The Seven Stories Collection is used for a wide range of activities, from academic research to learning projects and family sessions. This half-term, the Seven Stories Visitor Centre will be hosting Mystery Art Club – a creative session inspired by Enid Blyton's adventure stories where families can take a look at some prized works in the Collection and try out illustrators’ styles and techniques for themselves. (Check it out here)

In preparation for this session, the collection team have the exciting task of looking through the Collection for inspiring examples of artists working with different media. In amongst the shortlist choices for this year’s session (it was extremely hard to narrow it down!) is Ursula Moray Williams’ scissor cut artwork for ‘The House of Happiness’ (George G. Harrap & Company Ltd.,1946).

‘The House of Happiness’ by Ursula Moray Williams (George G. Harrap & Company Ltd., 1946)

 Photograph © Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books

Ursula Moray Williams (1911-2006) is the well-known author of ‘Gobbolino, the Witch’s Cat’ (1942) and ‘Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse’ (1938), but she is perhaps less well-known as an illustrator. As a child, Ursula wrote and illustrated books with her twin sister Barbara (who became Barbara Árnason, a sculptor and printmaker. Barbara illustrated the Icelandic sagas in an early commission before permanently moving to Iceland). The sisters enrolled to study at Winchester College of Art, although Ursula left after one year to pursue a career in writing. Nevertheless, Ursula went on to illustrate many of her early works. Her preferred media were pen and ink, gouache, and ‘scissor cuts’ (or collage).

Later in her career Williams’ works were illustrated by esteemed artists in the field, including Faith Jaques, Shirley Hughes and Edward Ardizzone. Some of her later works were also illustrated by Barbara Árnason.

‘The House of Happiness’ is a less well-known title of Williams'. It tells the story of a brother and sister who, tired of living in an old, dusty, unattractive house, take apart their home to build a beautiful one. The ‘new’ house, although beautiful, is discontent; it moans and groans. To make the house happy, the siblings attempt to fill it with furniture, then a mother, who is followed by a father, in order to make the house happy. The final task is to find a baby; a wish which the siblings’ hand-picked mother and father kindly grant at the end of the book.

The plot of the story is undoubtedly odd and out-of-step with today's representations of family life, but Williams' scissor cut illustrations are unique and brilliant. The book's trial and error narrative (in their search for a father for example, the huntsman is a coward, the pirate is inconsiderate but the woodsman is caring and wise - bingo!) is reminiscent of a traditional fairy-tale – a thread which Williams’ illustrations totally complement. Although the story is essentially jolly, there’s a darkness to the plot of the two children striving to achieve happiness and choosing to find their own family one-by-one which is matched by the black backing paper of Williams’ amazing double page illustrations (and perhaps fits the dark undercurrent of traditional fairy-tales).

The children wondering why the house isn't happy
Illustration for ‘The House of Happiness’ (George G. Harrapp & Company Ltd., 1946)
UMW/02/05/05 © Estate of Ursula Moray Williams

The children choose a mother
Illustrations published in ‘The House of Happiness’ (George G. Harrap & Company Ltd., 1946)
Photograph © Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books

One way of interpreting this fairy-tale styling could be through the biographical detail of Ursula and Barbara visiting the Alps on holiday as children. This setting was the inspiration for some of Williams’ writing (such as ‘The Three Toymakers’ (1945)), but perhaps is also evidenced here as inspiration for her illustrations. In the artwork for ‘The House of Happiness’, the figures appear almost Germanic in traditional dress with blonde hair, while the black backing paper adds to a sense of the darkness of forests. The scissor cuts, Germanic forest aesthetic and traditional fairy-tale-style text (in which no characters seem to be based in the present day – at one point a medieval-looking Queen is considered for a mother) add a historic feeling that is hard to place - somewhere between the atmospheres created in the works of The Brothers Grimm and Spyri’s ‘Heidi’ (1881) - but Swiss-Germanic all the same.

The children choose a father
Illustration for ‘The House of Happiness’ (George G. Harrap & Company Ltd., 1946)
UMW/02/05/09 © Estate of Ursula Moray Williams

A lovely element to the illustrations for ‘The House of Happiness’ are the borders which run on each double-page illustration. The borders include items from the central image, or additional items which are implied by the text and scene - a sort of visual Ladybird's key words for each page. Some of the cut-and-paste paper shapes have been painted over in gouache to provide appropriate colours, as the correct coloured papers couldn’t be sourced during wartime. This could also explain the blue and red trees, although these colour choices add a layer of imagination and other-worldliness that fits the story well.

The original illustrations for this book are made all the more fascinating by correspondence within the Ursula Moray Williams archive. A hefty file of correspondence between Williams (then John, although her books were published under her maiden-name) and the publishers George G. Harrap & Company Ltd., tie in Williams’ work with the history of wartime printing. It is clear from these letters that Williams became frustrated with the slow process of printing and paper rationing in wartime.

A somewhat harassed publisher responds with several letters, citing “the trouble with the special quality of paper required for lithography”, “the government… still giving out an enormous amount of work to every lithographer in the country” and issues with binding, as reasons “why publishers’ work cannot be normally proceeded with.” Printing ‘The House of Happiness’ is first mentioned in correspondence of August 1945 and is resolved in September 1946 - it's easy to see why Williams was restless.

Letter from the Chairman of George G. Harrap & Company Ltd. to Ursula, explaining the issues of printing in wartime. Dated 16/10/1945
UMW/03/02/01/12/03 f.1 © George G. Harrap

Letter from the Chairman of George G. Harrap & Company Ltd. to Ursula, explaining the issues of printing in wartime. Dated 16/10/1945
UMW/03/02/01/12/03 f.2 © George G. Harrap

Letter from the Chairman of George G. Harrap & Company Ltd. to Ursula, explaining the issues of printing in wartime. Dated 16/10/1945
UMW/03/02/01/12/03 f.3 © George G. Harrap

It's interesting to see that the paper dimensions seem to have caused an extra expense. By rotating the orientation of the book, the publishers suggest it will be much cheaper to make, increasing Williams' sales prospects for her next title in a more heavily populated, post-war books market. It's also fascinating to see the publisher issuing artistic, yet economical directions to authors (the role of the publisher often being overlooked in the book-making process).

Letter from the Chairman of George G. Harrap & Company Ltd. to Ursula, suggesting dimensions for next book. Dated 02/09/1946

UMW/03/02/01/12/03 f.17 © George G. Harrap

Unfortunately though, the niggles in the printing process for ‘The House of Happiness’ continued for Williams. After requesting her artwork back in 1946, it wasn't found until 1947, when it is revealed that the printer’s mislaid her original artwork, after it was "put away far too safely in our [the printer's] Artist's Studio".

Letter from F.J.Bradford of George G. Harrap & Company Ltd. to Ursula, relaying the message that her original illustrations had been found. Dated 17/01/1947

UMW/03/02/01/12/23 © George G. Harrap

Williams' unusual scisser cuts are fascinating to see. In most places in the original works, the pencil outlines drawn around shapes before being cut are still plainly visible. The transformation of her collages to the final, seamless lithographs in the book is astonishing (the slightly off-set colours in places mirror the pencil lines on the original work, despite the printing process). Most of all, Williams' scissor cuts are so vibrant and fun (and deceptively simple) that they inspire you to have a go yourself. We hope February's Mystery Art Clubbers will enjoy collaging after Ursula Moray Williams!

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