Category Archives: Rubylith

Golden Adventures, Brushy Animals

Cornelius De Witt illustration from The Golden Encyclopedia (1946).

Cornelius De Witt illustration from The Golden Encyclopedia (1946).

I feel the need to do a catch-all post sharing the vintage kid books which we’ve come across lately – so here it is! These three books were all acquired at thrift stores and used book sales. For admirers of vintage 20th century illustration, they’re especially great. They are:

  • Adventures in Geography, written and illustrated by Gertrude Alice Kay (1929; revised 1941). A globe-spanning story of a young boy and his eccentric uncle taking a luxury steamboat voyage to exotic locales, described in detail and illuminated by Ms. Kay’s lovely, impressionistic watercolor drawings. The visuals have a classic storybook flair with saturated colors and rounded edges. Gertrude Alice Kay led a fascinating life. Apparently the contents of this particular book first appeared in issues of Ladies Home Journal magazine. It’s a charming, evocative little book.
  • The Golden Encyclopedia, written by Dorothy A. Bennett; illustrated by Cornelius De Witt (1946). This large-format book is a typical encyclopedia, explaining things like plant and animal life, history, industrial production, games, music and geography in a way that’s informative yet never condescending of its young audience. What attracted me to this book was De Witt’s incredibly detailed illustrations, many of which take up an entire page in this 10×13-inch volume. It’s 126 pages, with artwork on nearly every page – an incredible undertaking!
  • The Big Book of Animal Stories, compiled and edited by Margaret Green; illustrated by Janusz Grabianski (1961). A compilation of famous animal legends and stories, brightened by beautiful, brushy artwork by Polish artist Grabianski. His work is delicate yet robust, and filled with joy. Hopefully my photos will suffice, but the blog The Art of Children’s Picture Books did two posts sharing plenty more images from this marvelous book.
Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

Funky ’70s Kid Books, Back in Print

Whenever a vintage kid book is brought back into print, my mouth breaks into a grin. Anyone who has ever set foot in a thrift store or library knows that kid books in particular tend to get battered, folded, spindled, mutilated and affixed with random PB&J sandwich stains over time. With especially rare child-oriented books, the chance of finding a still-pristine copy of an obscure treasure becomes almost nil. That’s why it’s heartening to see Princeton Architectural Press bring back two ’70s kiddie books done by a pair of design/illustration legends, Paula Scher and Seymour Chwast, reproduced as they were when originally printed. Both The Brownstone (1973) and The Pancake King (1971) deliver ’70s-funky yet timeless messages for kids and adults in colorful, large-format editions.

A gentle “be kind to those different from you” theme runs through The Brownstone, which follows a family of bears as they attempt to hibernate in their big city apartment. The Bears merely want to settle in for the winter, only they’re interrupted by a piano-playing cat, dancing kangaroos, a timid mouse family, and a gourmet pig family. Mr. Bear calls on the landlord, Mr. Owl, to help them out of their predicament, resulting in a game of musical chairs where the tenants all change places. It ends harmoniously, of course. Paula Scher was a young designer at CBS Records when she wrote this book, enlisting the help of cartoonist Stan Mack (of Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies). Mack’s pen-and-ink illustrations are lively and detailed. I also enjoyed the way Scher laid the book out (I’m assuming she designed as well as wrote) with spreads that show a cross-section of the brownstone on the right, while other spreads have chaotic vignettes from the story on the left-facing page. Kids will love studying the characters’ expressions and seeing how they react to being moved from floor to floor in the building. It’s a fun story with a solid, subtle message.

Illustrator Seymour Chwast was already well-established with the legendary Push Pin Studios when he decided to lend his art to a whimsical Phyllis La Farge story about a boy who loves making delicious pancakes. The Pancake King also has a timely message which will resonate with today’s kids about the satisfaction of loving what you do, regardless of what will come of it. The story follows a boy named Henry Edgewood, who attracts attention from his family and neighbors for his great homemade pancakes. Henry’s notoriety also draws in a shady businessman, Arthur J. Jinker, who makes Henry famous by taking him on a glitzy pancake-selling tour. Henry soon realizes that making pancakes for fame and riches isn’t fulfilling, however, so he returns to being a happy, humble Pancake King for his parents and his faithful dog, Ezra. Chwast’s funky, organic style of art is all over this book, printed in a color-drenched wide format. To adults, Chwast’s art has a vaguely nostalgic look reminiscent of Sesame Street and The Electric Company, although kids will find appeal in his curvy, colorful style as well. As a bonus, the book contains a recipe for Henry’s pancakes – yum!

The Brownstone and The Pancake King are available at Princeton Architectural Press or Amazon.com.

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Look What I Found: Two from Raymond Briggs

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I spent the last quarter of 2015 delving into the work of Raymond Briggs, the indubitably British cartoonist, graphic novelist – and it’s taken me this long to do a post about him!

