William H. Bradley, who lived into his nineties, crowded several careers into that long life span. A compulsive worker, from his first job at eleven as a printer’s devil for a small newspaper in Ishpening, Michigan, he eventually became one of America’s most influential poster artists, printers, and designers.
He was a qualified journeyman printer by thirteen and became a foreman at fifteen. As soon as he was old enough to go on his own, he moved to Chicago to find work as a freelance designer for printers. Self-taught as an artist, he was greatly influenced by Aubrey Beardsley and by the Art Nouveau movement. With a natural flair, he soon found his own drawing style and became conspicuously successful in combining his beautiful pen drawing with typography.
This combination of talents was especially appropriate with the advent of the new poster-craze in the nineties in which Bradley played an important American role, bridging the Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts Movements during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth. Advertisers vied for his designs, and he also created poster-like conceptions for many manufacturers, including the Chickering Piano Company, Twin Comet Lawn Sprinklers, and Victor Bicycles. For the Worlds Fair of 1894-95, he produced the highly successful booklet, “A Columbia Ode.”
Through his own publications, he had a showcase for his ideas and designs that reached to the whole publishing industry. Bradley: His Book, self-published quarterly by his Wayside Press, was also designed and published entirely by himself. He changed the layout and design for each issue, and did the artwork and text for most of the ads, which were some of the finest examples of American designs of that era. This enormous undertaking, along with his commercial printing jobs, finally resulted in his breakdown in the middle of the fourth number of the second volume when its publications was suspended. Today, complete sets of the volumes are rare collectibles—even the individual ads are prized and framed.
1904, Bradley launched a new publication, The American Chap Book, which ran for twelve monthly issues, and was based on the eighteenth-century Chap Books, with each issue a different topic—and format. Supplements were printed as broadsides, again displaying the artist’s wide-ranging imagination and taste. Type itself was one of his passions. He re-introduced the Caslon face and designed the new type faces for American Type Founders, created wallpaper, made pottery designs for Royal Doulton china, designed furniture, a series of Arts and Crafts-styled interiors for The Ladies’ Home Journal, as well as plans for complete houses to be built for $1,000 to $1,500 (this in 1905). Some of his finest book designs were produced during this time.
He eventually sold his printing plant in 1907, and moved to New York to assume the post of art director for Collier’s magazine. In the process, Bradley completely revamped its design. He was subsequently hired to do similar re-designs for Success, The Century, and Metropolitan magazines, as well as Good Housekeeping and other Hearst publications. He even spent five years—from 1915 to 1920—as art supervisor for several of Hearst-financed movies, one of which he wrote and directed himself. His work is represented in numerous museums including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
Bradley was able to accomplish so much, carried by the momentum of his enthusiasm. He was an idea man enjoyed the challenge of new problems and in finding artistic solutions to them. In the process, he employed an elegance and good taste that transcends the limitations of the time in which he worked and that makes his artistry equally eloquent today.
Illustration House, Inc.