The American Illustration Collection includes over 4,000 drawings, paintings and prints, roughly between the dates of 1850 and 1950. The bulk of the holdings highlight the years 1890-1930. The Collection is comparable only to the Library of Congress Cabinet of American Illustration, which houses 4,100 works. Other major collections are found at the Brooklyn Museum, the New York Public Library, and the Brandywine Museum.
The Collection was initially developed by Helen Card, a book dealer in New York City who specialized in American Illustration. Eric Harvie, the founder of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, a long-standing patron and friend of Ms. Card, personally bought the collection in 1969 when she was no longer able to actively continue her business. For insurance purposes, the drawings, paintings, reproductions and supplemental materials were photographed, and these were placed with cataloging sheets into binders.
In 1979, the drawings were moved to the Glenbow Museum and stored in an offsite art storage facility. The acquisition of the collection by Seneca began in April 2017 through Seneca Professor JoAnn Purcell’s work with illustration scholar Jaleen Grove. In coordination with the Glenbow Museum, the Alberta Government formally released the collection to Seneca in Summer 2017, and work on the scanning and cataloging of it began that September. The collection had its full public debut in Fall 2018.
The works include pen and ink, watercolor, wash and gouache, and oil paintings. The most prevalent publishers represented in this collection were Scribner and Sons, Century and Co., Harper Brothers, and P.F. Collier and Son. Some of the illustrations were created for books, but most were from periodicals, notably -- Century Magazine, Harper's Magazine, St. Nicholas Magazine, Scribner's Magazine, Colliars, Success, Life, and Puck.
Seneca's strongest holdings include the works of Hansom Booth, Arthur William Brown, Charles Livingston Bull, Fanny Young Cory, Palmer Cox, Otho Cushing, George Warton Edwards, Malcom Fraser, A.B. Frost, Gordon Grant, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Jay Hambidge, Charlotte Harding, George Harding, William Jacobs, J.F. Kernan, Arthur Kellar, Rose O'Neil Latham, Clara Elsene Peck, F.W. Read, C.M. Relyea, Alice Barber Stephens, Walter King Stone, Wallace Morgan, and George Wright.
There are some surprises in the collection. Arthur Dove, America's first abstract painter, supported himself as an illustrator, yet little of his work as an illustrator survives. There are about ten known Dove illustrations in public and private collections. The collection at Seneca doubles that number. Another illustrator, Charlotte Harding, considered her illustration work so unimportant that she destroyed most of it. Seneca's collection adds 14 good examples of her work for illustration scholars to study. W.W. Denslow - famed illustrator of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum - is represented in the collection.. There are examples of his children's illustrations, but there are also pages from his sketch book, revealing him as a talented landscape artist.
Another illustrator of children's books is Canadian Palmer Cox. He was such a prolific artist that his works are quite easy to locate in public collections. The unique feature of Seneca's Cox holdings is that there are drawings from each of his books - The Brownies Through the Union, Brownies: Their First Book, Brownies on Exhibition, Brownies Abroad, and so forth.
Many of the female students of the famed “father” of modern American illustration, Howard Pyle are represented - Alice B. Stephens, Olive Rush, Charlotte Harding, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and others. As well, there is a good holding of later Pyle students, many of whom are not represented in any public collection. There is also an outstanding collection of humorous drawings used in the periodicals Life Magazine and Puck Magazine - Bellew, Brill, Burrow, Daltymple, Dirks, Cushing, Pughe, Toastpern, and several others.
There are several individual pieces, outstanding for their quality, uniqueness or rarity. The Frank Schell and the W.L. Sheppard drawings are the earliest examples, dating from the 1850s. There is a beautiful pastel drawing of a Dutch girl by George Warton Edwards; several good A.B. Frosts and E.A. Abbeys; a watercolour and gouache scene of the docks by William Aylward; and a small but lovely watercolor by Robert Blum of Paris nightlife.
The Rose O'Neill drawings preserve some of her best studies of black Americans. There is also a fine example of the work of May Wilson Preston.
There are also noticeable gaps in the collection. For example, the well-known artist Howard Pyle is represented prints. The print form he is represented by is a viable and unique form of illustration called a cliché-verre. Pylewas a teacher to many of the famous illustrators like N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish who are not in the collection. Pyle revered the work of Winslow Homer and is represented by his prints.
The overall condition of the collection varies from good to poor. Illustrations were never intended to last. They were created in a rapid manner with inexpensive materials. Artists who chose to work with oil colors, rarely primed their canvas (an archival prepatory step) - there was no need. These works only needed to survive until they could be photographed for publication. In fact, much of the damage probably occurred at the time of publication. The illustrator would correct a drawing by taking Chinese white and block out the area to be redrawn. Those artists who used charcoal often varnished their works to avoid smudges. These varnishes have, over time, yellowed the paper and crackled the surface. Many of the drawings are on illustration board - pressed layers of acidic paper. There are numerous rips, chips, cracks and creases. Gouache and wash, a popular media often applied thickly, is now flaking.
Excerpted from a report by Judy L. Larson, November 30, 1981
Updates by Sean Hayes, Jo Ann Purcell, and Mark Jones, September, 2018
- Sean Hayes: Archivist, Seneca Libraries
- JoAnn Purcell: Professor and Program Coordinator, Independent Illustration Program
- Lydia Tsai: Librarian, Seneca Libraries
- Jaspreet Kaur Toor: Graduate, Independent Illustration Program
- Mark Jones: Chair, School of Creative Arts and Animation
- Michael Maynard: Dean, Faculty of Communication, Art & Design
- Joy Muller: Associate Director, Library Services
With thanks to Carolyn Lam and Jaleen Grove.