Published: November 15, 2011
It is no easy task to illustrate a children’s book. The illustrator must adhere to the story line, create clearly defined and understandable images and convey enough visual pleasure to hold the attention of young viewers and readers.
A sense of imagination, design, color and whimsy can enhance the artist’s ability to transport youngsters to worlds of fairy tales, bold adventure, intriguing animals and appealing ABCs.
As illustration historian Howard Simon has observed, “In the final analysis, it is the quality of imagination and design, plus intelligent preparation for reproduction that enables the artist, whatever his medium, to make a beautiful book.” Over the years, many books for boys and girls have conveyed morality lessons that benefit readers of all ages.
Exploring 100 years of the evolution of the process of illustration through the eyes of 41 artists who have created works and books especially for children is the mission of “Draw Me a Story: A Century of Children’s Book Illustrations,” on view at the Hyde Collection through December 31. Organized by the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, it features primarily art collected by Malcolm Whyte, a San Francisco author and publisher.
Complementing “Draw” is “Hyde and Seek: Illustrated Children’s Books from the Permanent Collection” from the host museum’s holdings. Most once belonged to descendants of the Pruyn family, who lived in the three houses that now comprise the nucleus of the museum campus.
Children’s books in America began with very serious intentions. Early on, boys and girls read tomes revolving around religion, moral standards and education. In 1689, while America was still an English colony, the first American children’s book, The New England Primer , was published in Boston. Filled with prayers, biblical verses and illustrated alphabet rhymes, it continued into the 1830s †through 450 editions.
In the Eighteenth Century, British philosopher John Locke and others advanced the idea that children’s publications would be more successful if they mixed entertainment with education. This theme was implemented in 1744 when English publisher John Newberry issued A Little Pretty Pocket Book , starting a series of books for youngsters that were enjoyable, informative and illustrated. “By the 1820s,” say the Hyde Collection staff, “most Americans accepted the idea that children responded best to illustrated works created specifically for their enjoyment.”
The exhibition underscores the close ties between Britain and the United States on this subject, with books for American boys and girls long reflecting these historic connections. Indeed, the most prestigious American award for children’s literature, granted by the American Library Association, is called the Newberry Award, after the pioneering British publisher.
The famous British illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846‱886) made his name in America in the 1870s with brilliant character studies replete with subtle wit that matched the gentle humor of Washington Irving’s Old Christmas . On view in the exhibition is Caldecott’s cover illustration for Juliana Horatia Ewing’s Jackanapes , featuring a pretty young lass flirting with an upright English soldier as a playful young boy and docile goose look on. Selling for one shilling, this intriguing volume was published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1884.
Today, the artist’s name lives on in the form of the Caldecott Medal, awarded annually by the American Library Association for the best illustrated children’s book.
Several fortuitous events converged in the 1880s to launch a half century of the “Golden Age” of American illustration, part of the period covered by the exhibition. Recovery from the Civil War and expansion into the West had generated a booming economy. Major advances in printing technology in the form of high-speed presses and improved binding techniques, as well as the start of halftone plate making, made it possible to reproduce artists’ works with greater fidelity to the original and at a lower cost. Full color printing soon became the norm.
In this atmosphere, books and periodicals flourished, enabling publishers to pay high fees to writers and illustrators. Artists responded enthusiastically to these new showcases for their pictures. Top illustrators, including those who created images for children’s publications, had more work than they could handle, opening up opportunities for new talents.
Whether designing book and magazine covers or interior pictures, illustrators became celebrities, with coteries of fans and followers of all ages. Publishers quickly recognized that compelling, appealing cover art sold more issues on newsstands and editions in bookstores than those simply listing the table of contents or sporting a bland cover.
For years, in spite of popular acceptance, illustrators were ignored or dismissed by art critics, who considered their styles old-fashioned and concluded that it was more “commercial” to receive payments from magazine or book editors than from private collectors. It was true that illustrators had to work within the constraints of a manuscript, and not all texts encouraged lofty depictions. But illustrators were equal to the challenge, finding worthy themes in even the most vapid narrative, matching words with pictorial interpretations.
With the passage of time, prejudices against illustrators have diminished and reappraisal of earlier pictures has brought recognition of the inherent aesthetic qualities in many paintings and drawings that had previously been snubbed. More illustrators are included in museum collections or even have museums built around their work, monographs about illustrators abound, and, as public and private collectors have avidly sought their work, prices for originals often match those of many of the more mainstream American artists.
