An illustration by Garth Williams for Charlotte's Web showing his techniques of careful lines, detail, action, emotion, texture, and shading.
|Born||Garth Montgomery Williams
April 16, 1912
New York City, U.S.
|Died||May 8, 1996
Marfil near Guanajuato, Mexico
Garth Montgomery Williams (April 16, 1912 – May 8, 1996) was an American artist who came to prominence in the American postwar era as an illustrator of children's books. Many of the books he illustrated have become classics of American children's literature.
In Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and in the Little House series of books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Williams['s] drawings have become inseparable from how we think of those stories. In that respect... Williams['s] work belongs in the same class as Sir John Tenniel’s drawings for Alice in Wonderland, or Ernest Shepard’s illustrations for Winnie the Pooh.
His friendly, fuzzy baby animals populated a dozen Golden Books.
Mel Gussow in The New York Times wrote, "He believed that books 'given, or read, to children can have a profound influence.' For that reason, he said, he used his illustrations to try to 'awaken something of importance... humor, responsibility, respect for others, interest in the world at large.'"
Garth Williams was born in New York City in 1912 to English artists, his father a cartoonist for Punch, his mother a landscape painter. "Everybody in my home was always either painting or drawing." He grew up on farms in New Jersey and Canada. In 1922 he and his family moved to the United Kingdom. He studied architecture and worked for a time as an architect's assistant. But when the Great Depression came he made up his mind to be an artist instead of an architect. He began his studies at Westminster School of Art in 1929 and in 1931 was awarded a four-year scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where he created a sculpture that was awarded the British Prix de Rome. He continued his education at the British School at Rome in Germany and Italy, until the outbreak of World War II in Europe.
In London he volunteered with the British Red Cross Civilian Defense ambulances, and helped collect the dead and injured from the streets. After a bomb blast vaporized a friend who had been walking next to him, he sent his wife and daughter to Canada, and united with them in New York in 1942.
In the United States Williams worked making lenses at a war plant, applied for work as a camouflage artist, contributed war-effort posters to the British-American Art Center in New York, and brought his portfolio around to the major publishing houses. He drew for The New Yorker for a mutually unfulfilling period of time. Then, in 1945, he received his first commission as an illustrator, from editor Ursula Nordstrom of Harper's Department of Books for Boys and Girls. The story is that Nordstrom "told him she was expecting a manuscript that he might illustrate. In a fortuitous coincidence, when the manuscript arrived the author had pinned a note to it: 'Try Garth Williams.' The author was E. B. White, the book was Stuart Little." The Whites had wanted Robert Lawson and had burned through eight illustrators. The book was a success with adults as well as children. Williams said later that seeing grownups on buses and trains reading Stuart Little persuaded him to continue as a freelance illustrator.
Shortly thereafter he began his collaboration with Margaret Wise Brown with the womblike The Little Fur Family, Harper's chic answer to Simon & Schuster's Pat the Bunny. Nordstrom knew the book would be a success when a mother wrote to tell her that her little boy had held open his copy at the dinner table and tried to feed it his supper. In all, Williams illustrated eleven of Brown's books.
In 1951 he illustrated Charlotte's Web (1952); his eldest child Fiona, a toddler when the family escaped the Blitz, was his model for Fern Arable.
In the latter part of his life he lived primarily in Marfil, a small town west of Guanajuato, Mexico. He was part of a colony of expatriates who built or rebuilt homes in the ruins of the silver mines of colonial Mexico. His studio was the center of the house, with five drawing tables and sixteen skylights, though the house also contained a waterfall. He was an excellent guitarist and occasional banjo player, and told stories of busking in London during his art school tenure. At 81, he estimated he had illustrated ninety-seven books.
At 84 he died at his home in Marfil. He is buried in Aspen, Colorado. He was married four different times throughout his life and had five daughters: Fiona and Bettina from his first marriage, Jessica and Estyn from his second, Dilys from his fourth and a son, Dylan from his third marriage.
The 1953 "Little House" illustrations
Williams received the commission to illustrate the new Little House edition in about 1947. To know the worlds of Laura's childhood, Williams, who had never been west of the Hudson River, traveled the Midwest to the places the Ingalls family had lived 70 years before, photographing and sketching landscapes, trees, birds and wildlife, buildings and towns. "The trip culminated in a search along the riverbank along Plum Creek where the family had built their dugout home, so long ago.
I did not expect to find the house, but I felt certain that it would have left an indentation in the bank. A light rain did not help my search, and I was about to give up when ahead of me I saw exactly what I was looking for, a hollow in the east bank of Plum Creek. I felt very well rewarded, for the scene fitted Mrs Wilder’s description perfectly.
