Seven years after her death, Tasha Tudor is still as enigmatic, fascinating, and entertaining as she was in life. The famed illustrator’s family is determined to continue her legacy.
By Annie Graves
Oct 03 2014
Pussywillows and tulips rest on the windowsill as Tasha Tudor and Captain Pegler, one of her parrots, wash dishes together. On the shelves are Tasha’s sets of vintage china. “I’ve used these dishes all my life,” she wrote in The Private World of Tasha Tudor. “I’ve taken care of them, and my family before me took care of them.”Photo Credit : Richard Brown
There’s a layer of quiet dust on the drawing pad by the north-facing window. All is in readiness—a fistful of brushes, watercolors, a chair drawn up before a modest square table. Our small group, 20 tourists granted the privilege of visiting Tasha Tudor’s private 200-acre sanctuary in Marlboro, Vermont, on an early-fall day in 2013, stands silent, drinking in our good fortune. To our immediate right is a buttery-yellow fireplace decked with the essential trappings of Colonial living—antique rifle, candlewick snipper, and a rare, early tin kitchen, the open-hearth equivalent of today’s BBQ grill. It looks familiar. A perfect still life, waiting.
“When I die, I’m going right back to the 1830s, which was a delightful period in my past life,” declared legendary children’s book illustrator Tasha Tudor in Take Joy, a PBS documentary filmed in 1996 that affords a brief glimpse into the life and art of an unabashed eccentric, a droll and captivating artist who insisted she was “only an illustrator.”
By the time she died in June 2008, at the age of 92 (when she presumably resumed her life as a 19th-century sea captain’s wife), Tasha had illustrated close to 100 books, including such children’s classics as The Wind in the Willows,The Secret Garden, and The Night Before Christmas. She had also cut her own path through children’s literature with original books like Corgiville Fair. And left behind a few cookbooks whose illustrations satisfy families hungry for a way of life as well as birthday-cake alternatives (see “Pink Pudding,” from The New England Butt’ry Shelf Cookbook). For those raised on Tasha’s lovely, lyrical images of bygone times, her illustrations can be more instantly relaxing than a cup of chamomile tea.
She was almost as famous for her lifestyle. Long before simplicity came back into fashion, Tasha heated and cooked with wood, and lived without running water or electricity for part of the time she was raising four children in rural New Hampshire. Photographer Richard Brown captured romantic images of her later years, living a similar lifestyle in Marlboro, Vermont, after she moved there in 1972, in books like The Private World of Tasha Tudor and Tasha Tudor’s Garden.
She kept animals—Nubian goats, beloved corgis who would feature in the entertaining Corgiville sagas, a one-eyed cat. African gray parrots and tame crows, with names like Edgar Allen Crow. Sometimes she wove her own cloth; always she dressed in authentic 19th-century-style clothing. Her daughter Bethany writes in her own book, Drawn from New England, “[M]y mother looked the most perfect in those old clothes—she has a face that belongs to another century.” Tasha seemed secretly tickled by any fuss she provoked.
“One of the nice things about being an artist—you can play God and make it look the way you want it to,” Tasha says in Take Joy.
Playing God has its rewards. Challenges, too. You can rewrite your story, revise it at will. Create a world that’s exactly to your liking. It’s part of Tasha’s appeal, this stalwart marching to the beat of her own drum. She appeared to be perfectly at peace in her own created world, and remained unapologetically true to herself, her artwork, and her lifestyle.
“I’ve always lived in a world of imagination,” Tasha said. “Maybe it’s because I’m a coward and hide my head in the sand because I don’t want to see the real world. I don’t know, but I can assure you it’s a very delightful way to live. I’m an eternal optimist. I’ve never had a headache and I’ve never felt depressed … My whole life has been a vacation.”
How many of us can say the same? Who wouldn’t admire or envy that?
So here we stand, our small group of 20 admirers, on the threshold of Tasha’s world. We’re about to explore a house and a barn that many of us already know intimately, or so we think, from the artist’s many illustrations featuring scenes set here and there, scattered around the property like fallen leaves.
