Annie Rattray Rentoul

The Waterfall Fairy Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
The Waterfall Fairy
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

A few weeks ago, at a dinner in Bendigo for a cousin’s birthday, one of my cousin’s workmates – a librarian – at my table suggested Annie Rentoul as a possible for my list of Australian Independent Women.

Annie Rattray Rentoul (1882-1978) was yet another illustrious C19th alumna of PLC (Melbourne), well after Ethel (Henry Handel) Richardson and Vida Goldstein but just three years ahead of Nettie Higgins (Palmer). After a brilliant career at PLC, culminating in the classics exhibition, Annie took a first-class honours degree at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1905), where she won the Wyselaskie scholarship in classics and shared the Higgins poetry prize (donated by Nettie’s uncle, the famous judge).

Annie returned to PLC in 1913 and, until her retirement, taught Greek, Latin and ancient history. She remained unmarried.

According to Jaqui, my new librarian friend, Annie Rentoul is best known for her collaborations with her younger sister, children’s illustrator, Ida Rentoul Othwaite (1888-1960). Most of the information above is from Ida’s ADB entry. Jaqui writes, “I became interested in the work of the Rentoul girls while working in a bookshop during the late 80’s and early 90’s. The store bought in a selection of  reprinted editions. I was fascinated at how the two sisters wove their respective texts as one, but still maintained a singular beauty.” And she has sent me an essay, Elves and Fairies: A case study in Australian art publishing by Kate Riley, which sets out how The Lothian Book Company in 1916 were persuaded by Ida’s businessman husband to produce a book of colour plates of Ida’s illustrations of Elves and Fairies (the only other similar work they produced was for the paintings of Frederick McCubbin).

Annie and Ida’s first story was published, by New Idea, in 1904 and they subsequently produced a number of books until interest in their increasingly dated work petered out in the 1940s. Interestingly their third, Gum Tree Brownie and other Faerie Folk of the Never Never, came out in 1907, a year before Mrs Gunn’s We of the Never Never which I had thought might have been the origin of the expression. Not afraid to make discoveries on the fly, I see that Wikipedia ascribes the origin of ‘the Never Never’ to the poem Where the Dead Men Lie by Barcroft Boake published in the Bulletin in 1891:

Out on the wastes of the Never Never -
That's where the dead men lie!

The only text of Annie’s I could discover was for Bush Songs of Australia (State Library, Victoria), which as poetry does not bear repeating.

On reflection we weren’t sure that Annie Rentoul fit my criteria but she’s an interesting woman nevertheless, especially in her education. I must find out one day just how many women graduated from university in Australia in the 1800s, by number and by comparison with the number of men, and maybe what they went on to do.

And do visit Bendigo. I took the opportunity to stay in the famous Shamrock Hotel with its lace verandahs, in the Nellie Melba suite no less which I highly recommend. After dinner my son and I took in the live blues in the Shamrock’s basement and a good time was had. As part of the whole tourist experience we called in at Maldon on the way up and of course I had to photograph HHR’s mother’s post office.

Maldon P.O.
Maldon P.O.

9 thoughts on “Annie Rattray Rentoul

  1. Fascinating Bill. I had only heard of Ida. It would be interesting to do that research on women university graduates in those early years. Most of them really did it tough, with not a lot of encouragement and support.

    BTW I totally agree re Bendigo. A lovely town to visit. Great little art gallery, among other things.


  2. I had thought there were no university places for women but I’m getting the impression that the real problem was lack of opportunity, that families (fathers!) just didn’t think it worthwhile to send their daughters.


  3. Back in 1978, my former partner worked at Mont Park Psychiatric Hospital. There was a patient there named Annie Rentoul.
    Annie was mocked by the patients and some of the staff when she said that she was an author.
    She went everywhere with a huge handbag. The handbag was often hidden by other patients and uncaring staff, causing her great distress.

    I spent weeks researching Annie’s claim of being an author. Ida Rentoul-Outhwaite was easier to find; she was a formerly well known children’s book illustrator.
    Eventually I found the information; Annie wrote the words; Ida painted the illustrations.
    I remember being so excited and couldn’t wait to let Annie know what I had found, but … Annie had died a few days earlier.
    I wept for this poor woman who was treated so unkindly in a huge mental health institution.

    “… Mollie’s Bunyip, it was written by her sister Annie Rentoul, and published at a time when Australian artists and writers were forging a distinct national identity in the post-Federation years.”

    The programme was on ABCRN 5 days ago and repeated tonight.


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