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Barbara Bailey, 92; Inspired Bunnykins Nursery Dishes

May 11, 2003|Claudia Luther Times Staff Writer | Times Staff Writer

Barbara Vernon Bailey, an English nun whose whimsical watercolors inspired Royal Doulton's enduring line of Bunnykins nursery dishes and provided the model for a later range of playful Bunnykins figurines, has died. She was 92.

Bailey, who was born in Woore, Shropshire, died May 4 in Haywards Heath, West Sussex.

Bailey -- also known as Sister Mary Barbara -- was the daughter of Cuthbert Bailey, general manager of Royal Doulton's factory at Burslem, in Stoke-on-Trent.

In 1934, a few years after she went into religious life in Sussex, her father asked her to work up some watercolors of the rabbits she sometimes drew for her students or on her letters home to her family. He thought some of the drawings might be useful for a new line of nursery dishes his employer wanted to develop for children.

Sister Mary Barbara obliged. "I adored him; I would have done anything he asked," she told writer Maggie Parham, who interviewed her for the Independent of London in 1999. And Bunnykins was born.

"Mugs with a story and pottery with a pedigree," Royal Doulton said in its sales pitch.

Among the original characters -- which included Billy, Mary, Reggie, Farmer, Freddy and Mother Bunnykin (the S on Bunnykins was added later) -- was Mr. Bunnykin, a pipe-smoking, spectacle-wearing gentleman obviously modeled after her father.

"The clear, crisp-lined watercolors Barbara Vernon sent home to her father were full of wit and minute observation and, perhaps, a slight homesickness for the coziness of family life," Parham said.

"She painted rabbits cooking, picnicking, fishing, dancing in the moonlight, playing golf, riding on dodgems, kissing under the mistletoe.... The mothers she dressed in blue 'in honor of Our Lady.' "

Work of that kind was not prohibited by Sister Mary Barbara's superiors at the convent, but it was not encouraged either, so she often worked at it late at night by candlelight. During the day, she taught Russian, the history of art and fine art.

The Bunnykins line of dishes was an instant hit and, for the next several years, Sister Mary Barbara continued to draw the designs, which were carried out at Royal Doulton by artist Hubert Light. It was Light who added the familiar border of running rabbits.

Three-dimensional figures were introduced in 1939, but production was suspended during World War II. Though the line was resumed after the war and new figures are still being issued every year, Sister Mary Barbara stopped drawing Bunnykins more than half a century ago.

Ed Pascoe of Pascoe and Co. in Miami, a large retailer of Royal Doulton collectibles, told The Times that Bunnykins remain popular because "they are sentimental and emotional pieces." He said they are valued at from $43 to $200 for new ones, and up to $3,000 for vintage pieces.

The line has inspired books and a collectors' club -- Cottontales -- that shares information on new products, collectors' fairs and other matters of interest to Bunnykins' many fans.

Bunnykins also are the subject of a BBC radio program, "The Bunnykins Business," which is scheduled to air June 7.

Sheila Keegan, whose idea it was for the BBC show, told The Times that she had talked with Sister Mary Barbara a number of times recently. "I had this image of my mind of this sweet little old nun who drew pictures of bunny rabbits," Keegan said. What she found was a woman who was "hilarious and very, very sharp-witted."

In 1999, Sister Mary Barbara told Parham that although her father appreciated her artistic bent enough to ask her for drawings, he would never allow her to take lessons to improve her skills.

"He always said, 'If you try to teach a little talent, you snuff it out,' " she said. " 'If you leave it alone, it will grow.' "

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