By Kate Pinsent
Jill was born in South Africa to an Irish mother and English father. After her parents divorced when she was only 3, her mother met and married a cattle farmer in Jamaica and it was here that she spent the war period. She had a solitary childhood, roaming the farm on an old polo pony, reading anything she could get her hands on and developing a vivid imagination. So began her passion for stories and storytelling.
After the war, she and her mother returned to England and Jill was sent to Claremont School where her art teacher recognised her talent and encouraged her to apply to Wimbledon School of Art. Jill studied theatre design and from Wimbledon she went on to finish her studies at the Slade, where she met her lifelong partner and husband, Rodney.
During the ‘60s, with 2 young children, Jill stepped away from theatre and in to book illustration, making great friends with Kay Webb the editor of a new range of books for children, Puffin Books. Her list of illustrations is long and prestigious, including Fantastic Mr Fox and Danny Champion of the World for Roald Dahl, Polly and the Wolf books and many anthologies. Her favourite was Stand Up Mr Dickens, which is not surprising as she adored his books and characters, a love which spilled in to her doll making.
Her list of illustrations is long & prestigious, including Fantastic Mr Fox & Danny Champion of the World for Roald Dahl.”
Always looking for new outlets for her art, Jill decided to start making dolls in the 1970s and partnered up with her great friend and sculptress, Sukey Erland. So began “Bennett and Erland”. Together they created many memorable characters & pieces, including a working carousel and figures, as well as a range of cats, dogs and accessories, which were sold internationally.
When Sukey moved away from London, Jill continued to make dolls this time with a new partner, James Carrington who brought his skills of dressmaking and pattern cutting. Their range of “J Designs Dolls” were hugely successful and they were joined by Tina Newman and Paula Shilsom, who eventually took over the business when James left to develop his own dolls and Jill moved in to more individual pieces again. Her characterisation and eye for detail are truly wonderful.
Jill loved attending the miniature shows, particularly Kensington Dollshouse Festival (she was one of the original 1985 exhibitors). She was a great supporter of this show & allowed curious KDF visitors into her home to talk with them about her work & also designing a special cut-out for the KDF 25th Anniversary. She enjoyed meeting her loyal customers and sharing her passions and sense of humour and fun with them. She was also encouraging to new craftsmen and a collector of other makers’ work that she treasured.
Sadly her eyesight started to fail and she was no longer able to make dolls, but she was still found at the fairs, helping me on my stand and chatting to old friends. She is sorely missed, but her body of work is testament to her talent.
JILL BENNETT – 1934 – 2019
We were planning a retrospective of Jill’s work to be displayed at KDF Summer 2020. Let’s hope we can organise this for 2021 instead. Kate Pinsent is carrying on her mother’s love of creating characters & is a regular exhibitor at KDF shows. She will be taking part in the KDF Online Christmas Showcase.