Tasha Tudor Found the Path to Yesterday

Famous picture book illustrator and author Tasha Tudor loved the old ways of country living and payment for her beautiful work allowed her to live the life she dreamed of. She dressed in clothes styled for the 19th century that she made herself and carried a handmade willow basket to do her grocery shopping. Tasha kept goats, chickens, Corgi dogs, as well as a garden full of herbs, flowers, and the sort of tasty fruits that would find their way into homemade pies cooked on her wood stove. These things she loved and made a part of her illustrations.

Such a unique lifestyle begs the question - was she always this way? The answer is yes! Tasha Tudor, born Starling Burgess, had very strong-minded New England parents who encouraged her to be independent. Her father, “the Skipper,” designed sailboats. Without asking anyone’s opinion, he changed his infant daughter’s name from Starling to Natasha in honor of the heroine from War and Peace. Later Tasha would take her mother’s family name when she began a career in illustration.

Tasha’s mother and father divorced when she was nine years old. Her mother had decided to leave the rules-bound Boston society to go live in Greenwich Village where she would further her career as a painter. So Tasha was taken to live with family friends in Redding, Connecticut. Her new family had very few rules. “Aunt Gwen” spent her time writing plays, so the children did much as they pleased. Tasha later called this unconventional atmosphere “the best thing that ever happened to me.” She and the other children roamed woods and fields filled with wildflowers. They acted out scenes from Shakespeare’s and Alexander Dumas’ works and performed in plays written by Aunt Gwen for the neighborhood.

Tasha’s dream was to live on a farm in the New England countryside and she did what she could to make that desire a reality as soon as possible. As a teenager, she wanted to buy a dairy cow, so she earned money by setting up her own nursery school. Delilah (the cow) was soon joined by a chicken named Nettie who dutifully laid an egg every day. Nettie would join Tasha on weekend visits to her mother at her Greenwich Village apartment. Though her family wintered in sunny Bermuda, she continued to draw sketches of New England farm life. Unlike her mother, she never wanted to be the sort of artist whose work hangs in impressive galleries. She wanted to illustrate books and had been inspired by Hugh Thomson, who had done the art on her favorite copy of The Vicar of Wakefield.

Whilst in her early twenties, Tasha married and began to raise a family. Her husband encouraged her efforts to get her work published and after many rejections, Pumpkin Moonshine became the first of her many books that celebrate days of long ago. As a newlywed and young mother, Tasha insisted on living as close to the old ways as possible which meant no running water, no electricity, and no store-bought clothes or baked goods. Instead of going to the movies or listening to the radio, her children worked in the gardens, took care of the animals, helped in the kitchen, and put on plays with dolls and marionettes. Holidays were celebrated in an old-fashioned way. The Thanksgiving turkey was cooked in a roaster by the hearth. 

Christmas brought loads of friends and visitors and beautiful cookies and ornaments. Their very fresh tree had candles lit for only one night. Most chilly days found the family gathered in the kitchen for hot cocoa and summer days might mean a picnic. Many photos and remembrances of these vibrant times can be found in her daughter Bethany’s book, Drawn from New England: Tasha Tudor, a Portrait in Words and Pictures. Tasha often had her family pose for her illustrations and captured the life they led together. Still and all, some family members found living day to day as if they were all in the 1830s a bit hard to handle. After several years, Tasha and her husband divorced. Although he liked the country life, he was not so interested in living it to such an old-fashioned extreme. Her son Tom remembers being lonely and wishing there were other children with whom to play.

According to the LA Times, "In the early 1990s, Tudor announced that she was quitting public appearances, partly because it was hard to find someone who could watch the house and knew how to milk a goat." As Tasha grew older, she continued to write and illustrate. With the help of friends and family, she maintained her old-style farmhouse, built by her son Seth, and its accompanying gardens and goat herd. Although she still enjoyed having company, she found the everyday farm chores to be a convenient excuse for leaving dull parties earlier than later. 

Her old-fashioned sensibility never went out of style. Tasha’s illustrations were gathered into museum exhibitions but also graced Christmas cards, stationery and, of course, children’s books. Tasha’s work and indeed her life became popular with so many that after her death her house and gardens still attract visitors from across the world.

Fast Facts on Tasha Tudor

  • Born August 28, 1915, in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Married Thomas McCready in 1938. They had four children: Bethany, Seth, Thomas, and Efner.
  • Her first book, Pumpkin Moonshine, was published in 1938. It is still in print.
  • She received Caldecott Honors for Mother Goose (1945) and 1 is One (1957). 
  • She received the Regina Medal in 1971 for her contributions to children’s literature.
  • She died June 18, 2008, in Marlboro, Vermont

“Einstein said that time is like a river, it flows in bends. If we could only step back around the turns, we could travel in either direction. I'm sure it's possible. When I die, I'm going right back to the 1830s. I'm not even afraid of dying. I think it must be quite exciting." – Tasha Tudor

Classic Books from Tasha Tudor

View more books by or illustrated by Tasha Tudor.

Books about Tasha Tudor

Tasha Tudor’s Dollhouse: A Lifetime in Miniature by Harry Davis

In addition to her drawing, Tasha also created dolls and set them in scenes drawn from the world of her books. The house is a miniature version of Tasha’s own, but it is peopled with her favorite doll characters, including Captain Thaddeus Crane & his wife, Emma Birdwhistle.

Tasha Tudor’s Garden text by Tovah Martin, photographs by Richard W. Brown

Flowers always pleased Tasha Tudor. She would spend happy hours contemplating seed catalogs on the dreariest days and incorporated them into her illustration. Reading this book is very akin to visiting with Tasha often in her glorious garden, from April plantings to September harvests.

On the Web

Tasha Tudor: A Simple Life, A Sprawling Garden
This long article originally appeared in the December/January 1994 issue of The Herb Companion. The author interviewed Tasha Tudor at her home. Includes a recipe for her gingerbread cookies, a batch of which was once used as ornaments on the White House Christmas tree.

Who Is Tasha Tudor?
A lengthy biographical post from the Tasha Tudor Society.