MARY POPPINS:  Associate Prof Margaret Baguley is researching   Mary Poppins illustrator Mary Shepard.
MARY POPPINS: Associate Prof Margaret Baguley is researching Mary Poppins illustrator Mary Shepard. David Martinelli

Revealing the illustrator behind Mary Poppins

FOR 54 years, the mousy illustrator Mary Shepard retained an extraordinary relationship with the domineering PL Travers, the author of eight Mary Poppins books.

Little is known about Shepard, who helped to bring the story of Mary Poppins to life with her simple line drawings.

University of Southern Queensland researcher, Associate Professor Margaret Baguley, is on a mission to discover more about the relationship between the author and illustrator.

Her research is taking her to the State Library of NSW in Sydney, to EH Shephard's archives at the University of Surrey, and finally to the archives at Princeton University.

It was Shepard's father, EH Shepard, who Travers first asked to illustrate her children's books.

He had illustrated Winnie the Pooh and Wind in the Willows, but was already fully committed to working for Punch magazine.

An illustrated Christmas card by his daughter, who had attended the Slade School of Fine Art, propped on a mantelpiece then caught Travers' interest.

Its style was just what she wanted for her first book, which was published in 1934.

"When PL Travers started writing she realised that she needed an illustrator," Dr Baguley said. The result was simplistic drawings.

"PL Travers wanted the essence of who Mary Poppins was," Dr Baguley said. "They are not in colour. They're very sparse.

"The actual illustrations are based on a wooden peg doll. PL Travers wanted (Mary Poppins) to have a sensuality that men would be attracted to, but not have her drawn in a sensual way."

The images seem to talk back to Travers the way Shepard seemed never able to do verbally.

"In the second-last book, Mary Poppins and Cherry Tree Lane, Shepard transposes her own face onto Mary Poppins," Dr Baguley said.

Dr Baguley wants to bring Shepard's voice out of the shadow of Travers by revealing the little features that Shepard subtlety included in some of her later illustrations.

"Because Travers was so domineering in terms of how Mary Poppins should be portrayed, as Mary Shephard became more experienced and more confident, she started to do things like that," Dr Baguley said.

Throughout her adult life, Travers did everything possible to leave behind her Australian heritage, which started in Maryborough, then Allora and south to Bowral, before she moved to England in 1924.

Luckily for Australians, many of her literary papers ended up in the State Library of NSW.

"I think she tried to sell them, but no one would buy them," Dr Baguley said. "It has some of the illustrations that aren't held at Princeton. In the margins of the illustrations are all the decisions that Mary Shephard and PL Travers made."

Dr Baguley expects her research findings will be published online before the end of next year.

The Mary Poppins House in Herbert St, Allora, is open to visitors. For anyone wanting to view the Mary Poppins archives at the State Library of NSW, go to sl.nsw.gov.au/research- and-collections for access details.


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