The artist, Mary Vermuyden Wheelhouse, developed three successful overlapping careers through the first half of the twentieth century, the first as a painter in oil and watercolour, the second as a book illustrator, and the third as a toymaker, especially of wooden dolls.
Mary Vermuyden Wheelhouse was born in Leeds, in Yorkshire, on 12 December 1867. She was the youngest of three daughters of Claudius Galen Wheelhouse FRCS JP (1826-1909), a surgeon at the Leeds Public Dispensary who would become president of the council of the British Medical Association, and Agnes Caroline Cowell (1824-1911), a daughter of the Reverend Joseph Cowell. Her creativity is likely to have been encouraged, as her father had been active as a photographer during the 1850s, while one of her sisters, Ethel Hamerton Wheelhouse (born 1865) grew up to become a professional violinist. The family had addresses in Leeds at both 42 Park Square and 4 Hillary Place, and also at Cliff Point, Queen Street, Filey.
Wheelhouse studied under Albert Strange at Scarborough School of Art, during the mid 1890s. While there, she lived at 29c St Nicholas Street, and began to exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts, in London, and also in York.
However, she would later state that ‘the only art school in which I ever worked was the Academie Delecture in Paris, where I spent some three years a long time ago’ (Miller and Whitney (eds), Contemporary Illustrators of Children’s Books … page 76).
By 1899, Wheelhouse had moved to London, and was sharing 3 Pomona Studios, 111 New Kings Road, Fulham, with three other artists, including Alice Kinkead. From there, she sent work to galleries in London and the provinces, and also to the Paris Salon. She made her name as an illustrator in 1907, when she won a competition organised by The Bookman, with The Adventures of Merrywink, written by her friend, Christina Whyte. From then she received commissions from a number of publishers, and especially George Bell, with whom she began a long collaboration. She became particularly associated with her interpretations of works by Louis M Alcott, Juliana H Ewing and Elizabeth Gaskell, and continued to illustrate books until the early 1930s.
Active in the women’s suffrage movement, Wheelhouse helped found the Artists’ Suffrage League in January 1907, and exhibited with the Women’s International Art Club from at least 1910. Other exhibitions of the time included one at the Baillie Gallery in 1912, which she shared with three other illustrators: L L Brooke, F L Griggs and C P Hawkes.
In 1915, Wheelhouse began making a range of toys – including wooden dolls – with her fellow artist, Louise Jacobs, who is probably best remembered for her 1912 poster, The Appeal of Womanhood. They showed these first with the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, in 1916, and soon after opened a shop, Pomona Toys, at 64 Cheyne Walk, in Chelsea (which they leased from the artist, Marion Dawson, who lived above). Though they dissolved the partnership in 1922, Wheelhouse then joined with A B Ellis, by 1926, and they continued to run Pomona Toys at Cheyne Walk until 1927. They then moved the shop to 14 Holland Street, and also opened a workshop at 28 Gunter Grove. The company supplied major stores, including Fortnum & Masons, Harrods and Liberty & Co, as well as the LCC with nursery bricks, before folding soon after the outbreak of the Second World War. Wheelhouse died in 1947.