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Who Remembers Holly Hobbie?

Who remembers Holly Hobbie? Many little girls in the 1970s shared their playtime with this demure, bonneted character who was completely unlike sassy Barbie or wholesome Sindy dolls - but is she a character who has stayed with us through time?

Recently, I spied a Holly Hobbie doll stuffed into a wire mesh bin with other cuddly toys outside a charity shop. I’m guessing the contents were intended as dog toys as the price was a measly 10 items for £1. However, I only wanted the little ragdoll that stood at six inches high in her cute blue bonnet. It cost me £1, but still felt like a bargain.

At around the same time I mentioned to my partner that I’d found a Holly Hobbie doll, he decided to get me a book for my birthday – ‘The Art of Holly Hobbie’ (the version I have is actually from Hastings Public Library, NE). I was surprised to learn more about the creator of Holly – a watercolour artist by the name of Holly Hobbie! This enticed me to look online – after all, my copy of the book was printed in 1986, so who knew what had happened since.

Denise Holly Ulinskas married Douglas Hobbie in 1964 and changed her name to Hobbie. Thus, the perfect name for a patchwork doll franchise, was born.

From what I can make out from reading the book, Holly’s watercolour pictures were created originally as gifts for friends and were loosely based on the farmhouse comfort of her own kitchen, and her own idealistic imaginings. And they certainly caught on to the whole home-spun feel of the 1970s. My earliest memory of Holly Hobbie was a day out with my grandparents. We were taken to a toyshop on the old shopping arcade in Harwood, Bolton (now a large Morrisons supermarket). As far as I remember, I had been given some money with which to purchase a toy, and I selected a small blue Holly doll, very much like the one I have today. After that I seem to remember bed covers or a cushion came to me for birthdays, and perhaps a few other dolls that nestled with my Snoopy and my huge furry nightdress case rabbit on my bed, but Holly was the one I remember most fondly. The thought of her stayed with me long after I lost the doll itself.

This book, first printed in 1980, is very much of its time. Not only is there an element of tweeness about it, it also uses a quite difficult typeface. Most books are produced with a fairly standard easy-to-read font, but this is written in what looks like hand penned capitals, and most of us simply don’t find such text all that easy to read. It might be cute and delicate, but it was too delicate and almost amateurish. It was what put me off the book.

It wasn’t the book I’d expected. The blurb reads ‘…In this book, through a personal selection of her paintings, the artist affectionately chronicles the life of her growing family as it has been reflected over the years in her work… At the same time, we are given a privileged view of a young woman’s gradual development as an artist… And here, for the first time, another side of her work appears. Quite different from her earlier paintings, her more recent pictures… reveal her increasing virtuosity’. Of course, the technical skill of the watercolour pictures cannot be questioned, but again, the tweeness comes into play. The bonneted characters, the sweetness, the inevitable posies of flowers or cats sat in straw hats, it’s all too comfortable and cost. There’s a few pictures towards the end of the book that I really enjoy though. One is of a favourite room in the artist’s house another of a house itself, and late in the book, a really interesting and stylish self-portrait. Apart from the medium itself, there’s nothing to indicate that the artist is the same as the flowery artist of previous pictures.

I did enjoy looking at the art in this book, and I really enjoyed seeing the development of the artist, but to me it wasn’t enough. I wanted to see massive style changes, experimentation with alternative media, and to see much more of a dangerous edge. I guess that’s me being overly hopeful, but there pictures are just TOO NICE, and that makes me uncomfortable. A bit of dystopia goes a very long way!

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