The mystery of Tolhurst illustrated envelopes continues as Curator Joanna uncovers the human story behind the mail art.

Meeting the Family

Shortly after publishing ‘Tolhurst Envelopes’ we received an e-mail from Brenda Fitch, informing us that she is Frederick Charles Tolhurst’s granddaughter and that she found our blog while searching the family name online. We were extremely excited and arranged a meeting.

When we met Brenda and her sister, Sandy Britton, they brought with them a large collection of previously unknown of illustrated envelopes which were made by Frederick Charles Tolhurst and sent to his son Reginald, their father. Reuniting the illustrated envelopes sent to Reginald with those sent to Vera, revealed the scale of the communication and the amount of time and effort put into the correspondence.

Illustrated Tolhurst envelope, sent 1917, (2014-0038/60)

Why did Frederick Charles Tolhurst need to write to his children?

One questions remained: why did Tolhurst need to keep in touch with his children through the post? Discussion with Tolhurst’s grandchildren revealed the personal story behind the envelopes. In 1915 Tolhurst’s marriage broke down and his wife moved to South America. Frederick found himself unable to look after his two children and they were sent to live with different relations. To keep in touch with his children he regularly sent them letters in beautifully illustrated envelopes, which must have brought such joy. They are a poignant and moving story of communication between a separated family.

Putting Faces to Names and Hearing Voices from the Past

Through our new relationship with the Tolhurst family, we have collected photographs of Frederick Charles, Vera and Reginald, adding such life to the story.

Photograph of Frederick Charles Tolhurst, 1898

Photograph of Vera and Reginald Tolhurst

Frederick Charles Tolhurst sent illustrated envelopes to his grandchild, Brenda. Like the earlier envelopes, imagery of warfare is depicted as the Second World War had begun. Brenda still has the letters which accompany the illustrated envelopes, which brings us into direct contact with Tolhurst’s voice for the first time.

In May 1940, when Brenda was 20 months old, Tolhurst wrote to her of war, and sent the letter in an envelope illustrated with grey tanks, aeroplanes and parachutes. He wrote ‘Not a happy looking envelope but in days to come, you will hear of people talking about the war at times they will mention those things on the envelope.’ He goes on to say ‘no doubt when you reach the age of 21 you will consider [the envelopes] interesting.’ It seems Tolhurst was hoping to capture the experience of warfare through his artwork, so that his family might remember and make sense of it in the future.

Illustrated envelope, from Frederick Charles Tolhurst to Brenda Tolhurst, May 1940

Letter from Frederick Charles Tolhurst to Brenda Tolhurst, May 1940

The family’s mail art story continues today, as Brenda Tolhurst creates and sends illustrated envelopes – this is a family tradition of communication and illustration spanning over 100 years!

By publishing our initial research online and connecting with the Tolhurst family, we have greatly developed our knowledge of the Tolhurst envelopes and the human story behind the beautiful illustrations.

– Joanna Espin, Curator

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