ABOUT FLORENCE KATE UPTON
Early life: Florence Kate Upton (22 February 1873 - 16 October 1922) was an American-born English cartoonist and author most famous for her Golliwogg series of children's books. Upton was born in Flushing, New York to recently emigrated British parents. She was the second of four children in a creative and slightly eccentric household.
Florence’s father, Thomas Harborough Upton, worked as a confidential clerk at the American Exchange Bank in New York. In 1884, the family moved from Flushing to central Manhattan, which was more convenient for her father’s daily journey to his office. The National Academy of Design, located near the new home, offered free instruction to anyone who could qualify. This prompted her father to enroll in evening classes, and Florence, at 15 years old, joined him for the beginning of her formal art training.
Early career: In June 1889 her family was placed in financial difficulty through the sudden death of her father, putting an end to their steady income. However, Florence’s mother, Bertha, had a trained singing voice and began to give voice lessons in the home. Her older sister Ethelwyn found work, while her younger siblings Alice and Desmond remained in school. Florence, at age 16, obtained work as a professional illustrator. Numerous publications existed at this time, mainly as vehicles for advertising and light fiction of varying merit. Some of the same authors whose stories appeared in the magazines went on to employ Florence to illustrate their novels or books of short stories.
Finances eventually stabilized to such a degree that in 1893 the family was able to pay an extended visit to Bertha’s relatives, the Hudsons, who lived in the Hampstead area of London. With an established reputation from her published work in New York, Florence had no difficulty in finding employment with London publishers. When the rest of the family returned to the United States, Florence opted to stay in England and began experimenting with ideas to supplement her income so that she could afford further art training.
Golliwogg: She began to sketch out ideas for a children’s book, using ‘penny wooden’ dolls as her models. However, without a central character on which to hang the tale, progress came to a standstill. Her aunt, Kate Hudson, found an old toy in her attic that had belonged to the Upton children, left behind from an earlier visit. This toy, which she named Golliwogg, provided inspiration, with the first story was produced in 1894. The publishing house of Longmans, Green & Co. offered Florence a contract, and The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg was published for Christmas 1895..
During her stay in London Florence provided illustrations for the Strand, The Idler and Punch magazine. The American Society in London also commissioned a series of drawings and cartoons to decorate the souvenir programme of their November 1896 Thanksgiving Banquet. After three years of work, she returned to New York to attend the Art Students League, then continued studies in Paris and Holland. Returning to London in 1906 to take up permanent residence, she moved to 21 Great College Street in 1910.
Through the years Florence and Bertha collaborated on a total of thirteen Golliwogg adventures, the series ending as, over the years, cultural drift caused interest in the series to wane and Florence sought a career as a professional artist. The last of the Golliwogg books was published in 1909.
Florence continued to study and paint, concentrating mainly on portraits. She exhibited at the Royal Academy and other prominent venues and rapidly established a reputation as an accomplished society portraitist. Additionally, she received hundreds of commissions from the families of young soldiers.
Due to health issues, Florence was found unfit to serve in any physical capacity during the First World War. She instead aided the war effort by donating her original dolls and drawings to a fund-raising auction for the Red Cross, conducted by Christies in 1917. The dolls, sold as a lot, funded purchase of an ambulance, christened ‘Golliwogg’, which went to the front and served in France.
Death: At the age of only 49, Florence Upton died in her studio on 16 October 1922, from complications following surgery. She is buried in West Hampstead Cemetery. For many years her vandalized grave was unidentifiable, with the headstone toppled face-down in the grass. The stone has now been set upright, courtesy of a Heritage Lottery grant, and awaits restoration.
Legacy: The original Golliwogg and Dutch Dolls resided for many years at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country estate in Berkshire. They now receive visitors at the Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green, London.
It is difficult nowadays to appreciate the enormous impact that the Golliwogg had at the height of its popularity. Florence Upton’s friend and biographer, Edith Lyttelton recollected, ‘One of my children, long before we knew who Bertha and Florence Upton were, had a passionate attachment to the doll stories, and a new Golliwogg book was a great excitement in my nursery as in countless others.’
Florence did not patent the character -- recognizing a large and profitable market, many toy companies took advantage of the popularity of the books and manufactured the doll, while other writers and illustrators took equal advantage, many changing the nature of the series.
The prolific Enid Blyton chose to depict her golliwogs as rude, stupid and untrustworthy little gremlins and other authors took a similar tack. Some came to use the name as a degrading term for anyone who wasn’t white-skinned, inventing new origins of the word. Florence Upton despaired, ‘I am frightened when I read the fearsome etymology some deep, dark minds can see in his name.”