It started last October, when I received the birthday gift of a Blu-ray edition of When the Wind Blows, the 1986 movie adaptation of Briggs’ story of an elderly British couple preparing their rural home for a nuclear attack. James and Hilda Bloggs (voiced by Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft) are a typical, kindly and even-tempered duo who greet the upcoming bombings with a mixture of cheerful optimism and pragmatic naiveté (“There’s no need to forget your manners just because there’s a war on,” Hilda cautions her husband during a rare outburst). With bone-dry, observant humor, Briggs points out the absurdity of this quaint couple preparing for nuclear annihilation as if it were a minor inconvenience in the simple routine of their lives. The movie itself is one of the most unique animated efforts ever made – director Jimmy Murakami stages the action with traditional animated cels photographed against miniature sets of the Bloggs’ home. Most of it preserves the colored-pencil shadings of Briggs’ work, although other scenes are done with expressionistic methods more in keeping with the anxious soundtrack from Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. This is an amazing movie with perfect voice-acting from Richardson and Ashcroft. Twilight Time included a lot of worthwhile extras on the Blu-ray, although the main one – a feature-length documentary with Murakami returning to the site where he was interred as a child in World War II – was a disappointment.

Viewing When the Wind Blows sparked an interest in the book which piqued my interest in Briggs in the first place – his acclaimed 1998 graphic novel, Ethel and Ernest: A True Story. This was Briggs’ poignant chronicle of his own parents’ courtship, marriage and deaths, told chronologically from when they met in 1928 up through the early ’70s. Mr. and Mrs. Briggs greet war, child-rearing, labor and politics with a typically British “cheerio, can-do” unflappability – the fact that they so closely resemble Mr. and Mrs. Bloggs is no coincidence. This couple seems much more real, however – Briggs captures them as quirky and all-too-human, yet worthy of admiration. I read this book last December, around the same time that I got to check out Briggs’ classic TV special The Snowman for the first time. Briggs’ elegantly shaded pencil lines have roughened up into jagged chicken scratches over the years, yet this book shows how his parents’ ordinary lives – facing incredible societal changes with grace and good humor – reflects the very spirit of the United Kingdom.

When the Wind Blows is available at Twilight Time’s website, while Ethel & Ernest can be had cheaply at AbeBooks.com.

Film still from When the Wind Blows.

Film still from When the Wind Blows.

Animation drawing from When the Wind Blows.

Animation drawing from When the Wind Blows.

Picture disc single of David Bowie's "When the Wind Blows," 1986.

Picture disc single of David Bowie’s “When the Wind Blows,” 1986.

Page from Ethel & Ernest.

Page from Ethel & Ernest.

Panel from Ethel & Ernest.

Panel from Ethel & Ernest.

Discovering John Alcorn: Evolution by Design

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As a birthday gift to myself, I bought a coffee table book titled John Alcorn: Evolution by Design. This is one time when it’s appropriate to call it a gift, since this tribute to possibly the most prolific ’50s-to-’80s-era illustrator shares Alcorn’s gifts with the world – corny, yet true!

Co-authored by Alcorn’s son, Stephen, and design historian Marta Sironi, Evolution by Design succeeds as both a comprehensive career overview and a personal remembrance (Alcorn died in 1992). Packed full of beautifully reproduced original art, this volume was an eye-opener. For someone like me who knew Alcorn from his groovy late ’60s commercial peak (e.g., The Fireside Book of Children’s Songs), the breadth and sheer talent displayed within these pages is nothing short of revelatory. This man was a true artist, always searching for the next horizon to explore. Alcorn started out with New York’s legendary Pushpin Studios, branched out on his own to incredible success in the ’60s, then helped shape America’s visual zeitgeist with a vocabulary of sinuous shapes, natural forms, and wild colors. He wasn’t one to rest on his laurels, however. In the early ’70s, Alcorn and his family uprooted to Italy, where he studied the country’s master painters and craftsmen. He remained astonishingly prolific during this time – becoming a favorite of the iconic film director Federico Fellini, among others – although most of this period’s output never made it to the U.S. Returning to these shores in the late ’70s, Alcorn continued to thrive with a gorgeous, mature style highlighted by a thoughtful attention to detail that never appeared fussy. The book closes out with a chapter devoted to one of the artist’s recurring visual motifs, the blooming flower.

John Alcorn: Evolution by Design was published by Moleskine, the notebook company, in 2013. It can be purchased at the Moleskine website or at Amazon.com.

Illustration projects for Mead papers (left) and The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics (right), 1969.

Illustration projects for Mead papers (left) and The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics (right), 1969.

Ad campaign for WCAU radio shown alongside their letterpress plates, 1959.

Ad campaign for WCAU radio shown alongside their letterpress plates, 1959.

Cut-paper student work and advertisement, mid-'50s.