We’ve traveled a sun-dappled dirt road that wanders into the woods as aimlessly as a chicken, on a day that is a miracle of fall, cloudlessly blue. Fresh colors speckle the hills around Marlboro, and tucked into the woods are the house and barn that Seth Tudor built for his mother in 1972, using only hand tools. An amazing feat, and there are photos to prove it. It’s a copy of a 1700s house in New Hampshire, and Seth made it look as old as the hills. Or rather, Tasha insisted that he ignore certain modern building conventions, like ground clearance to prevent rot, and roof ventilation to keep ice dams from building up.
“Tasha was assertive about some things,” Seth says, standing in the shadow of the barn he raised. He’s lanky, in his early seventies, regretful that he’s too old to climb onto roofs anymore. “She didn’t want any of those things. So I said, ‘I’ll do it the way you want,’ and she was right in a way, because it did make it look old very quickly. She wanted it made like an old house, and she said, ‘I don’t care if it rots or sags—it’ll look even older,’ which is true. But now we’re paying for it!”
Our tour group comprises a select few, a diverse bunch, but each feels connected to this woman, this place. Susan is from New York—it’s her third tour. She says, “I was born in the wrong century. I have 45 of Tasha’s books.” There’s Jane, from Illinois. Nancy, from New Jersey, who can barely stand from a bad case of the flu but came anyway. Rich and Kellie, a young couple who are here because he gave the $165 tour to his wife as a gift. Jennifer has brought her 10-year-old daughter, Rosie, saying, “She’s very interested in making things, and I wanted her to see the things that Tasha did and made.” Michael Frees is a gentleman farmer from Massachusetts who loves basketry and has a parrot, just as Tasha did. He calls her “a chicken genius.”
Our group splits into smaller groups, so that we can fit into some of the snugger parts of the house and barn. As we move from room to room, and finally outdoors, we’ll each spend time with all three guides: Seth; his wife, Marjorie; and their son, Winslow. All live nearby, tucked within an easy radius of Tasha’s home.
My group is led by Winslow, Tasha’s grandson. He’s in his thirties, cleanly handsome—blond and angular, with a homespun casualness that evokes Little House on the Prairie. He lives less than 1,000 feet from his grandmother’s house, and he’s handy, like his father, Seth. His latest project is reroofing Tasha’s house with wooden shingles. “She had more energy and enthusiasm than anyone I’ve ever met,” Winslow says. “She was always pointing out how beautiful it was.”
We pause, midway between Tasha’s massive cookstove and the yellow fireplace, hovering near the table where she spent winters stoking the fire, absorbed in creating new illustrations. “This is the heart of the house,” Winslow says. He cocks an ear: “The way things rattle—they’ve been doing that for 30 years. The house is just the way she left it. I’m always amazed when I go away and come back. It’s like going back in time.”
We listen, but there’s more here than rattling cups and kettles. Many of us recognize our surroundings, even though we’ve never been here. Tasha painted these settings so many times that it’s like standing in one of her paintings. Intimate, unnerving, and thrilling, all at the same time.
She’s here, and she’s not.
Tasha Tudor was born in 1915 in Boston, raised as a “proper Bostonian,” her daughter Bethany wrote, and spent her early years in Marblehead. “Father was very eccentric,” Tasha has said, emphasizing William Starling Burgess’s “fey, mystical quality” and connection to animals and children. In fact, her father built cars with Buckminster Fuller, designed yachts, and owned the first licensed airplane factory in the country. Her mother, Rosamond, was “charming and lovely looking,” fiercely independent, loved painting, and had a pilot’s license. Their dinner guests included notables of the day, including Mark Twain.
