Original watercolor illustration [Charlotte's Web dust jacket]

E.B. WHITE   |   Garth WILLIAMS

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Item#: 124867 price:$65,000.00 Currently On Reserve.

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AN EXTRAORDINARY OFFERING IN AMERICAN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE AND ART: GARTH WILLIAMS’ ORIGINAL WATERCOLOR, PEN AND INK ILLUSTRATION FOR THE FIRST EDITION DUST JACKET OF CHARLOTTE’S WEB, FROM THE COLLECTION OF THE BOOK’S LEGENDARY EDITOR AND ARDENT E.B. WHITE SUPPORTER, URSULA NORDSTROM

WILLIAMS, Garth. Original watercolor illustration [Charlotte's Web dust jacket]. No place, 1952. Octavo (8 by 11 inches, folded to 8 by 6 inches), original watercolor, pen and ink illustration on laid paper. Handsomely window-matted and framed, entire piece measures 20 by 17 inches. $65,000.

Original watercolor, pen and ink front cover and spine illustration for the dust jacket of the first edition of Charlotte’s Web by Garth Williams, a preliminary version of the final cover, evidently sent by Williams for approval to Ursula Nordstrom, the legendary director of Harper’s department of children’s books from 1940 to 1973 and the editor of Charlotte’s Web. From the personal collection of Ursula Nordstrom. A remarkable item, the original art for what is arguably one of the most beautiful children’s dust jacket illustrations ever, and an integral part of the publication history of one of the most beloved and celebrated children’s books of the 20th century. With original museum exhibition label.

One of the dynamic forces in children's publishing of the 20th century, Ursula Nordstrom oversaw the publication of such classics as Goodnight Moon, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are and the two E.B. White books, Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web. She was an early and ardent supporter of White, standing up to Anne Carroll Moore, the influential director of the children's programs of the New York Public Library, who sought to prevent publication of Stuart Little, White's first children's book. Moore considered the book to be in bad taste—White later remembered that she considered it "having been written by a sick mind"—and she called Nordstrom to a meeting in New York to convince her not to publish the book. Nordstrom refused and Stuart Little went on to become a landmark in children's publishing.

In 1952, White unexpectedly showed up in Nordstrom's office with a new manuscript, Charlotte's Web. Nordstrom reportedly asked him if he had an extra copy for her to send to Garth Williams, who had illustrated Stuart (Nordstom and White had rejected seven other illustrators before settling on Williams for Stuart); he replied that no, this was the sole existing copy. By all accounts, Nordstrom loved Charlotte, as did Williams, and the illustration and production of the book became a great collaboration between author, editor and illustrator.

"From the first, everyone at Harper was sure the book would be a hit. His editor, Ursula Nordstrom, did not let her admiration impede her usefulness. She persuaded White to change the title of the last chapter from 'Death of Charlotte' to "Last Day,' and she worked well with Garth Williams, whose pictures had truly, and charmingly, illustrated Stuart Little. Through her, [White] tactfully communicated his notions and concerns about the drawings: Charlotte must be 'beguiling,' and she must be represented as accurately as possible [to this end, White sent Williams a copy of American Spiders]" (Elledge).

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… When he works with color… 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" (Silvey, 685). However, Williams "early ran into trouble in his attempt to create a satisfactory Charlotte. The preliminary drawings showed a spider with a woman's face. White was leery of this and tried to help Williams by sending him spider books. In the end, after many sketches had been submitted and rejected, White said, 'You better just draw a spider and forget about a countenance'" (Guth, 353-4).

A great deal of discussion went into the creation of the jacket design. Nordstrom sent White a preliminary jacket in May, 1952, and White responded on May 24: "Thanks for the dummy cuts and the jacket design. I like everything. The group on the jacket is charming. My only complaint is that the goose looks, for some reason, a bit snakelike. Perhaps this is because its beak is open, or perhaps because the eye is round like a snake's… I would be satisfied to have the jacket go as is, if it seems right to you. But no goose-lover in this house is satisfied… The web effect is OK for the purposes of jacket design, but that type of rather mussy Charles Addams attic web is not right for the illustrations. I'm sure that Garth realizes that. Charlotte weaves quite an orderly, symmetrical web… I think Fern is delightful…. and I couldn't be happier about her. Wilbur, also, is perfect on the jacket—very beguiling… On the whole I am very pleased with developments, and have complete confidence that Garth will handle everything beautifully" (Guth, 361-2). Finally, on July 10, 1952, Nordstrom wrote to White: "Here is a rough proof of the jacket. I've been hoping to get a corrected proof to send you but guess I'll send this uncorrected one now. The green will be brighter, and will therefore brighten the entire jacket" (Marcus, 51).

This original watercolor by Garth Williams of the front and spine of the dust jacket, from Ursula Nordstrom's personal collection, is no doubt one of the jacket versions discussed by Nordstrom and White in these letters. This painting differs from the final dust jacket in several key respects: in this illustration, Fern is lower relative to Gussy the Goose, so her hair partially obscures Gussy's beak; Samuel the Sheep sits higher, so that part of his body is visible; Gussy's expression has been changed; and, in the final version, "Author of Stuart Little" is written on the cover, whereas it is not included on the earlier version. The verso of the illustration contains notes by Harper artists for creation of a jacket proof copy: "File. EB White Charlotte's Web. He will give us black plate of jacket (in line) will just 3 colors proof of black (or on blue print of black)." It also includes measurements of the finished jacket.

This illustration was lent by Nordstrom's estate to the Chrysler Museum exhibit "Myth, Magic, and Mystery: One Hundred Years of American Children's Book Illustrations," and is featured in the exhibit's catalogue. The exhibition label is included with the piece. The importance of this image was highlighted by the curators: "The children's book illustrator has an enormous responsibility. No one can deny that what is read and seen in childhood has inestimable power on the formation of the mind… The artist has enormous power. One sees the pictures before one reads the text, leaving immediate impressions long before the authors have a chance to speak. It is John Tenniel's Alice whom most people remember, not Lewis Carroll's… Characters and images encountered in childhood are rarely forgotten… Garth Williams' Charlotte and Wilbur… may become friends for life to be passed on from one generation to the next" (Hearn, 6-7).

The most celebrated of White's three children's books, "Charlotte's Web is rightly regarded as a modern classic" (Connolly, 322-23). "The book is resonant, lyrical, serious, profound. It is one of the very few books for young children that face, squarely, the subject of death. And above all it is celebratory" (Silvey, 677). See Anderson, 6. See Costen 11941. See Books of the Century, 210.

An extraordinary original drawing with the most important possible provenance, in fine condition.

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