’ Friend’. A young girl with a delightful personality and a charm of her own that, like her drawings, lingers In the mind, Helen McKie is perhaps in the zenith of her joy when depicting the Beau Brummell or D’Orsay type, or giving us those fine character types that are symbolic of various nationalities … The artist is not merely a cartoonist, but she is inspired with the inner knowledge of the subjects she depicts”.

AttackQueen Mary purchased one of her pictures at an exhibition in 1928 – she had become one of the most popular artists of the period. She travelled quite widely and probably the most extraordinary episode of her career came when she was allowed to sketch inside Hitler’s inner sanctum in Munich in 1931, two years before he came to power. Her album of sketches, including one of Hitler himself, came up at auction in 2011. She noted inside it, “Sketched in Hitler’s Brown House Munich by special permission of Hitler’s aide-de-camp Bruelenen – I was the only woman ever allowed to sketch here”. In a rather remarkable double, she was invited in 1943 to paint The Upper War Room at the Admiralty for presentation to Sir Winston Churchill, who appears in the picture.

Colonel BrambleAfter a brief return home to live with her parents – now at 60 Prince of Wales Road, Battersea – perhaps to assist in the care of her father, who died in 1931, Helen McKie moved to No. 8, The Pheasantry, 152 King’s Road, Chelsea, until the outbreak of war. After a couple of years living in Esher, she returned to Chelsea, at 53 Glebe Place, in 1943 and remained there for the rest of her life.

Bookstall WaterlooIn this later period, she undertook a great deal of work for the Southern Railway, including the well-known and much-reproduced posters Waterloo Station – War and Waterloo Station – Peace. This illustration from the National Railway Museum shows a sketch of a W. H. Smith bookstall, also at Waterloo. She also designed murals for the Ritz Hotel, several of Billy Butlin’s holiday-camps, the Ford factory at Dagenham, and Selfridge’s. She died on 28th February 1957, leaving a relatively modest estate of a few thousand pounds. She never married and spent much of her time in later life with her younger sister.

A substantial archive, donated by her nephew John Fraser, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, comprising forty-six files which include personal papers, correspondence (with Winston Churchill among others), Churchill’s tie worn in the painting, paintings and drawings, sketch-books, self-portraits, published and unpublished illustrations, travel documents, school reports, pages from diaries, invitations, family photographs, photographs of her work, press-cuttings, exhibition catalogues, some books, a poster of the McKie family tree, tea-towels and playing cards with her designs, and ephemera of various kinds.

helen mckie signatureAs to her dust-jackets, I have to admit that I have never been a particular fan. I had always rather seen her as perhaps School-of-Bruce-Bairnsfather, but without his edge. That does not matter – what I happen to think is rather beside the point. She was genuinely very popular at the time – which gives her interest, importance, and tells us much about the audience for these books. Beyond that, these were very early days for the specially-commissioned pictorial dust-jacket. Prior to about 1910, the only pictures we find on jackets – and these are uncommon enough in any case – simply reproduce a line-illustration from the book, or occasionally a monotone version of the coloured binding below. It was only at the time of the Great War that artists began to be invited to contribute fresh artwork specifically for the jacket, specifically for bookshop display. And here, right at the outset, we find a very young woman indeed playing a leading part in this new field – her name sufficiently recognisable for it to appear quite prominently on the jacket. That was quite an achievement. The work also expresses a certain jollity which she cannot always have felt – her younger brother, Second-Lieutenant Douglas Hamlin McKie of the Northumberland Fusiliers, who had returned from a banking job in Brazil in 1915 to sign up, died of his wounds on the battlefield at Arras aged just twenty-four.

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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