Frick Art & Historical Center celebrates children’s books

Thick clumps of old French lilacs are blooming beside the cellar holes and barren barns, and the fields are moist and green. It’s story time again.

Palmer Cox Brownies up a tree  Palmer Cox (1840-1924), Brownies up a tree from the book “The Brownies Abroad,” 1899, ink on paper, 9 7/8 inches by 2 7/8 inches.

Regardless if you are a parent, chances are you were once a kid. And if you were lucky, you would curl up on an old musty blanket beneath the budding lilacs and listen to your mother or your favorite aunt read you a story.

If so, “Draw Me a Story: A Century of Children’s Book Illustrators,’’ at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh, Pa., is the place to learn and rekindle the itch to collect the best in children’s books.

“We hope everyone who comes to see the exhibit will reconnect with his or her childhood,’’ said Sarah Hall, director of curatorial affairs at the Frick Art & Historical Center, where the exhibit runs through May 2012.

The show features 40 illustrations and 13 books representing a stylistic survey both nostalgic and contemporary, from Kate Greenaway’s “Hush-a-Bye, Baby’’ of 1900, to Tom Pohrt’s 1990 illustration of the key characters in his book “Crow and Weasel.’’

Both are beautiful watercolors, with Pohrt’s projecting adventure as his authentically buckskin-clad characters ride their horses across prairie grass in the Native American story about heroic conquests.

Greenaway’s baby sleeps peacefully in a wicker basket nestled within a blossoming apple tree for “The April Baby’s Book of Tunes,’’ in which a mother entertains her children with nursery rhymes during a snowstorm.

Book collectors and antiques enthusiasts alike say the illustrators and their books have appeal as artwork and collectibles. Anne Elizabeth Fleur’s “Mother duck and ducklings’’ waddles happily up a path leading to a surreal red-trunked tree that shelters a waiting wolf, and William Wallace Denslow’s “There was a crooked man,’’ with its tipsy landscape, almost induces vertigo.

Hush-a-bye baby illustration  Kate Greenaway (British, 1846-1901), “Hush-a-Bye, Baby” from “The April Baby’s Book of Tunes,” 1900. Watercolor on paper, 2 3/16 inches by 4 inches. Collection Cartoon Art Museum, San Francisco, Calif. Image: E. G. Schempf.

Across time, the characters and stories become integral to culture while reflecting changes in attitudes to child rearing.

“If you dressed your child in a Kate Greenaway fashion, it showed you were open-minded and progressive,’’ said Hall.

John Schulman, of Caliban Book Shop in Pittsburgh, said Kate Greenaway is by far one of the best children’s book illustrators. “Her work is exquisite,’’ he said. “She remains in great demand.’’

Freelance sketch artist Mary Price reports that she has more than 50 Kate Greenaway children’s books lining the walls of her tiny condo in Greensburg, Pa. “I probably have invested more than $1,000 in my collection, but I’m certain I can double their value when I need some extra spending money,” said Price. In fact, “Little Ann,’’ a rare book of nursery rhythms illustrated by Greenaway, cost collector Gwen Chenoweth of Point Breeze $90. An avid collector, Chenoweth has a cache of children’s books featuring every kind of character imaginable, from teachers and tailors to wizards and witches.

“Children’s books are hot again, because baby boomers are buying what they remember from their childhood,’’ said Beverly Townsend of Townsend Books in Oakland, a chic cultural district in Pittsburgh. “Each storybook has a story, and it is the story and the moment that story was first read to the person that collectors try to recapture,’’ said Barry Heights, a retired historian from Nashville, Tenn. Heights collects children’s books, like the 1928 Lang Campbell’s “The Dinky Ducklings” and the “Uncle Wiggily” stories.

Crow and Weasel illustration  Tom Pohrt (American, b. 1953), “Crow and Weasel on Horseback” from “Crow and Weasel,” by Barry Lopez, 1990. Watercolor on paper, 17 5/8 inches by 13 3/4 inches. Collection Cartoon Art Museum, San Francisco, Calif. Illustration © 1990 by Tom Pohrt. Reprinted by permission of North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.

Among other highlights at the Frick are Johnny Gruelle’s 1932 spritely “Raggedy Ann and Andy.’’ The beloved dolls and books grew out of the Great Depression, when the artist drew a face on a rag doll for his ailing daughter, Marcella.

Brenda Fuller came to the Frick show because she is a collector of the gouache Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. “I’m just starting to get interested in the books, but I’m going to have to economize if I want to begin collecting famous childrens’ illustrators,’’ said Fuller, a nurse practitioner from Washington, Pa.

Some museum visitors are immediately drawn to Palmer Cox’s Brownie books, the first of which was published in 1887. The impish, multicultural creatures, whose name hearkens from Scottish folklore, were featured in 16 books, but also on products as varied as salt and pepper shakers and dolls. (The Brownie camera was named after them.) Cox, whose work appeared regularly in St. Nicholas magazine from 1883 to 1914, became wealthy in the U.S. and then retired to a castle in his native Canada.

Then there is Jack Kent, who created the whimsical comic strip King Aroo from 1950 to 1965 before retiring it and moving exclusively into illustrating children’s books, like “Mr. Elephant’s Birthday Party.’’

Complementing the exhibition is “Childhood at Clayton,’’ which includes objects that belonged to the three Frick children. Their father, Henry Clay Frick, provided the coke that helped industrialist Andrew Carnegie make steel during America’s gilded age.

“I think the thing we remember most about childhood is the time we spent reading our books with family and friends,’’ said Joan Evans, a retired librarian from Volant, Pa. “The Frick exhibit is a journey through our past and a welcome mat for us to continue reading and collecting.”

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