She was 9 when her parents divorced. Rosamond went to live in Greenwich Village, and Tasha was sent off to Redding, Connecticut, to live with friends. “It was the most wonderful thing that happened to me,” she often said. She thrived in her life with this “wonderful bohemian family,” where dancing and theatre were as natural as breathing. She began drawing and painting in her teenage years, having already decided she would be an illustrator, writes Bethany in Drawn from New England. She bought antique clothes starting at age 10 and, at 15, purchased her first cow—activities that were quirky enough to be mentioned in her obituary in the New York Times.
Tasha’s first book, Pumpkin Moonshine, was written for her future husband’s niece, Sylvie Ann Wallace, in 1938. “Someone suggested that maybe it should be published,” recalls Seth later on in the tour, when we’re taking a break. “She had to borrow the book back from Sylvie Ann.” It was an early indicator of Tasha’s fierce perseverance that she carried the book around to every New York City publisher and was repeatedly turned down. She persisted until a new editor at Oxford University Press finally accepted the little hand-bound volume.
And somewhere, the myth began to grow.
She married Thomas McCready Jr., they bought a 17-room farmhouse from the 1800s in New Hampshire, with no electricity or running water, and had four children: Bethany, Seth, Thomas, and Efner, who were frequent models for their mother’s illustrations. By then, the books were flowing regularly, as was the attention to how she lived and worked. Tasha’s elaborate handmade dollhouse was featured in her illustrations, but above and beyond that, there was a fascination with the imaginary worlds she was creating; in 1955, Life magazine even covered the wedding of two of her best-known dolls, Captain Thaddeus Crane and the lovely Melissa. Later, Tasha created a new doll, Emma Birdwhistle, whom she preferred. There was a subsequent divorce, and even a touch of scandal in the doll world.
Imaginary worlds, it seemed, could be just as complicated as the real one.
Anecdotes spill out as we move from room to room. Earlier, in the barn, we’d passed five metal feeding bowls lined up for the goats; Tasha believed that milking goats kept her from having arthritis. For good health, she advocated goat’s milk and naps, and oatmeal every morning. A massive barrel carved from a tree trunk is stuffed with feathers from a long-defunct comforter—“I’m not throwing these out,” she had declared, but never got around to reusing them. She was “very nimble,” Winslow says, a consequence of throwing down a couple bales of hay from the loft every day. “It was a very dynamic scene here,” he recalls of his childhood. “I liked helping out.”
It seems most visitors did. “There was a certain warmth and friendliness,” Winslow says, as we squeeze through a narrow hallway into the main house. “It’s fair to say that she was the greatest influence on me and my life. She was very charming in an Old World way. Always so happy to see someone. Always so welcoming. And she’d immediately put you to work!” Later, in the gardens, Seth’s wife, Marjorie, concurs: “Everyone who ever came for tea wound up doing something for her.”
We pause to admire a wall, near the kitchen, where Tasha’s telephone once hung—it’s a work of art, crowded with phone numbers and sketches of corgis. Her kitchen paraphernalia is modest by any standard. “She didn’t have a huge kitchenful of pots and pans; she made tremendous things with just a few,” Winslow explains. He grins: “And she used a lot of butter.” The big reveal—a little like pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz—is Tasha’s “electric” kitchen. By far the smallest room in the house, it seems no bigger than 8×8, and it’s crowded with a stove and a refrigerator. There’s barely room to turn around.
Once we’re outside, looking at the gardens—Tasha’s pride and joy—tourmate Jennifer whispers to me that one of the things she’s enjoyed most about the tour is seeing that electric kitchen, with a John Donne poem (“No man is an island …”) tacked to the fridge. “It all looks so perfect in the illustrations,” she says. “It’s much more approachable here.”
The gardens were Tasha’s true love, and she often claimed that she painted her illustrations in the winter so that she could buy plants in the summer. “She’d pack her Nissan truck with plants every year,” Marjorie Tudor recalls. “Then she’d find a few more, and she’d not only fill the back, but they’d be between her legs, on her shoulders. She was always remarking how beautiful this world was. Looking with an artist’s eye at everything.”
