Garth Montgomery Williams was an American artist who came to prominence in the American postwar era as an illustrator of children's books. Many of the books he illustrated have become classics of American children's literature.
Some of the more famous books he illustrated are: Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In these, his drawings have become inseparable from how we think of the stories. And there are many, many more. His friendly, fuzzy baby animals populate at least a dozen Golden Books, and his illustrations grace many other fine books.
Garth Williams was born in New York City on April 16, 1912 to English artists, his father a cartoonist for Punch, his mother a landscape painter. "Everybody in my home was always either painting or drawing." He grew up on farms in New Jersey and Canada. In 1922 he and his family moved to the United Kingdom. He studied architecture and worked for a time as an architect's assistant. But when the Great Depression came he made up his mind to be an artist instead of an architect. He began his studies at Westminster School of Art in 1929 and in 1931 was awarded a four-year scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where he created a sculpture that was awarded the British Prix de Rome. He continued his education at the British School at Rome in Germany and Italy, until the outbreak of World War II in Europe.
In London he volunteered with the British Red Cross Civilian Defense ambulances, and helped collect the dead and injured from the streets. After a bomb blast vaporized a friend who had been walking next to him, he sent his wife and daughter to Canada, and united with them in New York in 1942.
In the United States Williams worked making lenses at a war plant, applied for work as a camouflage artist, contributed war-effort posters to the British-American Art Center in New York, and brought his portfolio around to the major publishing houses. He drew for The New Yorker for a mutually unfulfilling period of time. Then, in 1945, he received his first commission as an illustrator, from editor Ursula Nordstrom of Harper's Department of Books for Boys and Girls. The story is that Nordstrom "told him she was expecting a manuscript that he might illustrate. In a fortuitous coincidence, when the manuscript arrived the author had pinned a note to it: 'Try Garth Williams.' The author was E. B. White, the book was Stuart Little." The Whites had wanted Robert Lawson and had burned through eight illustrators. The book was a success with adults as well as children. Williams said later that seeing grownups on buses and trains reading Stuart Little persuaded him to continue as a freelance illustrator.
Shortly thereafter he began his collaboration with Margaret Wise Brown with the womblike The Little Fur Family, Harper's chic answer to Simon & Schuster's Pat the Bunny. Nordstrom knew the book would be a success when a mother wrote to tell her that her little boy had held open his copy at the dinner table and tried to feed it his supper. In all, Williams illustrated eleven of Brown's books.
In 1951 he illustrated Charlotte's Web (1952); his eldest child Fiona, a toddler when the family escaped the Blitz, was his model for Fern Arable.
Williams received the commission to illustrate the new Little House edition in about 1947. To know the worlds of Laura's childhood, Williams, who had never been west of the Hudson River, traveled the Midwest to the places the Ingalls family had lived 70 years before, photographing and sketching landscapes, trees, birds and wildlife, buildings and towns. "The trip culminated in a search along the riverbank along Plum Creek where the family had built their dugout home, so long ago.
I did not expect to find the house, but I felt certain that it would have left an indentation in the bank. A light rain did not help my search, and I was about to give up when ahead of me I saw exactly what I was looking for, a hollow in the east bank of Plum Creek. I felt very well rewarded, for the scene fitted Mrs Wilder’s description perfectly.
"[He] wanted to... be able to see the house on Plum Creek...as Laura would have done, as a happy, flower bedecked refuge from the elements, with the music of the nearby stream. Which is how he drew it."
Ursula Nordstrom's initial plan was for Williams to produce eight oil paintings for each book, sixty-four in all. This proved to be not cost-efficient. Williams illustrated the Little House books with the simple pencil, charcoal and ink. Much of his work was accomplished in Italy.
In the latter part of his life he lived primarily in Marfil, a small town west of Guanajuato, Mexico. He was part of a colony of expatriates who built or rebuilt homes in the ruins of the silver mines of colonial Mexico. His studio was the center of the house, with five drawing tables and sixteen skylights, though the house also contained a waterfall. He was an excellent guitarist and occasional banjo player, and told stories of busking in London during his art school tenure. At 81, he estimated he had illustrated ninety-seven books.
On May 8, 1996, at age 84, he died at his home in Marfil. He is buried in Aspen, Colorado. He was married four different times throughout his life and had five daughters: Fiona and Bettina from his first marriage, Jessica and Estyn from his second, Dilys from his fourth and a son, Dylan from his third marriage.
Mel Gussow in The New York Times wrote, "He believed that books 'given, or read, to children can have a profound influence.' For that reason, he said, he used his illustrations to try to 'awaken something of importance... humor, responsibility, respect for others, interest in the world at large.'"
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