Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Clarke Library Obtains Original Art from Little House on the Prairie

By Frank Boles

At a recent auction the Clarke Library was fortunate to obtain two original drawings created by Garth Williams for the 1953 reprinting of Little House on the Prairie. The Little House books are among America’s most recognized children’s volumes.  The series was first published between 1932 and 1943. In the late 1940s Harper, which published the books, decided to reissue the volumes with new illustrations.

To undertake the job Harper hired Garth Williams.  He was no stranger inside of Harper’s office. Ursula Nordstrom, Harper’s chief editor of children’s books, had recruited him in 1945 as an illustrator. A few days after recruiting Williams, Nordstrom received a note from E. B. White, attached to his latest project, Stuart Little, suggesting she hire Williams to illustrate the volume. In 1951 Williams illustrated White’s second children’s book, Charlotte’s Web. Nordstrom knew who she wanted to create the new illustrations for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s popular series, but Williams was concerned about his ability to do the job well.

Williams had never ventured west of New York’s Hudson River. The vast stretches of land described by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her books were as alien to him as the face of the moon. To resolve the problem, Williams made an extensive western trip, visiting the land on which the book’s characters played out their stories.  Much of the resulting art was drawn in Italy. Regardless of where the art was created or the background of the artist, the results justified Nordstrom’s choice of Williams. His simple pencil drawings captured the spirit of the book and have become an integral part of many children’s lives.

Williams died in 1996 and beginning in 2010 his estate began to auction the many drawings he had retained. The Library’s purchase of the two illustrations was made possible by the Francis and Mary Lois Molson Endowment, created by the Molson’s to help the Library obtain important original works drawn to illustrate children’s books, and the Friends of the Libraries.