Friday, February 19, 2010

Garth Williams

Garth Willams (1912-1996) is best known for his illustrations for "Charlotte's Web," "Stuart Little," and the "Little House" books.  So intrinsically are those titles linked with his images, that it is almost impossible to think of one without the other.  In one of my earlier posts, I displayed some of his illustrations from one of my favorite childhood books, "The Tall Book of Make Believe."  Since he has always been one of my favorite illustrators, I've decided to devote this post to more of his work.  The illustrations that I'm including all come from books in my personal collections.

His black and white images in the "Little House," books were created with charcoal and pencil which Williams used to charming effect.  In using these basic materials, it's almost as if the artist wanted us to realize that these were tools that Laura Ingalls Wilder, in her early life of pioneering hardship, might have had at her disposal and could have used to make similar sketches of her life.

Williams was also an expert when it came to using pen and ink as can be seen  in his work for "Stuart Little," and "The Cricket in Times Square."  The sharpness of detail in these images gives the viewer a crisp feeling for what it might be like to see the world from a height of only 5 or 6 inches tall.  In "The Family Under the Bridge," the Newberry Honor book by Natalie Savage Carlson, Williams used pen and ink with a gray wash which was perfect for creating the necessary mood and atmosphere for this story of a hobo who lives under a bridge along the misty banks of the Seine in Paris.

Some of my favorites of Williams' illustrations come from the work he did for a number of different books in the Little Golden Books series. His illustrations for Margaret Wise Brown's "The Friendly Book," are colorful and wonderfully intricate. In this book, Williams gives the viewer an array of marvelous details that makes the reader want to pour over them again and again.  In the book's two page spread on dogs, Williams digs way beyond the text to give the viewer a city populated by all sorts of canine characters. Not only do we get the "Big dogs, Little dogs," and the other dogs that Brown describes, but we get stern looking police dogs, hungry dogs, shiftless dogs, genteel dogs and taxi-driving dogs that Brown doesn't even mention in her text.  In the two page spread on people, he once again goes beyond the text.  Here, Williams supplements Brown's words with all sorts of dogs interacting with the described people. He even throws in a squirrel and a few birds. Taken by themselves, Brown's words are charming and have a nice rhythm to them - "Glad people, Sad people, Slow people, Mad people, Big people, Little people," but when you add in Williams' delightful animals to the page, you get a whole other story taking place. You get dogs chasing runners, dogs chasing men on bicycles, big dogs kissing big ladies, stooped over old men petting tiny dogs.  I've heard it said by many an art director that the job of the illustrator is to take the viewer beyond what is described in the text. Garth Williams was an illustrator who could do this beautifully.

Another of Williams' fondly remembered books is "Mister Dog," also written by Margaret Wise Brown. In this story of Crispin's Crispian, the dog who belonged to himself, Williams captures the cozy life of a dog who lives in a garden in a two-story doghouse.  Looking at these wonderful pictures, the reader can't help but feel envious of the little boy who gets to move in with Crispin's Crispian.

"Baby Animals," a book that I'm sure was a childhood favorite of many a baby-boomer was not only illustrated by Williams, but written by him as well. This book is a good example of one of Williams' distinguishing characteristics - his remarkable ability to depict the texture of animal fur.  Seldom, if ever, has there been such a tactile depiction of fluffiness as what Williams displays in his adorable images of baby animals.

Fortunately many of the books that Garth Williams illustrated are still in print.  For those interested in purchasing any of the books that I have written about, I've provided easy links that will take you to the appropriate Amazon buying page.

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