Illustration History Gets the Care and Attention It Deserves

Ten years ago, Rick Poynor pointed out in Print that “One thing illustration has always lacked, compared to graphic design, is a strong critical framework by which to assess it.” He went on to note that, “Apart from Steven Heller … one would be hard pressed to name a single highly active writer, an expert, primarily identified with illustration as a subject.” Well, all that’s about to change, in a major way. Enter the Douglas B. Dowd Modern Graphic History Library.

Mac Conner, c. 1958

For a brief time, it was a special collection open to the public at the Washington University in St. Louis  and described as “original art and printed material from many fields of popular American pictorial graphic culture.” The work in its collections range from that of Robert Weaver, Robert Andrew Parker and Al Parker to Mort Walker, John Held Jr., Seymour Chwast and RO Blechman. Faculty Director D.B. Dowd explains that “We’re devoted to building an archive—and more importantly an academic context—for the study of the illustrated periodical in American life from the late 19th century well into the post-war period. Magazines are tremendous sources, particularly because the people who publish them are focused on fulfilling an editorial promise and thus are closely attuned to readers’ needs, yet are completely present-focused. We’re also focused on posters and advertising, and we’re moving to address animated film.”

Now, enter Jaleen Grove (who I previously interviewed in regards to the future of illustration), DMGHL’s Postdoctoral Fellow in Popular Print, who’s been a prime force in developing several significant initiatives. Originally from British Columbia, Grove began illustrating and designing in 1990, and did historical research on illustrators as a sideline. While deciding on a thesis topic for her MA degree, she—like Rick Poynor—discovered that hardly anything had been written about illustrators. And thus, historical research became her main concern. Her graduate work began in 2004, and since then she’s written a dissertation on Canadian illustrators, monographs, and several journal articles. Her current research interests involve historiography of the field, data visualization, and the cognitive science of seeing.

from the Illustrators’ Legacy Preservation questionnaire

Most immediately relevant is Grove’s Illustrators’ Legacy Preservation survey. It’s an online questionnaire which Dowd asserts “will add to the field at large by providing hard data about illustration practices and, even more importantly, questions of illustrators’ influences, tastes, values, and self-perception. Jaleen’s project will provide rigorous factual data to a field mostly defined anecdotally, even attitudinally.” 

Since the questionnaire’s success depends on the active participation of professionals in illustration, cartooning, comics, and related art fields—a large number of whom are Print readers—I connected with Grove for an in-depth interview, in which she discusses why and how to become involved in her most worthy initiative. She also describes valuable DMGHL resources with which she’s involved, details her other research studies, and notes the upcoming epic history of illustration that she co-edited, which is also the first textbook of its kind in the field.

Howard Pyle, Harper’s Weekly, 1899

Jaleen Grove on the Library as a Dream for Rare Visual Artifacts:

The Dowd Modern Graphic History Library is a researcher’s and collector’s dream and anyone is welcome to visit and look at things. We’ve got fun stuff, naughty stuff, shocking stuff, and rare stuff that you just don’t find in most academic libraries. One century-old portfolio, for instance, contains a full set of Howard Pyle’s exquisitely detailed wood engravings from the 1880s and a feature color centerfold of one of his famous pirates, from 1899.

The historic popular illustration and design that we specialize in had an enormous cultural impact back before TV, when it was the most widely and frequently consumed form of visual communication. Yet it’s been largely overlooked: you ask most people to name an illustrator and, after they say Norman Rockwell or name their favorite childhood book, they come up empty-handed. We see a lot of mid-century graphics reproduced today in sarcastic Facebook memes or in beautiful coffee table books and posters, but very few serious history books have been written on the actual illustrators, the technical and business aspects of illustration, what the pictures mean, or how consumers engage with the handmade pictures they see every day. We’re happy to provide material for those who want to admire the art because that’s an important part of our culture and appreciation builds interest, but once we’ve excited people’s interest, we want them to learn about the historical context, how it was made, who made it, and how it permanently shifted what people thought and did.

Byam Shaw, Old King Cole’s Nursery Rhymes, printed by Edmund Evans, 1900

The dearth of knowledge about graphic history is partly due to the fact that throughout the 20th Century, libraries discarded all their magazines and newspapers, leaving us only microfilm copies. It’s pretty hard to study illustration on microfilm, which renders every color as either black or white; not even grey. Illustrators—and publishers, too—threw out their archives. Due to this—and to many 20th Century people’s poor opinion of popular culture—few universities made popular graphic history a focus in their Special Collections or areas of study. The DMGHL therefore fills a huge vacuum in collections, research, and teaching. Most importantly, because of the support of farsighted donors, sponsors, and federal funders who understand the importance of preserving visual culture in its original forms, we operate with a full complement of expertise from our curator Skye Lacerte, our archivist Andrea Degener, the book repair people in our parent Special Collections department, and the vision and leadership provided by Director Dowd. The DMGHL is now known as the safe haven for the estates of the designers and illustrators who are now in their senior years.

