Sunday, 3 November 2013

People from the Past 7: Cecil Elgee (1904-84)




Like many Budleigh residents of the past, the artist Cecil Elgee had an Anglo-Indian background and it was for this that her name will be known by those familiar with  Costumes and Characters in the Days of the British Raj, the book which appeared just before her death. But her work as a painter and illustrator covered a wide range of subjects.

Born in 1904, Cecil Elgee, better known by her family nickname as Moppie or Mops, went out to India to join her parents in Bombay in 1922 when she was 18. She studied part time at the Bombay School of Art, where she was the only European apart from the headmaster, the architect Claude Batley (1879-1956).

The School, opened in 1857 and later to be renamed the Sir J. J. School of Art was one of various Bombay institutions such as the Sir J.J.Hospital financed by the wealthy Parsi merchant of Bombay Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy (1783-1859). It lives on today as the Sir J.J. Institute of Applied Art, seen in the photo.

During her five years in India Cecil Elgee contributed illustrations to magazines and brochures, and was employed by the Oxford University Press to illustrate their school books. Together with her sister, who provided the verses, she produced two illustrated books - published by the Times of India: John's Rhymes of India and Little People of India.
The pastels and watercolours that she painted during her time abroad between 1922 and 1927 depict the different castes and creeds of a lost India.


Above: The former Exeter Art School, now the Phoenix Arts Centre , off Gandy Street
Image credit Derek Harper

On her return to England in 1927, the family settled in Budleigh Salterton and she continued her art studies at the Exeter Art School, which had been founded in 1854 as part of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

During the war she served as a Naval VAD at the Royal Naval Hospital in Plymouth.  She went through the Plymouth Blitz and at the end of the war she was one of the twelve naval VADs in the Victory Parade in London.   When demobilised she returned home to look after and subsequently nursed her elderly father and later her widowed sister.



Working from her home at 9 Copplestone Road in Budleigh Salterton she proved to be a prolific and versatile artist. Her work was always in demand, especially when she portrayed animals - both family pets, and working animals.  


Collaborating with the children’s author Doris Rust she had a successful run of books published by Faber & Faber in the 1960s. These included  Simple Tales for the Very Young (1960), A Dog had a Dream (1961), A Melon for Robert (1963), Tales from the Pacific (1965), Tales from the Australian Bush (1968) and Tales of Magic from far and near (1969). 


Her work was not confined to London publishers. In 1972 she illustrated two children’s books Aunt Peggotty Popplecorn and Snowball Popplecorn, both written by Margaret Musson and published by the Topsham-based Causeway Company.

Probably her best known work was for another Devon publisher. A photographer friend made slides of her art work and she used these to give talks at Fairlynch and at Exmouth Art Club. On 14 February 1980 she gave a Winter Talk to the Friends of Fairlynch entitled ‘Costumes and Characters in the Days of the British Raj.’ The pictures that she showed of her time in India caught the eye the editors at the Exeter-based firm of Webb & Bower, co-publishers of the immensely successful Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady.

Like Cecil Elgee’s paintings of a lost India, the charming watercolours by artist and book illustrator Edith Holden, dating from 1906, had the nostalgic charm of a vanished past when the Country Diary appeared many decades later in 1977. It has since sold three million copies worldwide.

Recalling Cecil Elgee’s art many years later, publisher Richard Webb said that he was delighted that she was now being remembered in this way by Fairlynch Museum: “We were very pleased to publish her book so that her talented and original illustrations could be enjoyed by a wider audience.  It was particularly satisfying that the reaction from both reviewers and readers was so very positive.” Costumes and Characters in the Days of the British Raj, bearing the same title as Cecil Elgee’s Fairlynch talk, was published by Webb & Bower in 1982.  

With a foreword by M.M. Kaye, the best-selling author of The Far Pavilions, and text written by author Evelyn Battye who had like Cecil Elgee spent time in India, the book was praised by reviewers for its first hand knowledge of the people and customs of the sub-continent. The entertaining  anecdotes of its idiosyncratic and colourful characters were matched by Cecil Elgee’s ilustrations.

“This is eye-witness India: no scholarly interpretation or sterile intellectualism, but vivid characters who seem to move and speak from page to page”, wrote Glyn Lomax in the Exmouth & East Devon Journal.  “Portly merchants discuss their business: two solid middle-class Praboos listen with slightly condescending attitudes to a garrulous Babu accountant who, one feels, for all his obvious friendliness and enthusiasm, is not regarded by his listeners as being quite on the same level. But personalities of the commercial and business worlds are just one aspect: the book contains page after page of vibrantly-coloured studies of traditional costume, worn by characters straight out of Kipling. Snake-charmers and fishermen, potters and peasant women, dancers and water-carriers combine to make this book both a pleasure to look at and a valuable record of everyday life in India.”


As an artist Cecil Elgee showed talent in capturing the detail of rural life nearer home. A holiday in Ireland was probably the source of inspiration for a painting like her ‘West of Ireland Scene with Young Boy Riding a Donkey with two Baskets of Turf',  seen below.  



Her watercolours of Shire horses ploughing or hauling logs show her fondness for depicting animals.  She also had a gift for carving animals in wood, as seen in the figures that she made for the Christmas crib in St Peter’s Church, Budleigh Salterton. 



Below: One of Cecil Elgee's paintings in Fairlynch Museum

Cecil Elgee died in 1984. Her name lives on in the Cecil Elgee Memorial prize, awarded by the Budleigh Salterton Art Club.











  1. What lovely art1 Thank you. Sarah Clark

  2. Hi just found this write mom has those original dog watercolors. They were actually my moms dogs and they would visit her old neighbors so when Cecil came out to stay with them she painted these for them. My mom has many other of her paintings also...never been seen. C. Elgee was very good friends with my moms old neighbors years ago here in Victoria BC Canada.

  3. Many thanks Westcoast. Always good to find details online about paintings and museum objects where records are incomplete. If you'd like to send more detail e.g. when Cecil Elgee stayed in BC and the name of the neighbours etc that would be appreciated. An email to would be welcome.

  4. I found a copy of "Little People of India" copyright 1926. How rare is this book? There don't seem to be many copies around. Thanks for the info on Cecil Elgee.

    1. Hi Lenny, I would think this is very rare! I will check at Fairlynch Museum to see if we have a copy - we have a lot of books by former Budleigh Salterton residents in the Museum Library.