Garth Williams Biography

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Garth Williams – American illustrator and author, 1912-1996.

Garth Williams
Garth Williams

American illustrator and author, 1912-1996. Garth Williams, best known as the illustrator of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books and E. B. White’s Stuart Little (1945) and Charlotte’s Web (1952), illustrated more than eighty books and wrote seven picture books, including The Rabbit’s Wed­ding (1958), unintentionally controversial because of its depiction of the wedding of a black rabbit and a white rabbit.

Garth Williams was born in New York City, but his family soon moved to a farm in New Jersey; his earliest memo­ries of this time include riding with the farmer on his tractor. From there the family moved to Ontario and, in 1922, to England. His father was a cartoonist and bis mother a landscape painter, and Williams has said, “Everybody in my house was either painting or draw­ing, so I thought there was nothing else to do in life but make pictures.”

He attended the Westminster School of Art and went on to win a painting scholarship to the Royal College of Art; there he discovered sculpture. Wil­liams’s affinity for weight and texture in his illustrations seems to come from his sculpting. He applied for and received the British Prix de Rome, allowing him to study art in Italy, France, and Germany, where he met and married the first of his four wives. While driving an ambulance during World War II, he was wounded in the spine and went to the United States, where he continued to work for the war effort.

Margaret Wise Brown Little Fur
Little fur Family – Margaret Wise Brown. First edition, 1943.

In 1943 he began looking for Work as an illustrator and cartoonist and was eventually accepted by The New Yorker. His first children’s book illustrations appeared in Stuart Little in 1945, followed in 1946 by Margaret Wise Brown’s Little Fur Fami­ly, which was bound in rabbit fur. This title began a col­laboration with Brown that would eventually include eleven books.

When he works with pen and ink, Williams combines a classical style of flowing lines and crosshatching with humorous, loving depictions of his characters, as in the novels he illustrated for White, George Selden, and Margery Sharp. When he uses pencil, as in Rus­sell Hoban’s Bedtime for Frances (1960) and Laura Ingalls Wilder s Little House in the Big Woods (1932) and the other books in this series, his lines are fewer and softer, yet still rec­ognizable for the caring, understated facial expressions.

Garth Williams excels at textures, particularly animal fur and the tall waving grasses in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. When he works with color, as in his picture books with Brown and Jack Prelutsky, he opts for deep colors to add warmth to his lines. About his animal drawings, he says,

“I start with the real animal, working over and over until I can get the effect of human qualities and expres­sions and poses. I redesign animals, as it were.”

Garth Williams worked on the “Little House” books for nearly six years, meeting Wilder and traveling to the locations of all but one of her books. Though he was not the first illustrator for this series, his images quickly became the definitive ones. When he was approached about the job, he was uncertain about his ability to draw people. It is true that the faces and proportions of peo­ple in these books sometimes lack consistency, but Wil­liams so closely matches the spirit of each character and setting that any flaws become irrelevant.

Garth Williams’s long career has allowed him to work with some of the most respected children’s authors. He is rec­ognized for his uncanny ability to show realistic animals whose thoughts we can read because of their subtle human qualities, but he should be known equally for his evocative yet solid settings for both animal fantasies and Wilder’s realistic books.


Source: Children’s Books and their Creators, Anita Silvey.

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