During the first 20 years of this century, the art of illustration enjoyed extraordinary popularity. It was the Golden Age of Gibson, Abbey, Pyle and Wyeth, among others. The prestige of the illustrator had reached such heights that the profession was attracting distinguished painters such as Sloan, Glackens, Boardman Robinson, Bellows, Luks, and Shinn, and it was a brave publisher who dared produce a book in this era without the attendant services of the artist-illustrator. But by World War I the momentum had been disrupted and the era became part of art history. Shifting popular tastes were as easily satisfied by imitations and stereotypes, and the virile, romantic styles of the giants were being replaced by posture and sentimentality. New giants were in the making, however, and among them emerged the enduring personality of Edward Arthur Wilson.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1886, his early childhood was spent in Rotterdam, and then in Chicago, where he received his first art instruction at the Chicago Art Institute.
Although established in New York by 1921, the work of Edward A. Wilson had still to become well known outside of the special world inhabited by illustrators. That year he chanced to design the jacket for a new book by William McFee, and it was this that started him on his way to the distinguished career he has since achieved.
Iron Men and Wooden Ships, published in 1924, and Pirates Gold, published in 1926, securely placed him as a leader, and the many volumes he steadily produced since that time earned him honor and repute as one of the most eminent illustrators in America.
The familiar Edward A. Wilson accompanies a 40-year work showing development and growth always of uniform excellence. Wilson’s success stems, no doubt, from his wholehearted attitude toward the profession of illustration. He regards it simply as one of the most estimable of arts. In consequence, he approaches each assignment with pride in his responsibility as an artist. Fine draughtsmanship and a brilliant color sense are his tools, coupled with a knowledge of techniques and an imagination firmly rooted in scholarship.
His attitude towards his art is one of constant exploration. Each assignment is a new adventure from which he continually learns and adds to his experience. The student of illustration would do well to study the work of this artist. Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Jane Eyre, Anthony Adverse, Green Mansions, Two Years Before the Mast, The Last of the Mohicans, The Man Without a Country, Westward Ho! and The Tempest of William Shakespeare, all published between the years of 1926 and 1948, are books that have been enhanced by his collaborating talent. They will stand as classic examples of the finest that America has produced in book illustration.
In 1948, The Book of Edward A. Wilson, edited by Norman Kent with a foreword by Thomas Craven, was published by Heritage Press to do honor to Wilson’s career up to that time. Since 1948, no year has passed by without a Wilson-illustrated book reaching the public. These years produced American Sea Songs & Chanties, The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, Ivanhoe, Building the Transcontinental Railroad, A Shropshire Lad, A Sailor’s Treasury, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dam Busters, The Story of George Washington, The Story of Benjamin Franklin, and Clipper Ship Days. In 1953 he illustrated The Story of Theodore Roosevelt and The Story of John Paul Jones; in 1954 it was By These Words. In more recent times Cromwell’s Head, Twenty Leagues Under the Sea, The Horsecatcher, The Mysterious Island, Warpath, The Deerslayer, and Around the World in 80 Days were commissioned from Edward A. Wilson by various publishers. This year Yankee From Olympus will be reread with Wilson illustrations.
Such a record of accomplishment could only be achieved by Edward A. Wilson.
Following is a brief, nostalgic glance at the past by Edward A. Wilson.
In looking over the first four Illustrators Annuals I have come to the conclusion that American illustration has not much to worry about. The work shown has verve and is contemporary in the right way with plenty of sound drawing and style, and with a sprinkling of humor as an added ingredient. Humor helps to give life. It was the dash of humor that gave Churchill’s writings their added punch. Humor was something that was completely out in my early days, however. The boys were deadly serious about their work then. I am talking now about advertising, which is the field where I spent most of my time until, just by luck, I got going in book illustration. There was a point when things were slow and I was fed up with what I was doing, so I sat down and made some woodcuts. The woodcuts were gathered together to make a book and the book was a big success. In my spare time, I had got myself into another field and have carried on in two fields ever since. It has kept me busy.
I can’t help looking backward. On my way east from Chicago I stopped off at Wilmington, got Howard Pyle’s address from a phone book, and went and rang his bell. This was one time I pushed the right button. For, although the Pyle school was not operating as usual, Pyle invited me to come to his studio any morning at eight for criticism. Eight in the morning has always been a bad time of day for me, but I went. He got me to painting in oil and I used this medium for years. Also, I had the friendship of the wonderful crowd who were there at that time.
When I first came to New York in the early 1900s there was no advertising business as we know it today, and the magazine field was dominated by the big three, Harper’s, Scribner’s and Century. These three published the kind of stories we haven’t seen for years. The illustrators of those days— and a great crowd they were— thought of themselves as artists and I didn’t have much of a chance at the big time. However, I had come from Chicago with some years as a commercial artist so I was able to make a living of sorts. After the Pyle interlude, I went at the job of painting what was then known as subject pictures. There was a market for them in magazines like Harper’s Weekly and in the litho houses for calendar art, and I sold a few. Pyle and his group set my sights a little higher and I have been grateful ever since.
Then World War I started and things began to change. There was a lot of money around and taxes were not a serious problem at that time. When they got to be a problem, advertising was given the boost it needed. My first big campaigns came from concerns that wanted to get rid of their surplus money.
What pulled me through the two wars and the well-known depression was my idle time in which I used to fiddle around with new methods of getting a drawing to reproduce as near facsimile as possible. You must remember that printing and photoengraving were rudimentary then compared to what they are today. Whatever style I may have now was brought about by striving to get my drawing printed as nearly as possible to the way I made it. So developed my woodcut methods and later, my lithography. Printing has always held a fascination for me, so at one stage I learned to set type and had a hand press to work with.
One little bit of more recent history: I got a job not too long ago to do a series of drawings for one of the big oil companies. The agency that handled the account was the kind that has three floors in a large building. Arriving at the right floor for the conference I went to the desk, inquiring as to where I would find the art director. The receptionist took one look at me with my gray hair and manila package and said, “Is this a pick-up?” So you see I have now gone the full circle!
© 2013 Society of Illustrators