Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Treasury of the Great Children's Book Illustrators by Susan E. Meyer

Any of us who have had children have collected at least a superficial amount of books illustrating fairy tales and other fantastical stories written for children. This wonderful book  devotes a chapter each to twelve illustrators whose careers span from the Civil War to post WWII.

The author uses a formula for each biography:  where the illustrator was born, how they were raised, where they got their education, how their careers got launched and their unique style of illustrating.  Most of them are British but a few are from other countries.  Also described is the special relationship that some of them had with the authors.
 E.H. Shepard (1879-1976)

Such is the case with E.H. Shepherd and A.A. Milne.  Shepherd is best known for his Winnie the Pooh illustrations which made him hugely popular in America more so than in England.  He patterned Winnie the Pooh after a beloved bear of his own rather than the original.  This is obvious to anyone who has seen the original Winnie in the Children's branch of the New York City library.  Shepherd also illustrated The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham.  Shepherd developed close friendships with both authors which may indicate why his illustrations are so endearing.
 John Tenniel (1820-1914)

Not all illustrators and authors got along, however.  This is true for Lewis Carroll and his illustrator, John Tenniel.  At first Carroll wanted nothing to do with Tenniel's illustrations but the success of Alice in Wonderland forced him to admit that Tenniel's illustrations contributed to the book's popularity.  It took some persuading for Tenniel to illustrate the "abrasive" Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass

 Arthur Rackham (1867-1939)
Rackham's Mad Hatter bears a remarkable resemble to himself.
While Tenniel's illustrations for the Alice books are the most famous they are not the only ones, nor the most beautiful.  That award would go to Arthur Rackham.  At least the female characters are lovely.  His other characters are surreal and grotesque.  However, Rackham is most famous for his fairy tale illustrations with which he adorned many books, Grimm's, Aesop's, not to mention international collections.  He enjoyed inserting himself in the pictures as a goblin or some other creature.  In the above illustration for Alice in Wonderland, Rackham has drawn himself as the Mad Hatter.
The King's son demands the giant's youngest daughter to wed from The Battle of the Birds
The Tale of Jeremy Fisher
Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)
Some of the illustrators wrote their own stories.  Beatrix Potter did this.  She wrote stories in letters to a young boy who was sick in bed for a period of time.  Years later, she asked for the stories back and luckily (!) the boy and his siblings had kept the letters and were able to give them to her.  She published these stories along with her own illustrations.  Thanks to a family that didn't throw letters away, Peter Rabbit and company were saved from oblivion.
Edward Lear (1812-1888)

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea

   In a beautiful pea-green boat,

They took some honey, and plenty of money,

   Wrapped up in a five-pound note. 

Edward Lear didn't illustrate his own stories but he did illustrate poems he made up.  His limericks are probably more famous than the drawings he created to accompany them.  The book of limericks that I own aren't even illustrated by him but by another famous illustrator, Edmund Dulac.
Edmund Dulac (1882-1953)  from The Firebird

Dulac, a Frenchman, was a contemporary of Rackham.  He was influenced by middle eastern and oriental art and illustrated Arabian Nights, Russian Fairy Tales as well as traditional western fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson.  The colors he uses in all his illustrations are filled with rich, vibrant color.
 Kate Greenaway (1846-1901)

 Another female illustrator is Kate Greenaway.  Her illustrations are a little dated looking now, but were loved for their idyllic settings filled with charming children.  Although, it has been remarked that "for all their playfulness and charm, Greenaway's girls are actually melancholy, dispirited, and strangely detached from period or place."

  Kate never married but she held a fairly intense relationship with her "lover in writing" John Ruskin.  He was her closest confidant and- even though they rarely met in person- her most faithful critic and biggest influence on her painting.
Kay Nielson (1886-1957)

My favorite illustrator after Rackham is someone I had not known about before, Kay (pronounced "Kye") Nielson.  Nielson was a Dane who unfortunately died in obscurity but whose art has since made a comeback.  His illustrations reflect his Nordic background and are, in my opinion, exquisite.
Howard Pyle (1853-1911)

The last three illustrators in the book are American:  Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth and W.W. Denslow.

Pyle, a strict Puritan, relegated himself to historical legends and adventure novels about pirates, Indians, cowboys, Robin Hood and Arthurian legends by authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Defoe, and James Fenimore Cooper- as did his pupil N.C. Wyeth.  Denslow is famous for his Wizard of Oz paintings.
 W.W. Denslow (1856-1915)

I found this book in the library but shortly after diving into it I ordered a good used copy online.  Of course what money I saved from buying the book for a couple of dollars has probably been countermanded by all the collections of fairy tales and the like that I've bought filled with the illustrations of these wonderful artists.


  1. Looking at the illustrations that you posted makes me certain that I would love to peruse through this book.

    The artists who both wrote and illustrated like Beatrix Potter were doubly impressive.

    1. Hi Brian. I know what you mean. It was once upon a time a fantasy of mine to be a children's book author and illustrator. Have a good week!

  2. I must get a hold of this book! Sounds amazing.

    Rackham and Nielson are two of my favourites as well :)

    1. Hi o! Those are my favorites as well. I have quite a few Rackham books but none of Nielson. He's hard to find. I am currently on a search for good hardcovers for him. The quest is half the fun, though. Have a good day!

  3. What a lovely feast for the eyes and soul! Thank you for brightening my day. I feel younger already. Ah, if only we could turn back the years and live again as children. Clearly, youth is nearly wasted on the young.

    1. RT: I know what you mean. I think I enjoyed reading these books to my son as much as he enjoyed hearing them. I wouldn't mind looking younger but I don't want to return to the foolish days of my youth.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.