Inspiring Young Readers
The Illustrative Art of N.C.Wyeth
Not too long ago I was flicking, in a sort of half-hearted way, through a pile of old annuals from the 40s and 50s – the sort that were aimed at providing boys and girls with anthologies of adventure stories, history and interesting facts all sandwiched together with crummy, cheap illustrations on a thick composite paper made of the roughest wood pulp imaginable. Half way down the pile I happened upon a couple of volumes that were a bit different – Treasure Island and The Boys King Arthur – which immediately stood out because of the quality of the front cover illustrations. Leafing through them it was clear to me that even though these were only relatively cheap reprints, the illustrations were of quite a different order and massively superior to those in the annuals. These used a vibrant colour palate that even survived the cheap production values of these editions and were detailed and immaculately imagined, realist representations of the knights and pirates that people the book.
The title page listed the artist as N.C. Wyeth and they were interesting enough to encourage me into doing a bit of digging around about who this illustrator was.
Born in 1882 with the grand name of Newell Convers Wyeth, he decided on a career in the fine arts early on but found himself being pushed towards illustration. As the entry in his catalogue raisonné tells us:
“..young Convers attended Mechanic Arts High School in Boston through May 1899, concentrating on drafting. With his mother's support he transferred to Massachusetts Normal Art School and there instructor Richard Andrew urged him toward illustration. He studied with Eric Pape and Charles W. Reed and then painted with George L. Noyes in Annisquam, Massachusetts, during the summer of 1901.”
He then went on to join what would be his defining influence – the Howard Pyle School of Art. Pyle was one of America’s most influential early 20th century illustrators whose credo was to draw and paint only from experience and to do it with drama – something Wyeth took to heart and is apparent to see in his dynamic, action-based realism. As a result of seeking the experiences he needed, Wyeth travelled widely in the States and spent time on what was still the relatively untamed Wild West.
After marrying in 1906, Wyeth purchased a house and built his own studio at Chadds Ford where he would stay while he raised five children. A commission in 1911 to illustrate Stevenson’s Treasure Island was his breakthrough moment and the 17 large canvas illustrations he produced for this are now considered masterpieces of American art. The catalogue raisonné notes:
“Action and character study are united in each painting to further the narrative beyond the text. In every canvas, his superb sense of color and his ability to mix painterly passages with authentic detail prove him a master of the art. Complex compositions and his skillful use of intense light contrasted with deep shadow contribute to a palpable dramatic tension inherent in the paintings. These pictures made the Wyeth-illustrated edition of Treasure Island a favorite of generations of readers.”
From 1913 - 1940 he illustrated a string of what were then thought of as classic boys adventure stories including Kidnapped, Last of the Mohicans, The Boys King Arthur, Robin Hood and Robinson Crusoe ( to name what is actually just a mere handful of his total output).
But despite his success in book illustration, Wyeth was frustrated and desperately wanted to spend more time as a fine artist and he had success as both a painter and a muralist.
His death is a pretty odd affair it would seem. In 1944 at the relatively early age of 62, his car was struck by a freight train while on a level crossing near his home. This does seem to have been an accident and there’s no suggestion of suicide – but it does seem to be a weird way for such a renowned artist to bow out.
The illustrations he left behind may now strike many readers as quite formal and old-fashioned, especially given the modern taste for more avant-garde illustrative techniques. But I think they’re beautiful and wholly appropriate to the books they were painted for and I’m keeping my eyes open for better editions that do real justice to the originals.