It’s not often that one can lay claim to discovering a lost talent. And even now, this exquisite illustrator only came to my attention through an acquaintance of my sister, Alice. The artist and topic of my conversation is Betty Wilkins and I’m honoured and delighted to have been given the opportunity to feature some of her outstanding art work. I would first of all like to offer my sincerest thanks to Betty’s daughter, Yvonne, for allowing me to share these wonderful images with my readers. I would also like to stress the importance of copyright and state that under no circumstances are these images to be copied or reproduced in any other form or publication. They remain the sole property of Yvonne and have been watermarked appropriately. Thank you.
I’ve written the following article as a testament to Betty and her incredible talent. I would dearly love to have known her. This post is intended to provide a very brief insight into Betty’s life, but most importantly to give inspiration to budding fashion illustrators and to those of you with a love for the history of fashion. Enjoy!
Sadly Betty passed away in 2004, leaving her incredible legacy of illustrations and paintings to her beloved daughter. In brief, Betty’s personal story began in Finchley, North London. She was born Elizabeth Wilkins in 1920 and a short while later, her family moved to Mill Hill, North London.
Her artistic potential must have shone through at an early age. Betty left school at fourteen to attended Willesden College of Technology (formerly Willesden Polytechnic and now known as the College of North West London.) The original building in Denzil Road was built in 1903 (see photograph left), but unfortunately no longer stands. It was opened as a College of Technology in 1934 and ran the technical courses originally provided by the polytechnic. Betty enrolled at the college in 1934 so would have been one of the first students to attend the schools of art department. Interestingly, one of her fellow classmates at Willesden was one of the twin brothers who’s father, Montague Burton, founded Burton, Britain’s largest chain of clothes shops. It is unclear which brother, Arnold or Raymond, was the classmate of Betty. I do know that Raymond Burton passed away quite recently in February 2012, at the age of 93.
Some time after leaving art college, and just before the onset of World War II, Betty was interviewed by Marjorie Proops. Marjorie is probably best known for her role as the Daily Mirror’s “Agony Aunt”, although she was a prolific social commentator and writer, and had become a journalist in 1939. Marjorie’s first job was fashion correspondent for the Daily Mirror so this ties in nicely with my story.
Surprisingly, Betty didn’t get the job that Marjorie Proops had interviewed her for . . . . . . exactly why not, I cannot say. Certainly Betty’s talent as a fashion illustrator is as brilliant as anything I have ever seen in Vogue or similar fashion editorials of the same period. In my eyes, Betty Wilkins was an outstanding draughtswoman with a real eye for fashion, and had a true understanding of the human form. You only need look at the hands of these elegant ladies to see what a wonderful artist she was.
So without further ado, I’ll let you decide for yourself and give you the opportunity to see exactly what the Daily Mirror missed out on all those years ago . . . . .
More about Betty’s life story below.
The black and white images were produced for fashion publications or for dressmaking patterns. Unfortunately, Yvonne doesn’t know which publications they were from, so if anyone reading this recognises any of the following images, or can shed any further light on where they were published, please contact me. Thank you so much.
So what happened to Betty? Well, as with most stories from this era, WWII brought change to many families. Betty’s father had been a Captain in the British Army and had served during the Great War of 1914-18. By the time WWII came along he was too old for active service, so the Army gave him an administrative role and sent him to Burscough in the North West of England. His family subsequently followed him and they began a new life in the lovely seaside town of Southport.
Betty’s father must have been very proud of his talented daughter. Although he was a strict character (remember he was an Army Captain), I believe he accompanied her to Liverpool in order to help her find work as an illustrator. However, as the War took hold, Betty’s fate was decided. She took work in a local factory in order to help the War effort and there she stayed throughout WWII. It was during this time that she met her future husband. They married in 1947 and went on to have a family of their own. Betty’s husband was a farmer although Betty didn’t work on the farm herself. Whether she carried on with her art work as a hobby, I am unsure. What I do know from Yvonne is that her mother often recalled her days as a fashion illustrator as the happiest of her life.
Here are some further examples of Betty’s creative talent which again, include the most exquisite, fine detail.
Thank you again to Yvonne for sharing her mother’s story and these beautiful images. If you have any knowledge of where the black and white images were published, please contact me. Thank you.
Filed under: Catwalk Creative Tagged: | 1940s fashion illustrations, 40s fashion, Betty, catwalk creative vintage, Marjorie Proops, Montague Burton, North West England, Raymond Burton, willesden college of technology, World War II