While the title of this exhibit may indulge in a tiny bit of hyperbole, the work it showcases surely does not. On display at Brunswick’ Curtis Memorial Library from May 1- July 31, 2018, this traveling exhibition organized by the National Center for Children’s Literature in partnership with the Illustration Institute of Peaks Island, Maine, features a retrospective of more than one hundred images by one of the 20th century’s most celebrated and beloved artists and illustrators, Garth Williams (1912-1996) stands in the select company of only a few other 20th century artists who gave visual life to literature, among them Norman Rockwell, and N.C. Wyeth.
For those of us who, as children, parents, or teachers during Williams’ fifty-year career, have enjoyed the books he illustrated, his work holds a very special place in our imaginations. The artist who created drawings and paintings for such classics as Charlotte’s Web, The Little House on the Prairie, The Cricket in Times Square and created the Golden Books series had an infectiously endearing style that treated his subjects, be they two-legged or four, with tenderness, infectious wit, and engaging narrative style. He created imaginative environments that radiated a fuzzy warmth and invited the reader to enter their reality at the same time that his characters often seemed so real as to jump off the page and enter the human realm. Most of all, there is this aura of eternal childhood fueled by the fresh wonder of youthful perspective and faith in the possibility of all things.
Garth Williams was born in New York City to English-born parents who were both artists, themselves, his father a cartoonist for Punch. Raised in New Jersey and Canada, the family eventually returned to the UK where Williams studied at the Royal Academy of Art and served in London’s Civilian Defense during World War II. In 1942 he returned to New York, where he solicited work from publications like the New Yorker. He received his first commission to illustrate E.B. White’s Stuart Little in 1945. For more than five subsequent decades he created images for over ninety-four books, among them eleven collaborations with author Margaret Wise Brown and famous drawings for Charlotte’s Web and other enduring classics and even created some controversy with his1958 book, The Rabbits’ Wedding which depicted a white and black rabbit couple. He
died at his home in Mexico in 1996 and was buried in Aspen, Colorado.
Williams described his own process of illustrating a book by saying he began by reading the story and focusing on the action, then choosing the forms and colors, and trying to visualize from the writer’s perspective. His style is distinguished by its soft, curving lines, its modulated look created by his preference for charcoal, graphite pencil, and colored pencils, though he occasionally used pen and ink and also worked in pastels and watercolors. His palette was delicate and limited and he was acclaimed for his ability to convey texture.
Children and animals figure prominently in his work and the two seem to share the same level of expressiveness derived from Williams’ communicative eyes and facial expressions and the caressing softness of his modeling the form.
Who can resist a picture like the one from Push Kitty where a smiling girl settles a scowling kitty dressed in doll clothes into a pram. Both exude a charming chubbiness and in the contrasting expressions and the kitten’s paw on the girl’s nose, we immediately understand the parameters of the story. Or there are the deliciously anthropomorphic series of BabyFarm Animals with smiling donkeys, goats, puppies, and chicks all gathered harmoniously and the Sailor Dog, perched jauntily on the bow of a ship, telescope in hand. The images exude a friendliness just as they prompt a desire to cuddle the creatures, and yet, somehow there is no cloying sweetness to them.
The exhibition features a number of lesser known works as well, such as the finely wrought, almost mysterious head of Robin Hood or an early New Yorker cartoon, but it is the series taken from Williams’ major commissions that dominate the show. There are the quaint and delicate Charlotte’s Web drawings in softly etched use of his pen and ink with standout images like Fern Arable with the two geese and the little rat or the Fern and her brother Avery taking in the fair in wonder. Williams’ charming treatment of the animals makes them every bit as characterful and interesting as the people in the drawings.
The same is especially true of his numerous Golden Books series. Three Bedtime Stories features bright-eyed pig, bear and kitten each reading from a storybook about himself. The watercolor and charcoal colored image places the intent creatures on a soft bed of green grass against a starlit blue sky and makes the entire activity of reading an invitation to enter the story and become friends with the characters. Or there is the watercolor of the mother cat with three nervous kittens hiding in her skirts. Plump and expressive eyed, they project fear, cautious curiosity, and timid uncertainty while the mom cat prudently looks over her shoulder. Dressed as the mother is in a pinafore of the day, she and her brood look exceedingly human.
Baby Animals Coloring Book is another enticing invitation to the young reader to join in observing and painting a menagerie of animals. The title drawing shows a smiling bear cub painting a colorful giraffe; he had overturned the red pain bucket and has left colored footprints on the page, but somehow it doesn’t seem to matter, so happily immersed in his work is he. The cover for Baby Farm Animals with its sunny yellow background and gouache and ink circular arrangement of creatures.
Or there is the whimsical Mr. Dog which features a jaunty terrier who pursues animated adventures such as the good natured pursuit of cats and bunnies who dash around in a circle playing what looks like tag or the poster image of Mr. Dog smoking a corn cob pipe and wearing a battered yellow straw hat and bow tie in a humorous attempt to look dignified. Given the clothes and trappings of country folk, Mr. Dog seems like a neighbor. The colorful image of his turning the key in the lock of his tiny cottage, a bag if groceries in his arm while a young neighbor boy with fishing rod looks on, again suggests the peaceable coexistence of man and beast.
Home for a Bunny is filled with images a happy rabbit couple - one brown, one white -who share their daily lives as a couple. Presented with such delicacy, tenderness, and color-blind respect, the controversy Williams’ illustration caused seems absurdly overblown, but in the racially charged atmosphere of 1958, the artist was seen as being purposely provocative about inter-racial marriage.
The series which focus more on human protagonists demonstrate Williams’ skill at life drawing, yet they retain all of his wit and wonder. His illustrations for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie have a strong narrative bent and a timeless emotional content. The carbon pencil images use soft-hatched line to create chiaroscuro. The human beings are dressed in detailed period garb, always caught in an anecdotal moment. We see the wonder of a boy and girl meeting and greeting each other, or the surprise on a woman’s face as her husband saddles their horse and their little girl smilingly pokes her head out from beneath the horse’s tail. Or there is the scene of a terrified boy’s flight through the dark woods as an owl screeches from the treetops and a rabbit looks on in amazement. The series has a great deal more realistic detail which befits the
themes of the books themselves, and Williams was said to have toured the Midwest following in the footsteps of Ingalls’ characters, and finally met with the author herself in Missouri before heading to Rome and New York where he actually executed the illustrations.
The Curtis Memorial Library exhibition gives a comprehensive look at the scope of Garth Williams’ work. Separated as these drawings and paintings are from the words and pages themselves, they take on an even more compelling appeal as they demonstrate vividly that in children’s illustrated literature, the picture is an equal partner with the word in telling the story. Not only are Garth Williams’ drawings technically lovely, beautifully balanced and executed, but they are also rich in expression. They are able to communicate the arcs of the narrative story lines, the content of the characters’ souls, and the emotional experiences which grips them in the moment. And perhaps, it is “in the moment” that is very much the key to appreciating Garth Williams’ work. For the illustrations have at once an immediacy and a timelessness to them. They leap off the
page and they remain etched in our memories.