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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Harry Pettit

Harry Pettit and daughters

I recently picked up a DVD version of an old Children's Film Foundation movie, Treasure at the Mill, originally released in 1956 and starring a young girl whom I had the fortune to correspond with forty years later. Merrilyn Boorman was, at the age of 13, known under her maiden name, Merrilyn Pettit, the daughter of artist Harry Pettit who has featured on Bear Alley before.

Henry A. Pettit was born in West Ham, London, in August 1913, the son of Henry William Pettit and his wife Ruth Augusta (née Harwood), and studied at St. Martin’s Art School. Before becoming a freelance artist and naturalist, he worked in an advertising agency and as Art Director of May and Baker, based in Dagenham.

Harry Pettit went on to become a member of the Royal Society of Watercolour Artists and also painted in oils as well as being a top-flight illustrator. Some of his best illustrative work was produced in black and white on scraperboard as can be seen in his work for Eagle Annual. His interest in wildlife and birds in particular—he maintained a large flock of water fowl—led to much work for cage bird and bird-watching magazines such as Birds Illustrated. He knew and worked with James Fisher and Peter Scott in the early days of the World Wildlife Fund.

Pettit was also a dog lover with a particular fondness for the Newfoundland. He helped restore the breed in the early post-war years, having one of the first pups born in the UK after World War II. He designed the Newfoundland Club logo which was used for many years.

The family moved to Spring Valley Mill in Ardleigh, near Colchester, Essex, where Harry Pettit set aside a room as a studio and began to restore the Mill to its former working condition. The mill pool had to be dug out with a crane as it had silted up during the war and the mill wheel replaced.

Pettit's daughter Merrilyn was a keen reader of Girl and the family home became the subject of a visit from Girl's roving reporter, Jackie. The report led to Wallace Productions approaching the family and using their home as background for a movie. Treasure at the Mill was produced in 1956 and starred Harry Pettit, his wife and three children, Merrilyn (13), Hilary (12) and Harry Jr. (7). The story was developed by Malcolm Saville and scripted by Mary Cathcart Borer and related how young John Adams (played by Richard Palmer) learns that there is a treasure trove buried at the mill; with the help of the Pettit children – and the hinderence of greedy Mr. Wilson (John Ruddock) – he finds the treasure. Although the Pettit children have fond memories of their brief movie career, the one disappointment was that their voices were not used in the film; plans for them to travel to London to dub the movie were shelved and other actors and actresses drafted in.

The movie was distributed by the Children's Film Foundation and was released in January 1957. Malcolm Saville's novelisation of the story, which appeared that same year, was illustrated by Pettit.

In the movie, a photograph of Harry Pettit in a Royal Navy uniform, juxtaposed with a picture of a boat at sea, was introduced to offer some explanation for his missing leg. In fact, Pettit did not serve during the war as he had lost his leg many years earlier in an accident when, at the age of 19, he jumped from a moving train as it came into a station, slipped on ice and fell under the wheels. The leg was amputated several times due to gangrene but eventually spread into his spine. These were, of course, long before the days of antibiotics.

This did not prevent him from living an amazingly active life and the family travelled around Europe in the early 1950s, an unusual activity so soon after the war.

Pettit also illustrated Under the Sun by George & Marth Berry (Hodder & Stoughton, 1955) and Unto the Fields by D. W. Gillingham (Country Book Club, 1955).

In 1955, Harry Pettit became a regular contributor to the pages of Playhour, the nursery paper published by the Amalgamated Press. For many years, his work appeared in colour on the back page, beginning with 'Jungle Days and Woodland Ways' in 1955. He was soon teamed up with naturalist and BBC presenter Frances Pitt for the series 'The Little Friends of Frances Pitt' (1955-56). Pitt, well known in the 1950s for his books about country life, was also credited as the author of 'Little Red Squirrel', which took over the back cover slot in March 1956 and ran until May 1958. The hero of the title was a curious creature who loved exploring the countryside he lived in, visiting woodlands, copses and sometimes old buildings to discover the wildlife that lived there.

Harry Pettit's love of nature meant that he insisted on drawing animals realistically ("No animals with clothes," he insisted) although he could probably have made more money painting the kind of anthropomorphic animals that filled the other pages of Playhour and its companion, Jack and Jill. He contributed a number of strips to the Jack and Jill Book and Playhour Annual, as well as contributing illustrations and articles to Eagle Annual and Girl Annual in the mid-1950s.

Following a brief series about 'Dogs' (1958) in Playhour, he returned to the subject of countryside wildlife with 'Friends of Little Red Squirrel' (1958). This, and the short-lived back cover feature 'All About Cats with Peter and Pam' (1958) were to be his final work for the paper. Suffering from ill-health, he died prematurely in August 1958, aged 45.

For some years, Harry Pettit’s wife, Grace E. (née Tingley), whom he married in 1939, wrote replies to correspondents of Playhour when children wrote in to Sonny and Sally, who starred in the paper every week.

His granddaughter, Eleanor Boorman, continues the family tradition and is herself a well known portrait painter.

(* More information on the DVD Treasure and Trouble can be found at the Malcolm Saville Centenary website. It can also be ordered via Amazon. Images from Treasure at the Mill © The Children's Film and Television Foundation. The article 'Mystery at the Old Mill' originally appeared in The Children's Newspaper, 2 March 1957; that and the comic strips 'Jungle Days and Woodland Ways' and 'Little Red Squirrel' are © Look and Learn Magazine Ltd. With thanks to Merrilyn and Eleanor Boorman.)

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