Dolly Tree’s illustrations
Before she became an international renowned costume designer for stage and screen in the early 1920s, Dolly Tree excelled as an illustrator.
Dolly Tree (1899-1962) forged a successful career during the 1920s and 1930s in London, Paris, New York and Hollywood. Her artistic flair touched so many stage and screen personalities that even if you have never heard of her before you will be familiar with her elegant creations for such movie stars as Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, Rosalind Russell, Judy Garland and other MGM starlets. She was also responsible for creating the quintessential 1890s look for Mae West.
Dolly Tree was also an accomplished artist and despite the fact that she made her mark as a costume designer for stage and screen, like several of her contemporaries in London such as E.P. Kinsella, Aubrey Hammond and Gordon Conway she also maintained a keen interest in commercial illustration.
Dolly Tree was born in 1899 near Bristol, England and at early age gravitated to the stage following in her mother’s footsteps and by 1915 was appearing in British silent films. She started drawing at an early age and it was her talent as an illustrator that soon overshadowed her aspirations as an actress.
The turning point in her career as an artist came when she went to see Vanity Fair launched at the Palace Theatre in November 1916 with Marion Peake and Regine Flory. She saw the play on several occasions and remarked ‘I was fascinated by the wonderful dancing and art of Regine Flory and admired her so much that I started to design a special poster of her, really to amuse myself, based on my recollections of this vivid artist seen across the footlights.’ A friend saw the finished design and liked it so much that he took it directly to Sir Alfred Butt who bought it and gave her a two-year contract (roughly 1917-1918) to design posters and programme covers for all his shows.
The Tatler was complementary and said that her ‘work is now so well known, particularly where the stage is concerned, for she has done some excellent poster work’ for such successes as The Boy (1917), The Beauty Spot (1918), Going Up (1918), Telling the Tale (1918), The Latest Craze (1919), The Kiss Call (1919), Very Good Eddie (1919) and Hello America (1919).
It must have been the success of her work for Sir Alfred Butt that precipitated her decision to develop a career as a comic artist and by 1918 (possibly even earlier) she had expanded her activities as an illustrator for newspapers and magazines. ‘I drew tons of things in black and white and carted them solemnly around Fleet Street, knowing not a single soul.’ Eventually her persistence paid off and she started selling her sketches ‘at five shillings each, I got rid of quite a lot of things’ she observed ‘I did quite well with such subjects as fluffy flappers and lightsome lingerie.’ Accordingly her sketches began to appear regularly in a range of publications. Her first known drawings were published in The London Mail in April 1918 and she continued to supply sketches for this publication throughout 1918 and into 1919 and then in late 1918 contributed sketches for The Royal Magazine.
She also began drawing illustrations for the newly published magazine Pan, which was devoted to the burgeoning new youth culture and was self-admittedly ‘a journal for saints and cynics’. The Tatler had ceased running their very popular ‘Letters of Eve’ in January 1919 which had been illustrated by the legendary artist ‘Fish’ (Anne Harriet Fish) but in early 1920 Pan announced that ‘Eve’ had joined their staff and a new Letters of Eve began to be published penned again by Mrs Maitland Davidson. Dolly Tree was soon drawing the comic sketches for the top and tail sections of these pages from February to April 1920.
It has been observed that these sketches were ‘in a spirit, format and style capitalising on Fish’s popularity in the Tatler’ but Dolly Tree did not attempt to create a unique character like ‘Eve’. After a while Dolly Tree turned her attention to the fashion pages entitled “My Box” by Pandora and created a series of fashion sketches of actual models from some of the major London couture houses reflecting the latest styles prevalent both in London and Paris.
Most of Dolly Tree’s sketches featured a young woman engaged in various poses and were as she described – ‘fluffy flappers’. Her drawings were less stylised and angular than the style adopted by Fish and her women appeared more natural and realistic. They were very polished, charming, and full of wit and movement, reflecting the quirky nature of the text and reflecting qualities that were to find full expression in her costume designs.
Besides drawing comic cartoons and commercial illustrations she also drew caricatures and portraits of leading stage and screen personalities and The Tatler remarked that they had ‘won her much deserved praise’. At this time she also created some beautifully distinctive colour illustrations for a postcard manufacturer including a series of six depicting The First Kiss, First Glass of Champagne, First Love letter, First Evening Dress, First Cigarette and the First Bouquet. She also designed covers for sheet music.
In the midst of her work as an illustrator, some of her sketches for sets and costumes were bought by the producer Julian Wylie for several revues and pantomimes staged in 1918 and 1919. Wylie must have been aware of her programme and poster work for Albert Butt and perhaps Butt introduced her to Wylie, with whom he had business dealings. Her career as a dress designer began and illustration took an increasingly back seat.
During the eight-year period from 1919 to her departure for New York in late 1926 she provided designs for well over sixty stage productions in the UK and Europe. She became one of London’s leading designers with adulation such as ‘Miss Tree has a genius for dress design as all of us who go to the theatre know.’
However, Dolly Tree did not abandon her fondness for illustration entirely for in 1927 shortly after she had arrived in New York a story appeared in Variety that revealed she was going to do freelance theatrical and newspaper work, specialising in posters, covers and pen and ink social cartoons of the Nell Brinkley order. This must have been in addition to her recent contract with the theatrical dress designing agency of Brooks Costume Company.
At about this time two books appeared in London carrying her work. Clove and Lettuce, was published by The Diamond Press in August 1927 with a series of nineteen sketches, including the cover which accompanied Plummy’s amusing satire on the London social season. The text followed the clever and funny conceit of one rabbit in London writing to another rabbit in New York and the sketches concealed identities by representing everyone as rabbits too. She also provided a series of illustrations with “Nick” for the book Nonsense Tales by Langford Read, which was also published by the Diamond Press sometime in 1927. This book contained a series of short stories for children aged 9 to 90, which had previously appeared in the fledgling Radio Times.
However, after a three-year stay in New York, 1930 became a watershed as she was signed to Fox studios and left New York for Hollywood saying goodbye to her career as an illustrator and theatrical dress designer.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
Pearson’s magazine, Eve magazine, Pan magazine, Tatler and Variety