As befits a display organized by the Cartoon Art Museum, works on view explore links between cartoonists and illustrators. Of course, in the process of telling stories, both define characters, compose scenes, control the action and make points. Both work on deadlines and must create with discipline, skill and imagination. Both need to achieve a balance between word and picture.
Among the cartoonists who doubled as children’s book illustrators were Harrison Cady, Palmer Cox, William Wallace Denslow, Jules Feiffer, Walt Kelly and William Steig. In the 1880s and 1890s, Cox (1840‱924) decorated covers of a series of Brownies books with all manner of interesting characters that must have made them irresistible to many youngsters. In “Brownies up a tree,” he deftly applied ink to paper to portray varied intriguing youngsters from the book Brownies Abroad , 1899, climbing a gnarled old tree.
Denslow (1856‱915) created an awesomely skewed house and malformed wooden fence to match the twisted form of the main character in “There was a crooked man&” 1910. In the 1940s, Cady (1877‱070) also used pen and ink to sketch an appealing possum in “Billy in the snow” from the book Adventures of Billy Possum .
Some subjects of children’s illustrations, such as nursery rhymes, have never gone out of fashion. For a long time these traditional verses were associated with Mother Goose, the beloved “farm woman” whom illustrators often portrayed as a goose in rural garb. In the early 1820s, Mother Goose rhymes topped many British rivals in becoming America’s principal children’s poet.
Some eight decades later, Betty Sage’s Rhymes of Real Children , 1903, must have been considerably boosted by having three sweet, winsome youngsters and a doll on its cover, created by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863‱035), an enduring star among children’s illustrators.
Among the “ABC” books on view, Goop Tales, Alphabetically Told , 1904, written and illustrated by Frank Gelett Burgess (1865‱961), and the watercolor cover by Susan Noble Ives (1864‱944) for ABC of Objects , 1930s, promised fun with learning inside the tomes. Opening the books, boys and girls were introduced to concepts of reading and writing by illustrations in which letters of the alphabet were depicted in clever ways by the talented illustrators, accompanied by equally clever sayings.
Animals have also been hardy perennials for children’s book illustrators. Among the more interesting ink on paper drawings on view is a seemingly quizzical, beribboned lion eying a haughty, frock-coated bear in “Lion and Bear,” a charming work by Leonard Leslie Brooke (1862‱940) for the book Johnny Crow’s Garden , 1903.
One of the most endearing animal images involves “Costumed cat meets wolf” from the book Story of Little Blackie , circa 1925. The richly hued watercolor showing a wary meeting between cat and wolf was created by H.G.C. Marsh Lambert (1888‱981). More familiar is the unmistakable figure of Babar, lifting his trunk to tip his chapeau, by French author and illustrator Jean de Brunhoff (1899‱947) on the cover of Story of Babar: The Little Elephant , 1933.
The establishment of children’s literature departments in major publishing houses in the 1930s and the advocacy of children’s librarians led to an expansion of the themes of books for younger Americans. Books about pets became a staple, as exemplified by “Girl, hen and lamb” by Corrine A. Malvern (1905‱956) for the book Peggy’s Pokey and Other Stories about Pets , 1940. Here, in bright colors a perky girl in a snappy pinafore raises her hands in alarm as a hen and a lamb face off over a bowl of feed.
For sheer charm, it is hard to beat the marching figures by author and illustrator Peter Newell (1862‱924) for The Slant Book , 1910. The same may be said for the traditionally cherubic, carefree youngsters in “Playing on swings,” a small, colorful watercolor from the 1920s by Mabel Lucie Atwell (1879‱964).
The exhibition ends chronologically before getting to the changing artistic/media landscape on which illustrators operate today. Artists are responding to the challenges of the digital age with characteristically innovative and appealing approaches to illustrating texts for readers of all ages.
Recognizing this challenge, exhibition organizers note that “For centuries, children’s books have responded to the changing tastes and needs of American society. Illustrators have expanded their techniques and responded to new technologies as well as broadening the diversity of their subject matter.”
Looking to the challenges of a digital world and the need for illustrators to adjust to it, the show’s organizers conclude that “With all these adaptations, some storytelling elements †charming characters, universal themes and vivid pictures †never go out of style.”
The exhibition travels to the Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburgh, Penn., January 28 through May 25.
The Hyde Collection is at 161 Warren Street. For information, www.hydecollection.org or 518-792-1761.
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