"[He] wanted to... be able to see the house on Plum Creek...as Laura would have done, as a happy, flower bedecked refuge from the elements, with the music of the nearby stream. Which is how he drew it."
Ursula Nordstrom's initial plan was for Williams to produce eight oil paintings for each book, sixty-four in all. This proved to be not cost-efficient. Williams illustrated the Little House books with the simple pencil, charcoal and ink. Much of his work was accomplished in Italy.
He illustrated the first edition of The First Four Years (1971).
The Rabbits' Wedding controversy
In 1958 Garth Williams wrote and illustrated a book that caused a small uproar: The Rabbits' Wedding. The illustrated picture book, aimed towards children aged 3 to 7, depicted animals in a moonlit forest attending the wedding of a white rabbit to a black rabbit. In 1959, the book became the center of a controversy, with Alabama Senator E.O. Eddins and Alabama State Library Agency director Emily Wheelock Reed as the key players. Senator Eddins, with the support of the White Citizens' Council and other segregationist, demanded that the book be removed from all Alabama libraries because of its perceived themes of racial integration and interracial marriage. Emily Wheelock Reed reviewed the book and, finding no objectionable content, determined it was her ethical duty to defend the book against an outright ban. A battle ensued between Reed and her supporters, and the segregationist faction in the legislature. In the end, the book was not banned outright, but rather placed on special reserve shelves in the state library agency-run facilities. Libraries who had purchased their own copies were not required to make this change.
Since the controversy, there has been more critical analysis done on the book. Some have noted the obvious logic of illustrating the rabbits with two different colors so the reader might tell them apart more readily. Others, in their quest to depoliticize the book, have claimed a perception of the black and white motif as, perhaps, a reference to yin and yang (i.e. male and female, though, inconsistently, the color-to-gender associations in the book are reversed). About the controversy, Williams stated, "I was completely unaware that animals with white fur, such as white polar bears and white dogs and white rabbits, were considered blood relations of white beings. I was only aware that a white horse next to a black horse looks very picturesque." Williams said his story was not written for adults, who "will not understand it, because it is only about a soft furry love and has no hidden message of hate."
Williams described his approach to illustrating books in a 1980 interview. His initial reading of the material usually would suggest thirty or forty potential pictures. "'To compose the pictures is very hard...I look for all the action in the story; then I arrange forms and color. I always try to imagine what the author is seeing. Of course, I have to narrow down my ideas to the number of drawings I'm allowed, which might be as few as ten per book. I make a list of illustrations. When I see a picture, I write down the idea and a page number while I read the manuscript.'"
Garth Williams drew few straight lines. He used charcoal and graphite pencils, from fine to very soft, to illustrate the Little House books. The "youngest" book in the series, Little House in the Big Woods, is nearly lamplit in its coziness, almost an echo of the small-animal sensibilities of The Fur Family or his deeply colored Little Golden Books. He used pen and ink for The Cricket in Times Square and the Rescuers books for Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. The Giant Golden Book of Elves and Fairies uses much colored pencil Golden Books and Little Golden Books oil pastels, ink washes and watercolors. The Rabbits' Wedding (1958) contains some of the clearest reproduced examples of his ability to convey hair, hide, grass and fur textures and uses only a few delicate colors.
Written and illustrated by Garth Williams
- (1946). The Chicken Book: A Traditional Rhyme. New York: Delacorte. ISBN 0-440-40600-5.
- (1951). Adventures of Benjamin Pink. New York: Harper.
- (1952). Baby Animals. New York: Golden Press.
- (1953). Baby Farm Animals. New York: Golden Press.
- (1955). Baby's First Book. New York: Golden Books.
- (1958). The Rabbits' Wedding. New York: Harper. ISBN 0-06-026495-0.
- (1986). Self-Portrait. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. ISBN 0-201-08314-0.
Illustrated by Garth Williams
- Andrieux, Raymond (1945). Tux'n'Tails. New York: Vanguard.
- Baylor, Byrd. Amigo.
- Brown, Margaret Wise. (1946) Little Fur Family. New York: Harper.
- -- (1952). Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself.
- -- (1953). The Sailor Dog.
- -- (1948). Wait 'til the Moon Is Full.
- -- (1951). Fox Eyes.
- -- (1954). The Friendly Book.
- -- (1956). Home for a Bunny.
- Kunhardt, Dorothy. (1949) Tiny Nonsense Stories. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- -- (1949). Happy Valentine.
- -- (1949). Mrs. Sheep's Little Lamb.
- -- (1949). The Two Snow Bulls.
- -- (1949). Roger Mouse's Wish.
- -- (1949). The Wonderful Silly Picnic.
- -- (1949). The Naughty Little Guest.