Cut-paper student work and advertisement, mid-’50s.

Fruits and vegetables illustrated for Morgan Press and others, 1981-91.

Fruits and vegetables illustrated for Morgan Press and others, 1981-91.

Logo designs for Italian publisher Rizzoli, 1970s.

Logo designs for Italian publisher Rizzoli, 1970s.

Children's book illustrations, 1969.

Children’s book illustrations, 1969.

Various book jacket designs from the late '60s and early '70s.

Various book jacket designs from the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Frank Redlinger’s Jazz-Age West

Frank Redlinger - Grand Canyon color block print, 1933.

Frank Redlinger – Grand Canyon color block print, 1933.

I grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, which bills itself as “The West’s Most Western Town.” Although most of my childhood was epitomized by breezy walks to school (half a block from the house!) and being glued to the TV with a box of Cheerios, the town’s quirky fake-Western character also played a part in my development. Scottsdale was still a fairly small town back in the ’70s, with a main drag characterized by wooden-slatted souvenir shops done up like the set of Gunsmoke and a cutout figure of a lasso-toting cowboy. Back then it was just there, but that filtered, sanitized version of history still influences my work – especially the 4 Color Cowboy tumblr.

While outright kitsch definitely has a place at 4 Color Cowboy, I wanted to use it to find artists, movies, music and other projects that use that iconic Western stuff in a different, thought-provoking way. One such discovery was an artist named Frank Redlinger. After coming across his stuff while browsing through the Heritage Auctions site (fantastic place, by the way), I fell in love with his crude, beautiful landscapes, cowboys and other subjects rendered in wood-block prints. The artist maintained studios in two different places (Abilene, Texas and Los Angeles). The only pieces of his I’ve found date from about 1930-35, when he was in his forties. Simple and bold, they look to be inspired by the California Impressionists and Western movie posters from the silent era. He died in Los Angeles, a few days shy of his 66th birthday, in 1951.

Enjoy this little gallery of Frank Redlinger’s work. More can be seen at Heritage Auctions.

Frank Redlinger - Rainbow Arch block print, 1931.

Frank Redlinger – Rainbow Arch block print, 1931.

Frank Redlinger - On the Prod block print, 1934.

Frank Redlinger – On the Prod block print, 1934.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled Desert Caravan block print, 1932.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled Desert Caravan block print, 1932.

Frank Redlinger - personal Christmas card, 1932.

Frank Redlinger – personal Christmas card, 1932.

Frank Redlinger - Camelback Mtn. block print, 1932.

Frank Redlinger – Camelback Mtn. block print, 1932.

Frank Redlinger - Action In The Abstract block print, 1933.

Frank Redlinger – Action In The Abstract block print, 1933.

Frank Redlinger - Canyon De Chelly block print, 1931.

Frank Redlinger – Canyon De Chelly block print, 1931.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled Cowboy Being Bucked Off print, 1930s.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled Cowboy Being Bucked Off print, 1930s.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled Grand Canyon block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled Grand Canyon block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled Yucca Silhouettes block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled Yucca Silhouettes block print, early 1930s.

Look What I Found: Two from Helen Borten

Little Don Pedro (1965) and What Makes Day and Night (1961), illustrated by Helen Borten.

Little Don Pedro (1965) and What Makes Day and Night (1961), illustrated by Helen Borten.

In the annals of vintage kiddie books, the name of Helen Borten is a lesser-known yet beloved one. The Philadelphia-based artist remains well-regarded for the beautifully composed, deceptively simple visuals she made for a series of science-instructional books in the 1960s. Franklyn M. Branley’s What Makes Day and Night is a typically lovely example. While Branley’s text teaches children about the earth’s rotation around the sun in a fun, accessible way, Borten’s illustrations visualize the concepts perfectly. Working with a limited color palette of black, red, and yellow, Borten does fantastic things with composition and texture – parts of it are rendered in a primitive-modern lines, while others have a tactile, woodblock feel. It’s wonderful.

In addition to science books, Ms. Borten illustrated across a wide swath of subjects. I wasn’t aware of this, however, which made it a special delight when coming across the story of Little Don Pedro by Helen Holland Graham. This 1965 effort revolves around a timid Mexican boy who bravely faces off against an escaped bull in his tiny village. Four years on from What Makes Day and Night, we find Borten continuing the clever use of limited colors (here, green joins the solid red-yellow-black family), while the subject matter brings out a looser style. I love this stuff! In 1968, she authored and illustrated a lovely looking book on animals, The Jungle, which is on my to-get list.

As far as I can tell, Ms. Borten is still active. Although she apparently left illustration behind for a successful career change into producing radio documentaries, hopefully she has some awareness of how well-regarded her art continues to be.

Source: Fishink – Helen Borten A Creative And Illustrative Genius. (July 5, 2012)

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