Al Parker, Ladies Home Journal, 1962

Grove on the Library’s Wealth and Variety of Graphic Resources:

The collection started just over ten years ago with the acquisition of the estate of Al Parker, one of the most influential and innovative illustrators of mid-century women’s magazines, which he did with élan and neat compositional experiments such as flattened spaces, bold patterns, or unusual points of view. The cool thing about artists’ estates is that they often contain surprises—like, why was Al Parker, renowned for glamorous housewives, doodling an ode to Mary Jane and the Devil? I’m sure there’s a really good story behind it—maybe someone can tell us.

Al Parker, c. 1970

Shortly after Parker came to us, the estate of Robert Weaver arrived. Weaver was instrumental in the movement that broke away from what Parker was doing: he pioneered a more postmodern approach in which he famously referenced Expressionist painting and juxtaposed contrasting narratives in a split-screen format that quoted film montage. Parker was a master of narrative, and Weaver was a master of conceptual illustration: he became a big influence on the Push Pin Studio. So, our collection represents these two strains of late 20th century illustration very well, and we continue to add to it: we recently acquired Bernie Fuchs’ estate and Seymour Chwast’s poster collection.

Robert Weaver, c. 1960

Bernie Fuchs, c. 1964

Earlier this year, Steven Heller covered the news that we’ve added a new collection from RO Blechman and his Ink Tank studio, which signals our newest interest in animation history. This fall, we also acquired the estate archives of Arthur Keller, who was a leading illustrator of the Golden Age and one of the best watercolorists in the country.

We’re very strong in Golden Age material—that’s the period roughly 1880 to 1920—from having acquired the Walt Reed Illustration Archive. Reed was the author of the encyclopedic The Illustrator in America and other books, and proprietor of Illustration House, long a New York City mecca for collectors and researchers. It’s still operated by Walt’s son Roger, who, in accordance with Walt’s wishes, brought us everything. The collection includes some original illustration art, such as Jessie Gillespie’s lovely silhouettes.

Jessie Gillespie, c. 1905

Reed also collected thousands of illustrated books and magazines, and 250,000 tearsheets, including a folder of Garrett Price’s Whiteboy Sunday comics. I might note here that every semester, students in our studio and history courses work with the collections and we post their essays on our blog, including a recent one about Whiteboy.

Garrett Price, Whiteboy, 1934

Among the Walt Reed items, I’m particularly in love with the albums that Walt acquired from fans and illustrators, who painstakingly gathered and assembled their favorite illustrations. There’s a falling-apart album of tearsheets that turn-of-the-century cartoonist Will Crawford kept to archive his own work—it is precious because it is the closest thing we will ever have of a complete catalogue raisonné for him: living illustrators: take note! Some surprising imagery shows up, such as an editorial commentary on vivisection and the ethics of animal rights versus medical research, which is still debated today.

Will Crawford, Puck, Feb. 21, 1912 (click to enlarge)

Cliff Condak, c. 1975

We also hold collections on Stanley Meltzoff, Mort Walker, George Carlson, Cliff Condak, Robert Andrew Parker, and Jack Unruh. There’s a sizable mass from Henry Raleigh, and very recently, items from the jazz era cartoonist John Held Jr. came to us. Then there’s the “disreputable” end of print media, such as spicy pulps, which are widely collected but have not been analyzed by sociologists and cultural critics much. Besides telling us about the history of sexuality and of costume, a lowbrow men’s magazine such Gaze, with its distinctly Constructivist cover design, can tell us a lot about the mainstream acceptance of modernist aesthetics. And we could certainly use donations of pulps if anyone has any.

Gaze, August 1961

St. Louis, with its long history of troubled race relations, is also one of the foremost sites where people are doing something about social justice. To support this work, we’re building up our collections pertinent to African American experience. There’s an especially stereotypical board game called Ghettopoly; this kind of stereotyping is a descendent of brand mascots like Aunt Jemima and Cream of Wheat’s Chef, which we also have a lot of. Washington University’s Film and Media Archive, a sister branch of Special Collections with whom we share space, holds one of the strongest collections in the country for the history of the civil rights movement, and to complement that, we’d like to improve this subject matter in our print culture collections; consider this a call-out to anybody who has old magazines, photos, letters, comics, zines, or anything else that would help activists and scholars study African American representation.