- -- (1949). Uncle Quack.
- -- (1949). April Fool!
- -- (1949). The Cowboy Kitten.
- -- (1949). The Easter Bunny.
- -- (1948). Shame On You, Baby Whale!.
- -- (1948). Good Housekeeping collaborations
- Carlson, Natalie Savage The Family Under the Bridge.
- -- A Happy Orpheline.
- -- (1959). A Brother for the Orphelines.
- Hoban, Russell Bedtime for Frances.
- Jarrell, Randall (1964) The Gingerbread Rabbit.
- Lindquist, Jennie D (1955) The Golden Name Day.
- -- (1959). The Little Silver House.
- Minarik, Else H. (1963). The Little Giant Girl and the Elf Boy.
- Prelutsky, Jack Ride a Purple Pelican.
- -- (1990) Beneath a Blue Umbrella.
- Moore, Lilian (1957) My First Counting Book
- Norton, Miriam (1954) The Kitten Who Thought He Was A Mouse
- Runyon, Damon (1946). In Our Town: Twenty Seven Slices of Life. New York: Creative Age Press.
- Selden, George New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
- -- (1960). The Cricket in Times Square.
- -- (1981). Chester Cricket's Pigeon Ride.
- -- (1983). Chester Cricket's New Home.
- -- (1986). Harry Kitten and Tucker Mouse.
- -- (1974). Harry Cat's Pet Puppy.
- -- (1969). Tucker's Countryside.
- -- (1987). The Old Meadow.
- Sharp, Margery The Rescuers: A Fantasy.
- -- Miss Bianca.
- -- (1966). Miss Bianca in the Salt Mines.
- -- (1963). The Turret.
- Stoltz, Mary. Emmet's Pig.
- -- King Emmett the Second.
- Wahl, Jan (1968). Push Kitty.
- Werner, Jane (ed.) (1950). The Tall Book of Make-Believe.
- Werner, Jane (ed.) (1951). The Giant Golden Book of Elves and Fairies.
- White, E.B. (1945) Stuart Little.
- -- (1952) Charlotte's Web.
- Wilder, Laura Ingalls (1953). The first eight Little House books. New York: Harper.
- Wilder, Laura Ingalls, with a foreword by Roger McBride (1971). The First Four Years. New York: Harper & Row.
- Zolotow, Charlotte. (1963). Over and Over.
- -- Do You Know What I'd Do?
- -- (1963) The Sky Was Blue.
- Campbell, Gordon (July 7, 2009). "Classics: The Rabbits Wedding by Garth Williams". Werewolf. Retrieved May 12, 2011.
- Gussow, Mel (May 10, 1996). "Garth Williams, Book Illustrator, Dies at 84". The New York Times. Retrieved May 12, 2011.
- Anderson, William (March 1, 1993). "Garth Williams after eighty". The Horn Book Magazine. Retrieved May 12, 2011.
- Marcus, Leonard S. (2008). Minders of Make-Believe. New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-67407-7.
- Emily W. Reed [Obituary]. (2000, May 29). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2000/05/29/us/emily-w-reed-89-librarian-in-59-alabama-racial-dispute.html
- Selby, M. (2012). Librarians as leaders. Feliciter, 58 (5), 37.
- Graham, P. (2002). A right to read : segregation and civil rights in Alabama's public libraries, 1900–1965 (pp. 102-112). Tuscaloosa : University of Alabama Press, 2002.
- Sollors, W. (1996). Neither black nor white yet both : thematic explorations of interracial literature (pp. 21). New York : Oxford University Press.
- "'Racial Rabbits' Irk Alabamans". Los Angeles Evening Mirror News. May 22, 1959. Retrieved May 12, 2011.
- Wheeler, Jill (2005). Garth Williams. Edina, Minn.: ABDO Publishing. A biography for children.
- "Williams, Garth (Montgomery) 1912-." Something About the Author. 66:228-235. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research.
- In 1986 the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society of De Smet, South Dakota created a video, "Back after 39 Years: Garth Williams Re-visits De Smet, S.D." This is a taped lecture in which Williams describes his work on the Little House books.
- "Garth Williams: An Interview," in Publishers Weekly. New York: February 23, 1990. Leonard Marcus Bibliography Leonard S. Marcus
- Garth Williams is represented by Richard M. Ticktin, Esq. of Robinson Brog Leinwand Greene Genovese & Gluck PC, 875 Third Avenue, 9th Fl., New York, NY 10022 
- Illustrators and Authors Collecting Little Golden Books
- LIFE. July 2, 1971. "A Fine Way Back to Our Prairie Past." This article reproduces the original watercolor-pencil illustrations for the covers of three of the Wilder books.