She leads us down the long yard, to a little pond that’s wild and overgrown, like a scene right out of The SecretGarden. “Tasha taught me how to look with light and shadow. Squint your eyes and look,” Marjorie directs us. “Nothing’s hard lines; it’s all shapes.”
Those who follow such things—or even anyone with a slight interest in Tasha Tudor, for that matter—will inevitably stumble over a darker, unfortunate chapter in the Tudor saga. A flurry of news items from 2009 detail the devastating division in the Tudor family after Tasha’s death in June 2008. Stories appeared in the Boston Globe, were carried by the Associated Press and on CBS News, and filtered out through local news outlets. It was incomprehensibly at odds with the life that Tasha had painted over the years, wherein her children were the models for real-life scenarios of birthday cakes floating down the river (Becky’s Birthday) or elaborate marionette shows staged in the barn.
In this modern-day story, according to the news reports, Tasha left the majority of her estate, including property and copyrights, to Seth—who had built her house and barn and lived on the adjacent property—and her grandson, Winslow. Daughters Efner and Bethany, and younger son, Tom, received token awards. The case dragged on, public and ugly, for a couple of years, until it was finally resolved in court.
Judging from the happy buzz as we troop from room to room, the lawsuit has done little to diminish the ardor that Tasha Tudor’s fans feel. Perhaps, in the best-case scenario, it adds a layer of mystery and complexity to this story of a strong, independent woman. But it remains a sensitive topic within the family. Ripples and aftereffects were evident from the start, when I began the delicate negotiations to join this small group touring the property.
Nowadays, Seth, his wife, Marjorie, and their son Winslow and wife, Amy, maintain the “Tasha Tudor and Family” Web site, selling books, breakfast tea sets, even a reproduction tin kitchen, like the one Tasha used to roast her Christmas turkey. It’s also where they announce a limited number of house and garden tours each year, which sell out quickly. Admirers come from around the world—one woman flew from England to come for the day, Seth says. Others travel from Japan, where Tasha and her lifestyle are revered. The tours are one way the family hopes to keep Tasha Tudor’s legacy alive.
But security is tight on the Tudor property, like flying into a restricted country. No photos are allowed, except at The Rookery, another Seth-built house that holds the gift shop, located out of sight of Tasha’s house and barn. No cameras or cell phones. Amy Tudor explained the family’s caution in an e-mail: “We’ve seen so much outside exploitation of [Tasha’s world] for monetary gain, we’re a bit jaded on that front. We’re quite happy to live quietly with our small following, doing just enough to continue the legacy while being able to live the legacy at the same time. There’s no doubt someone could make a great deal of money using Tasha’s name, but that’s not what we’re interested in.”
During the tour, only once did the topic of a family divided surface naturally. Marjorie, who has boundless knowledge of plants, was steering us through the gardens, and pointed, with some excitement, to a recent discovery.
“Winslow just found the old peony bed and is reviving it,” she beamed. “After two years of estate problems, the garden was deteriorating—it was killing us. It takes just six months for a
garden to get wild, Tasha would say.”
So much of what we see and read in Tasha Tudor’s books transpired in real life, from parlor celebrations of the glowing candle-decked Christmas tree to old-fashioned romps in the snow to elaborate marionette performances to floating birthday cakes.
How deep did it really go?
“There’s a certain myth, obviously, that has grown up around Tasha that’s not entirely true,” Seth says, peering out from under his floppy cap, his voice dryly reminiscent of his mother’s. “She did a lot of things that a lot of mothers might not do—wonderful parties and events. She liked doing these things for herself. It gave her great pleasure to set up a table and have a wonderful meal, make dolls for her children.
“But I didn’t think there was anything unusual at all about the way we lived,” he emphasizes. “Nor did I necessarily live the way people probably think I did. I didn’t walk around in old-fashioned clothes—and Tasha didn’t make all my clothes. She made some clothes. We didn’t raise all our own food. We had a refrigerator and a washing machine and a telephone.”
