Most of the time it seems we tend to take what life has given us and do our best to work within the parameters of “what is.” A few rare spirits disregard that altogether — envision precisely what it is they desire — and create an environment and reality of their own.
So it was with children’s artist Tasha Tudor. Born in Boston on Aug. 28, 1915, she was nine years younger than her only brother. Her father, Starling Burgess, was a yacht designer who also built airplanes and one of the first seaplanes of his time. He taught his daughter fantasy, poetry and the joys of reading aloud. Throughout his life he would phone Tasha and say, “What book are you rereading right now?” A volume of his own verse was published, with an introduction written by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son, Julian.
Her mother’s Tudor line was rich with proper Bostonian ancestors and connections, yet the mother, Rosamond, was an artist and enjoyed the Bohemian life. She was superb at portraiture and spent the bulk of the year working in Greenwich Village, while Tasha stayed with “Uncle Henry” Hawthorne (grandson of Nathaniel Hawthorne) and “Aunt Gwen,” where art flourished and great plays were produced, with dance performances followed by late night suppers and hours and hours of reading.
“I didn’t start school until the age of 7,” Tasha said of herself, “and I never got past the eighth grade. I didn’t pass a single test and spent most of my time decorating my copybooks. I hated every minute of school, except the few years with Uncle Henry.” ("Drawn From New England," Bethany Tudor, pp. 17, 18)
No matter. Education for her came from an abundant variety of hands-on sources.
Her family knew Oscar Wilde’s family and Louisa May Alcott. Her father knew Mark Twain. Her mother remembered Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she “came out” as a debutante with Lady Nancy Langhorne Astor. Tasha sat on Oliver Wendell Holmes’ knee as a child and played with his watch. She saw Anna Pavlova dance. She remembers Alexander Graham Bell floating around in his huge pool working on a floating desk. Her mother attended dinner parties at his house and told how his wife, so deaf, could read lips superbly but, when turned away, could not tell when someone was addressing her. So Bell had some ingenious set-up to signal to her beneath the table, signal what had been said, so she would be able to turn and answer.
Tasha was acquainted with Helen Keller. “She had beautiful blue eyes,” Tasha told me, “and could feel certain colors, especially red.” (Notes from phone conversation with Tasha, Nov. 19, 1988)
What did Tasha do with all this? She drew up the many-colored strings and wove them into a pattern that pleased and delighted her.
She loved animals and flowers and plenty of space. Beauty was an essential to her being. She gathered it to her, appreciating everything — from the pet mouse that would climb up her arm and sit on her shoulder while she fed the goats to wild rainstorms, new baby chickens and the overwhelming wonder of a sky scattered with stars of a thousand sizes and colors.
“Just think what a marvel it would be if we saw the stars but once a year,” she said to me. “How we would appreciate them!”
Tasha’s was a nature spirit. In letters to me she wrote:
"It has snowed all day and is just ravishingly beautiful to behold. The house has a fine fringe of icicles all along the eaves … some reach from the roof of the back porch right to the ground, and I do believe if one could climb like Puss, up to the peak of the barn, one could slide down over the pigeon cot right to the ground. What fun!" (letter of Feb. 4, 1990)
"We’ve been having rain, rain, rain! All the streams are trying to be Niagaras, it is quite impressive … all the seeds are up in the meadow, the garden is in a mass of lovely tulips right now, the fiddle heads are up through the woods and the pinxter bushes are making lovely mounds of delicate pink in the swamps. I never can get over the utter wonder of spring." (letter of May 17, 1990)
Every known holiday was celebrated with wonder, but Tasha’s children also enjoyed doll families and bear families that received tiny Valentine’s cards with drawings and clever verses that Tasha had fashioned and delivered by Sparrow Post.
Fresh flowers were brought in from their little greenhouse to brighten the dull February room and fill it with color and scent. Of course there was a heart-shaped cake and other treats, for the dolls and animals as well as the children.
Tasha created life-like marionettes that, with the children’s help, performed all over the country. She built a large doll house filled with miniatures of her own precious treasures. She also crafted the dolls, who enjoyed friends, tea parties and summer outdoor fairs — culminating in the magnificent wedding of her dolls Thaddeus Crane and Melissa — and the unusual event was featured in Life magazine.
The children could pour through the tiny catalogs Tasha had drawn, with sample yarns and bits of material attached and, via Sparrow Post, order sweaters for their teddy bears and elegant gowns for their dolls.
Tasha had a little birthmark just below her breastbone — it must be a fairy mark, what else? When her children grew tall enough that their heads reached that mark, they would be favored by a day alone with their mother in New York City — doing whatever delighted them most.
Magic was everywhere, mingled with hard work that, in its own way, built the spirit.
Tasha had two sons and two daughters but was divorced from her husband long before they were raised. “A good deal of my mother’s life has been plain hard work,” her daughter Bethany wrote. “But right along with that, she has always found time to make us happy. She has taught us certain values through play and work, from which we benefit to this day.” ("Drawn from New England," p. 37)
Tasha’s wonder in life continued until her death, and her myriad talents and interests — from canning, baking, cheese and candle making to collecting old clothing and gardening on a large, impressive scale — kept her daily life overflowing with interest and meaning.
The first time I visited her in the deep Vermont woods, in the summer of 1989, we ate dinner late every evening in the Best Parlor, by the light of 20 candles, and recited poetry to one another. Here on the wall was the little woodcut drawing made by Sophia Hawthorne, and the button from the Cincinnati Club given by George Washington to her great grandfather, William Tudor, judge advocate general of the Continental Army.
We worked in the gardens, where I received 63 mosquito bites. We drank tea from delicate pre-1840s cups which had no handles. We played with her famous and pampered Corgis and we fed the goats. I slept in the canopy bed Tasha bought in Bermuda, where she ran a small nursing school when she was yet in her teens.
One of the last times I visited her, Tasha said to me, “Oh, Susan, wait until you are in your eighties. You have so much freedom. I find it delightful, indeed.”
Tasha died June 18, 2008, nearly 93 years old.
We have skimmed — touching briefly the spirit of this remarkable woman who possessed a deep love of life — and faith in beauty and the triumph of the human spirit.
Here is her favorite quotation, from Henry D. Thoreau, by which she lived her life:
"If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." ("Drawn from New England," p. 82)
Tasha Tudor illustrated nearly 100 books, as well as writing the enchanting text for many of her own. Several books have been written about her life, her art, and her gardening. These include "Drawn from New England," by Bethany Tudor; "Tasha Tudor’s Garden," by Tovah Martin; "The Private World of Tasha Tudor," by Tasha Tudor and Richard Brown; "Tasha Tudor’s Heirloom Crafts," by Richard Brown and Tovah Martin; and "The Art of Tasha Tudor," by Harry Davis.
The Tudor family site, www.tashatudorandfamily.com, offers invaluable information, pictures, stories and Tudor products for purchase.
The author, Susan Evans McCloud, became a close friend of the artist when Tasha Tudor spoke in the Provo Tabernacle in October 1988, under the auspices of the McCurdy Doll Museum.