Pictures that Illustrate Thousands of Words: Collecting Original Illustrative Art

An illustration by Normal Rockwell for “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” 1936. The original is showcased at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Mo.

Some book collectors collect books based solely on the illustrations, and for good reason. Many books from the late 1800s and early 1900s were filled with beautiful chromolithographs, tipped-in color plates and tissue-guarded glossy illustrations. Famous classics like “Alice in Wonderland” or “Robinson Crusoe” have been issued in hundreds of different editions, with varying artists displaying their own unique and imaginative interpretations of the scenes. A book’s illustrations can make all the difference in a story’s appeal, which is exactly why the American Library Association established an annual award in 1937, the prestigious Caldecott Medal, for the best-illustrated children’s book of the year.

Collecting the original art used to illustrate a book is a hobby enjoyed by many bibliophiles. Unlike most other collectibles, a piece of original illustrative art will be one of a kind. The picture may be enjoyed by thousands of readers in its printed form, but the original will always be a stand-alone work. Sometimes, fine pencil lines, painted-over changes and other corrections can be seen, all of which add to the mystique of the piece. Did the artist plan a different interpretation of the scene, only to change his mind as the painting came together? How did the artists choose which scenes to represent? How did they decide on colors and mediums? What did they do to research their work?

When “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” became an almost instant classic in 1876, many artists wanted to interpret the scenes. But Norman Rockwell, in 1935, was the only artist who actually visited Hannibal, Mo., in order to illustrate the events from the childhood of Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens). When Rockwell toured the cave where Tom and Becky Thatcher got lost, he realized that it had no stalactites and stalagmites, as had so often been shown by other artists, and he adjusted his sketches accordingly.

An illustration by Barbara Remington for the Ballantine paperback covers of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, 1965. The original art sold at auction for $36,000 (including buyer’s premium) in February 2010.

Alternatively, Barbara Remington was not able to even read the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy before being asked to rush the cover art for the Ballantine paperback versions in 1965. Her cover art included elements and images that were never contained in the series, much to the chagrin of author J.R.R. Tolkien.

Original illustrative art can be expensive if either the artist or book is very popular. Works by Johnny Gruelle (of Raggedy Ann fame), Arthur Rackham, John R. Neill (who illustrated many Wizard of Oz stories), Kate Greenaway and others can bring tens of thousands of dollars or more. Sometimes the art is held in family estates for decades before it is released on the market. And color illustrations or cover art are usually priced at a premium.

The 1950 cover art for “The Doll’s Christmas” by Tasha Tudor. The original sold for $8,000 in 2008

Pen and ink illustration by C.J. Taylor for Puck magazine’s July 1887 issue. The original sold for $108 in 2008.

But it is possible to build a collection of illustrative art far less expensively, especially with black and white illustrations or art from lesser known books and artists. Magazine, comic book and newspaper illustrations can also be found for very reasonable prices, especially if they are unattributed. Thousands of insignificant Disney books have been produced, most illustrated by anonymous company graphics employees. Original Disney art is therefore fairly easy to locate and can be purchased for a few hundred dollars apiece. But more often than not, the actual book that it illustrated is now long forgotten.

If the title of the book where the art first appeared is known, it is fun to display the original along with the book. However, the art should always be framed and covered with glass to prevent smudging and wear, especially since many older book illustrations were done in charcoal or chalk. A gum eraser can be used to gently remove fingerprints or soil from the margins, but the artist’s original guideline marks should never be altered if they are still present. The paper (or board) should also be de-acidified and kept out of direct sunlight or moist environments.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.


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