Ghettopoly, 2003

Cream of Wheat, c. 1915

I also have to mention that our selection of over 9000 periodicals is really good, with most of the main 19th century titles such as Cosmopolitan, Harper’s, St Nicholas, Scribner’s, and so on; and 20th century ones too like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post. There are also some Jugends, a thirteen-year run of Le Petit Journal Illustrée recently hauled back from Paris, some very rare humor magazines from the 1930s, and some pulps; we could use more, if anyone is looking to donate! Those are complemented by Walter Baumhofer’s often hilarious and revealing business correspondence. Business records and accounting are among the most useful things a historian can have, but so often it’s the first thing to get thrown out by your relatives when you die.

I could go on and on. But you can just look things up in our finding aids. 

Letter from American Artists to Walter Baumhofer, June 16, 1943

James Montgomery Flagg: Why They Married, 1906 (click to enlarge)

Grove on the Illustrators’ Legacy Preservation Questionnaire … and You:

Illustrators have been through a lot of ups and downs in the last 40 years: the switch to digital tools, competition from stock art, the rise of new media, gaming, and DIY forms, the new hipness of illustration around 2005, diminishing print media, the impact of social media. The changes are more drastic than was the move from wood engraving to halftones 130 years ago. So how do we make sense of it all?

Besides making biographical records for posterity, if we get enough responses—and I mean hundreds—then we’ll have statistically valid information on these crucial last 40 years, which will help schools prepare students, and help the societies serve their memberships. It may also help individuals see patterns that might cathartically illuminate their own circumstances.

The questionnaire is long—but it has to be, if it’s to be any use whatsoever. In our work as historians, we constantly run into the problem of no information on people, technical processes, or the state of the industry even just 20 years ago. I realized that while we were so busy focusing on the past, we were neglecting the present. We have to stop the pattern of not documenting the field of illustration while it’s happening, before people forget, or distort it through memory.

And while we do collect interviews, the cost of travel and transcription means that we can conduct comparatively few. Therefore, the questionnaire is the most efficient means of documenting a wide swath of practitioners’ careers, beliefs, and experiences from the people who had them, not from somebody speaking for them at a later date.

So I encourage people to reward themselves with a quiet coffee break to do the questionnaire. It’s kind of fun, actually—lots of interesting things to click and comment on. 

Grove on Sexism and Seduction in “the History of Illustration History”:

In addition to the questionnaire I’m developing a project titled “Who Dunnit? Illustrators, Their Historians, and the Construction of Illustration History.” For this, so far I’ve compiled over 6,000 entries documenting which illustrators are mentioned in books and articles that survey illustration and were read in the United States between 1834 and 1966. That’s 71 writers/scholars speaking of 2,753 illustrators in 44 publications. And my data shows that the three most active writers who had major influence on our conception of the field, all men, were significantly more discriminatory than other writers in representing female illustrators than they were of males. The data reveals that women writers discussed female illustrators more than three times as much as the three top experts did, and showed their art more than five times as much.

Although sexism isn’t surprising or new to find, having solid numbers is very important, given that people in the past—as well as now—have frequently stated that illustration has always been an equal opportunity profession. There’s a tendency to romanticize illustration history. Although I geek out on the beauty and technical proficiency as much as collectors and fans do, I’m also interested in veracity and accounting for the more pernicious aspects of seductive visual rhetoric and for how our story has been told over the years.

John Held Jr., c. 1930

Grove on the Library’s New Illustration Archive Online Resources:

The graphic history community will be thrilled to know that soon the Dowd Modern Graphic History Library will be releasing 150,000 tearsheets from the Walt Reed Illustration Archive online. Digitizing this amazing and vast collection has taken a couple of years and employed a small army of interns, funded by a prestigious grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. This extends our mandate to support graphic history research beyond our walls to the world.

Grove on the Big New Book of Illustration History

We’re also excited that the hardcover edition of the monster book History of Illustration  – which DMGHL has contributed to from the beginning—will be published this Spring. Edited by Susan Doyle, Whitney Sherman, and myself, it’s been five years in development. At 592 pages, and with over 40 contributors, it covers illustration from around the globe, and from cave paintings to the present.

Jugend, April 18, 1896


Meet more of PRINT’s New Visual Artists in the Fall 2017 issue of PRINT.

PRINT’s 2017 New Visual Artists Are Here!

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  • A look at the rebranding of an old industry made anew: marijuana
  • A Manifesto from Scott Boylston on the dire need for sustainability in design
  • Paul Sahre’s memoir/monograph Two-Dimensional Man
  • Debbie Millman’s Design Matters: In PRINT, featuring Jonathan Selikoff
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3 thoughts on “Illustration History Gets the Care and Attention It Deserves

  1. baker

    What a fascinating article and subject …. as I’ve collected tear sheets for years of illustrated print work and books. However, with the exception of maybe Jessie Gillespie, c. 1905 (who may or may not be female) and one small paragraph about sexism….. where are either the mention of or more illustrations of women illustrators???

    Really after all that has happened in the past few months and the additional discussion of parity….

    Where are the WOMEN ??

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