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O'Harris, Pixie (1903–1991)

by Robert Holden

This article was published online in 2014

Pixie O’Harris (1903-1991), children’s book author and illustrator, was born Rona Olive Harris on 15 October 1903 in Cardiff, Wales, sixth of nine children of George Frederick Harris, artist, and his wife Rosetta Elizabeth, née Lucas. Educated at Sully Village School and Allensbank Girls’ School, by the age of fourteen Rona was exhibiting drawings with the South Wales Art Society, of which her father was a chairman and secretary. In 1920, when the family migrated to Australia, Rona’s endearing ways earned her the nickname of ‘Pixie’ from her fellow travellers. During a six-month stay in Perth, she exhibited fantasy works with the West Australian Society of Arts. Settling in Sydney in 1921 she joined John Sands Ltd as a commercial artist and later drew fashion illustrations for Anthony Hordern & Sons Ltd. It was during these early years that a printer’s error—the addition of an apostrophe to her middle initial—suggested the surname ‘O’Harris,’ which she soon adopted as a nom de plume. Although she studied briefly at Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School, she remained a largely self-taught artist.

O’Harris made her publishing debut with illustrations for Maud Liston’s Cinderella’s Party in 1923. Two years later The Pixie O. Harris Fairy Book showed a distinct advance in compositional strength and maturity of line. Here, for the first time, was clear evidence of her own later claim that major English fantasy illustrators like Arthur Rackham were her ‘wonderful source of inspiration’ (O’Harris 1986, 136). It is true that Rackham’s puckish humour invested her best work.

On 16 July 1928 at the Congregational House, Watsons Bay, Sydney, O’Harris married Bruce Waddell Fieldew Pratt, a wool buyer. Her husband was a younger brother of the artist Douglas Pratt; later he was the editor-in-chief of the Australian Encyclopaedia. Settling at Watsons Bay, the couple had three daughters. From her home studio, O’Harris became a prolific contributor of poems, for adults and children, and of illustrated short stories, for children. Her work appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, including the Bulletin, Aussie, the New South Wales School Magazine, and the Victorian School Paper. She also produced large quantities of bookplates, Christmas and other cards, and stationery.

The technical control in O’Harris’s pen and ink work, particularly in easily overlooked vignettes, marks her as a worthy successor in Australia to Ruby Lindsay. In 1935 her Pearl Pinkie and Sea Greenie became the most lavish children’s book published by Angus & Robertson Ltd during the Depression. Selections of her work from school magazines were issued as the Pixie O’Harris Story Book (1940, revised in 1948 and 1956) and the Pixie O’Harris Gift Book (1953). During the 1940s her output was further diversified by her Poppy Treloar trilogy (1941-47).

O’Harris belonged to the second generation of Australian fantasy illustrators, which included Jean Elder and Peg Maltby; she ‘captured the last of the waning enthusiasm for fairies . . . just when Nan Chauncy was about to launch a new realism in children’s books’ (Lees and Macintyre 1993, 325). Besides her books, O’Harris is best remembered for the many children’s murals she painted in schools, hospitals, day nurseries, and orphanages. A portrait of her by Garrett Kingsley was a finalist for the Archibald prize in 1952.

 O’Harris’s exhibiting career had begun with her inclusion in the Julian Ashton School retrospective in 1933, followed by a joint exhibition with Joyce Abbott, at the Wynyard Book Club, Sydney, in 1937. In the 1960s she revived this exhibition profile and maintained it until the mid-1980s. By this time she had created one of the longest-running careers of any Australian children’s book illustrator, selling hundreds of thousands of copies of her books. She was a household name in Australia together with such fellow illustrators as May Gibbs and Ida Rentoul Outhwaite.

Appointed MBE in 1976, O’Harris was awarded both the Queen’s coronation medal (1953) and the Queen’s silver jubilee medal (1977). By the last decades of her long life, when gentle fantasy had become passé, both her failing eyesight and her declining inspiration compromised her work. She produced two volumes of autobiography: Was it Yesterday? (1983) and Our Small Safe World: Recollections of a Welsh Childhood (1986). Predeceased by her husband and survived by her daughters, she died on 17 November 1991 at Lindfield, Sydney, and was cremated. In 1993 her nephew, Rolf Harris, and her younger brother Olaf, painted a mural at the Prince of Wales Hospital, which they dedicated to her memory.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Holden, Robert. A Golden Age: Visions of Fantasy. Pymble, NSW: Angus & Robertson, 1992
  • Lees, Stella and Pam Macintyre. The Oxford Companion to Australian Children’s Literature. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1993
  • O’Harris, Pixie. Was it Yesterday? Adelaide: Rigby, 1983
  • O’Harris, Pixie. Our Small Safe World. Sydney: Boobook Publications, 1986
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 2354, Papers of Pixie O’Harris.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Robert Holden, 'O'Harris, Pixie (1903–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oharris-pixie-16755/text28651, published online 2014, accessed online 24 November 2017.

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