Book Illustrators: Inspiring Love and
Delight in Observant Readers

By Suzanne Smith Pruchnicki
Caxtonian, December 1994

o my way of thinking, illustrations enhance a book when the marriage between them and the text illustrated is a happy one. Upon close examination of a book’s illustrations, one can discern if an illustrator has read the book with sensitivity and intelligence. It becomes plain whether he or she has enjoyed the text and has been emotionally moved by it. So called “livres d’artistes,” books illustrated by famous artists, such as Picasso, who was not a book illustrator, are, usually, extremely costly and well-printed but, not always happy marriages.

Illustrations are usually composed of lines. The trained eye can see that some lines are “dead” on the page, while others are alive. Those by a hack illustrator lie dead when compared to those of Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Hogarth, or Rowlandson, for instance. The lines of truly great illustrators are those which convey vitality, a love of the subject drawn, and unmistakable feeling—for example, Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, which tells a lively, though unhappy, story. Illustrations by Thomas Rowlandson radiate vitality in their close observation of human form and behavior of the very late 18th century. His Dance of Death, grim as the title surely is, somehow strikes a hilarious note in depicting inconvenient Death.

Dickens was extremely precise in what he expected his illustrations to include. He was fortunate to have fine illustrators, such as John Leach (A Christmas Carol) and Hablot Knight Brown, whose drawings for Pickwick Papers immortalized Pickwick and his friends.

Many writers have created their own illustrations. Thackeray, who wanted to be a professional artist, did some quite good ones for Vanity Fair. Author-illustrators of children’s books are very common today. Randolph Caldecott, for whom the Caldecott Medal was named, was an illustrator of spirit-lifting liveliness and zest. His illustrations are based on a very careful observation of people, horses, dogs, and farm animals in movement, as Caldecott chronicles the frivolities and festivities of an earlier age.

Kate Greenaway and Beatrix Potter are known for the gentleness, sweetness, and subtlety of color they brought to illustrations of children and animals.

Charles Robinson, William Heath Robinson, Arthur Rackham, and Edmund Dulac stand out as giants in early 20th century illustrations. Rackham is consistently very good; his lines live. Ondine represented a high point in a lifetime of superb illustrations, beautifully printed. Rackham always checked the color plates himself to make sure they were accurate.

Edmund Dulac, Rackham’s contemporary, was an artist whose color, though subtle, had great richness of tone. His brilliant, sensual technique was well suited to The Rubyiat. He was equally effective with the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. (His later, Art Deco-inspired illustrations are too mannered to convey much feeling.)

Ernest Shepard displayed near-genius in depicting Winnie the Pooh and his cronies, as well as the almost human Toad in Wind in the Willows. He made their anthropomorphic lifestyles quite believable and interestingly English.

Howard Pyle, the famous artist-teacher of classes at Chadds Ford, PA, taught a whole school of illustrators, the most famous of them being N.C. Wyeth. Wyeth immersed himself as completely as anyone could in the fantasy and the history he was depicting. He made the classics that he illustrated come alive for readers. In his work, a careful observer finds the marriage of action, character, superb composition, color, and form—all suffused with strong emotion. No wonder the books he illustrated are such treasures!

The first editions of The Wizard of Oz, by Frank L. Baum, are forever joined to the illustrations of W.W. Denslow; consequently, it is difficult for other illustrators to improve on the brilliant conceptions of Denslow. The reader who has been introduced to the first edition of The Wizard may very well picture the characters ever after just as Denslow has drawn them.

Within the past years, Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales has been illustrated by at least three gifted interpreters: first, by Fritz Eichenberg, a strong wood engraving style; second by Edward Ardizzone, gently and dreamily, and third, by Trina Schart Hymen, in more English color and style. Since the first illustrations did not permanently fix the reader’s imagination, there would seem to be room for repeated tries at the ideal marriage in this creative Christmas tale by the Welsh poet and playwright.

There are a great number of very fine children’s book illustrators today. Their works are beautifully printed, and it can truly be said that this is a golden age of children’s book illustration. Regardless of the large numbers of illustrators and of books of exceptional quality, time has a way of sorting out the illustrator and the book that will continue to inspire love and delight in readers with an educated eye.