Ernest Aris and the story of a fierce bad rabbit

ernest arisAuthor and illustrator of children’s books Ernest Aris was born Alfred Ernest Walter George Aris, in Islington, London on 22nd April, 1882. He attained a Diploma from the Bradford Technical College and School of Art in 1900 and conducted further studies at the Royal College of Art in London. He developed a successful career as a commercial artist and worked on more than 170 publications.  As an artist, he specialised as a portrait artist working in charcoal and wash as well as watercolour. His work was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Royal Society of British Artists, Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours and the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. Aris also designed cigarette cards, postcards, cartoons, toys, games, jigsaw puzzles and advertisements.

He illustrated his first children’s book in 1909 and according to an article in The Artist (1938) he was an illustrator of over 400 children’s books and a “master of the art of pleasing a child’s mind”.

Aris was involved in a series of interesting events which involved illustration of Beatrix Potter books whilst residing at Windermere. Beatrix, under her married name,  Mrs. Heelis, contacted Aris  to ask what he would charge for illustrating a booklet in the style of Jemima Puddle-Duck by Beatrix Potter.

  • Aris’s written response offended Beatrix when he proclaimed that he had never heard of the book or its author. However, what she didn’t realise was that (a) he knew Mrs. Heelis was indeed Beatrix and (b) he had already imitated Jemima in his book Mrs. Beak Duck.
  • With a later change of heart, Aris contacted Beatrix’s publisher, Harold Warne, with some examples of his work and offered his services. Warne was keen to publish more tales by the reluctant Beatrix and forwarded the books, and Aris’s letter, to her. By then, Beatrix had also had a change of heart and accepted his illustrative offer. She provided Aris with some rough sketches and instructions as to composition and colouring, which, together with  his originals are now in the ownership of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
  • Beatrix said of Aris that he was both “amusing” and a “scamp”, and the two often came to loggerheads over his illustrations. If Beatrix asked for an elf costume to be painted green, he would return with an elf in a red costume. He advised her that in one of her sketches, “The figures are a little too near the front of the picture” and once again they would tussle things out.
  • Whilst the publisher had chosen Aris to be considered as a ‘second string’ to Beatrix, as an illustrator of her books, an American publisher used Aris’s illustrations for a plagiarised version of Beatrix’s best-sellers. The US version was: The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit.  Her publisher was further enraged when Aris’s own book The Treasure Seekers arrived, featuring a rabbit called Peter.
  • Whilst she advised Warne to sue the publishers; she suggested that they buy Aris out. The various publishers had a great tussle over all of this and Aris decided to find anothr publisher. It was at this time that he adopted two pseudonym author names; Robin A Hood and Dan Crow.

Ernest Aris died at his home in Hornsey, North London, on 14 April 1963, aged 80.

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