But, in fact, they were without electricity and heat, I remind him. I’ve read it before, in different, reliable places. To which Seth concedes that okay, it was true for about seven years in New Hampshire, until they got electricity in 1952. “We had a hand pump and kerosene lamps, and all that kind of thing. But it was normal life. Electricity—that wasn’t too exciting, no big deal.” He grins suddenly: “I wouldn’t be without it now. I love electricity.”
He unfolds his lanky farm-boy frame and resettles his hat: “I still love woodstoves. I was brought up with a woodstove; nothing nicer. And Tasha loved it. She could have easily afforded to heat her house just with oil, but she lit that stove every morning. When she was working on her art, she liked the atmosphere of the fireplace, so it was always going. It was very important for her when she was working.”
The other often-overlooked component, he’s quick to add, is Tasha’s acute business sense. “She was a really active, smart businesswoman,” he says. “Tasha was not a recluse in any sense of the word. She was extremely social, she had many guests, many visitors, she did interviews with reporters quite frequently, and other artists came to visit. She was not way off in the backcountry, walking around barefoot, taking care of her animals and doing a few quaint picture books. It wasn’t that way. She went to the city frequently to deal with publishers, and she did many talks. She knew what she was doing.
“She answered thousands and thousands of fan letters all her life. She was extremely gracious; she would do illustrated letters for them. She went to book signings, and she did a lot to promote herself. It didn’t just happen by itself. There was a lot of self-promotion and hard work.”
At the end of this tour, our group meets up at The Rookery for fresh cider and doughnuts, the next generation of Tudors joining us. Amy, Winslow’s wife, wears a long dress, looking a little like one of Tasha’s illustrations, and she’s brought their two small girls to the party: Ellie, 4, and Katie, who’s just a few months old.
Ellie is beautiful and spirited, intent on making a nest of rocks and grass at our feet. “My birthday is in October,” she says, holding up some fingers.
“Do you remember what that’s called?” asks Seth.
“One two three fooor,” her voice slides upward.
“You’re right,” Seth says, as she flutters away. “Four years old, imagine, only 4 years old. That’s wonderful isn’t it? When you’re 4, you don’t know it,” he smiles. “Too bad Tasha never knew her …”
Amy has been instrumental in the effort to keep Tasha’s legacy alive, founding the Tasha Tudor Museum in nearby West Brattleboro in 2006 and coming up with the original idea of house tours. “A successful tour,” she says to Seth. “The people were all happy. Nice weather.” They’re quiet for a moment, looking over the group of people who’ve gathered to soak up some bit of Tasha’s spirit. “One of the big things that people enjoy is seeing all the other fans,” Seth says. “That’s a big thing for them.”
It’s a complicated business, this nurturing of a world and a lifestyle that inspire such respect, admiration, and adulation among Tasha Tudor’s followers. But standing here in Tasha’s world, surrounded by her gardens and her queer, tilting house, with echoes of chickens and goats and corgis, it’s a lifestyle that could carry well into our times. A fine mix of life and art, made inseparable. Just don’t romanticize it too much, Tasha might say.
“People have a rose-colored lens when they look at me,” she wrote in The Private World of Tasha Tudor. “They don’t realize I’m human. They don’t see the real me. As Mark Twain said, we’re like the moon; we all have our dark side that we never show to anybody.”
Seth laughs when I paraphrase that quote. “Absolutely true,” he says. “Yeah, absolutely true. All famous people are ordinary people, too. She said, ‘There are two Tasha Tudors. One that the public knows—I don’t know her very well. And then there’s just me.’ Fame didn’t do anything to her at all. She just liked being peaceful and at home.”
Tasha Tudor and Family. House and garden tours, Tasha Tudor books and gifts. Marlboro, VT. 802-257-4444; tashatudorandfamily.com
Tasha Tudor Museum. Jeremiah Beal House, 974 Western Ave., West Brattleboro, VT. 802-258-6564; tashatudormuseum.org