Dancing Princesses finally take centre stage

Published: 2 October 2012 at 11:58

Sheila Robinson’s illustrated fairy tale is published by Anglia Ruskin – over 60 years late!

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A painstaking project to finally publish a children’s book produced over 60 years ago is nearing completion.

The edition of the Brothers Grimm’s The Twelve Dancing Princesses, beautifully designed and illustrated by Sheila Robinson in the late 1940s, had never previously been published and lived in the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden for a number of years since being donated by Robinson’s daughter, the artist Chloe Cheese.

A wider audience will finally get the chance to appreciate The Twelve Dancing Princesses when The Centre for Children’s Book Studies at Anglia Ruskin University launches the first printed edition of the book at a special event on its Cambridge campus on Wednesday, 10 October.

The launch also comes exactly 200 years since the first edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales was published.  The story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses appears in the 1812 original under the title of Die Zertanzten Schuhe, meaning “the worn-out dancing shoes”.

Robinson’s original book is in the form of a single completed, hand-made, hand-bound edition, created to the exact format of the Picture Puffin series, alternating between colour and black and white spreads.

It is not certain why Robinson’s book failed to make it onto bookshelves just after World War Two, although it is thought that Puffin’s change of policy of publishing only non-fiction may have been a factor.

Webb & Webb Design in east London have been assisting with the careful scanning and retouching of the book to correct the text, as well as incorporating a wraparound dust jacket showing examples of the preparatory drawings Robinson, who died in 1988, produced for the book.

The instigator of the project, Professor Martin Salisbury, Director of The Centre for Children’s Book Studies at Anglia Ruskin, said:

“A gap of more than 60 years between the creation of this book and its publication has done little to diminish its freshness, in terms of concept, design, colour and draftsmanship.  Sheila Robinson produced the book as a completely finished, bound, hand-made artefact when she was a student at the Royal College of Art in the late 1940s.
“The preparatory studies reproduced here are from Robinson’s sketchbook that is also held in the North West Essex Collection.  These beautifully articulate roughs give us an insight into the depth of research and preparation that was undertaken in order to arrive at the apparently effortless poetry of the final pages.”

In addition to The Twelve Dancing Princesses and Robinson’s sketchbook, the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden contains a rich collection of work by other artists who settled in and around the village of Great Bardfield in Essex in the mid-twentieth century.

The North West Essex Collection, as it is known, has two major figures at its heart, Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, who met at the Royal College of Art in the 1920s.  Bawden also studied at the Cambridge School of Art, which is now part of Anglia Ruskin, and Robinson was among the many artists who were drawn to the area, having been taught by Bawden at the Royal College of Art.

Robinson’s daughter, Chloe Cheese, is an eminent artist-printmaker who studied at Cambridge School of Art before going on to the Royal College of Art, and her work is also represented in the Fry Art Gallery’s collection.  She said:

“The beautiful pen and ink drawings and delicate text of this book fascinated me when I was a child and drew me into the enchanted world of the fairy tale.
“Although she hoped for publication at the time, she was still a young woman and I think other things, such as working on The Festival of Britain, marrying and having children, took over her life so that this book was put to one side.
“The princesses in the boats rowing across the lake in particular is an image that fired my imagination and inspired me to emulate my mother to become an illustrator myself.  Looking at this illustration now I admire the lightness of touch and the use of light and shade.  The picture still takes me to the edge of the lake and into the story.”

Examples of Robinson’s other work can be seen at www.fryartgallery.org/the-collection/  For further information about The Centre for Children’s Book Studies at Anglia Ruskin, please visit www.anglia.ac.uk/ruskin/en/home/microsites/ccbs.html  To order a copy of the book, visit www.anglia.ac.uk/12dancingprincesses