Peggy Fortnum was born in Harrow, Middlesex, England on 23 December 1919. She showed artistic talent from an early age, saying ‘I owe a great deal to one of my sisters…who was also a keen artist, to the encouragement I had from Heath Robinson who was shown one of my childish sketches, and Sir Frank Brangwyn who awarded me a prize at a Young Artists exhibition of painting’. Fortnum briefly attended Tunbridge Wells School of Arts and Crafts in 1939 before enlisting as a Signals Operator in the Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II. Fortnum was discharged, with a pension and war grant, after being seriously injured when she was run over by a truck.
Fortnum attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London where she was taught by John Farleigh, Art Director of The Sylvan Press, leading to her first commission to illustrate Dorcas the Wooden Doll by Mary Fielding Moore which was published in 1944.
Fortnum initially worked as a textile designer and part-time art teacher at various schools before becoming a full-time book illustrator. Although known mainly for her pen and ink illustrations Fortnum also illustrated in other media and in colour as well as being a painter. Fortnum is best remembered for her illustrations of Paddington bear books by Michael Bond published between 1958 to 1979. Fortnum said that she, ‘worked from imagination, memory and references more than direct studies’ but admitted to visiting London Zoo to sketch and photograph Malayan bears in preparation for drawing Paddington.
Fortnum married Ralph Nuttall-Smith, an artist and sculptor, in 1958 and they lived in West Mersea, Essex, England. Fortnum illustrated about 80 books but arthritis curtailed her illustration work by the early 1980s. The family connection led to her pen and ink illustrations being coloured by her step granddaughter, Caroline Nuttall-Smith, in revised editions of Paddington bear books. Fortnum was 96 years old when she died on 28 March 2016.
Fortnum’s talent was described by the Times Literary Supplement thus, ‘Her line is exquisite in its loose and nervous rhythm; she can create movement with what, out of context, would be a meaningless squiggle; she can suggest by a few doodles a storm-clouded sky or the hidden recesses of a candlelit room.’