Classics: The Rabbits Wedding by Garth Williams

The Rabbits Wedding by Garth Williams

By Gordon Campbell

There’s so much crap in children’s bookshops and children’s tolerance of what is put in front of them is so immense, it should not be abused. That’s why it seems worth singling out some of the enduringly good books that, thanks to librarians and online purchasing, are still available.

T alk about blessed. Garth Williams started out right at the top of the class in his career as a children’s book illustrator. Through a combination of chance and good connections, his very first commission was to do the drawings for E.B. White’s classic book, Stuart Little. Sheer talent, of course, also played its part. Supposedly, one of the things White claimed to like about Williams’ drawings was that he seemed to know the sort of shoes a mouse would wear, if mice really wore shoes.

In similar vein, a critic once called Williams the Rembrandt of animal portrait artists. Good call. The creatures in his drawings are fully animal, but the human emotions they are expressing are also palpably and vividly present. In his eighties, Williams confided to Leonard Marcus about how he did it : “ I start with the real animal, working over and over, until I can get the effect of human qualities and expressions and poses. I re-design animals, at it were.”

An essential humility was also involved. Williams managed to be instantly recognizable as an artist, while totally at the service of the writer, and the particular story he was illustrating. The resulting fusion was almost magical. In Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and in the Little House series of books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Williams’ drawings have become inseparable from how we think of those stories. In that respect, as Marcus says, Williams work belongs in the same class as Sir John Tenniel’s drawings for Alice in Wonderland, or Ernest Shepard’s illustrations for Winnie the Pooh.

Garth Williams was born in New York in 1912 of English parents, the son of a cartoonist father and a mother who was a landscape painter. It was a house, he later said, in which everyone was either painting or drawing. At ten, when his parents divorced, he moved to England with his mother. After briefly considering a career as an architect, Williams studied art at the Royal College of Art in the 1930s and continued his art studies in Italy and Germany until the outbreak of war.

After brief flings as an art teacher, a Red Cross worker during the London blitz and a New Yorker cartoonist – plus some earnings from a prize-winning sculpture in Italy – he managed to eke out a precarious living until in 1943, the influential editor Ursula Nordstrom introduced him to E.B. White. Later, when Nordstrom submitted a range of candidates for Stuart Little, White sent her back a note attached to a copy of the manuscript that said : “Try Garth Williams.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Within a year or so of his breakthrough commission on Stuart Little Williams was working with another titan of children’s literature – the incredibly prolific writer Margaret Wise Brown ( of Goodnight Moon fame) who was to die in tragic circumstances only a few years later. In 1946, Brown and Williams created the lovely Little Fur Family book together, one of several brilliant collaborations that included The Sailor Dog, Fox Eyes and Wait Till The Moon is Full, which featured a vividly drawn family of raccoons, and a wonderful evocation of the night. Later, it was that book in particular that earned Williams the commission to draw Russell Hoban’s well known Bedtime for Frances.

For all his natural gifts, Williams could also put an extraordinary around of energy and research into some of his commissions. On one occasion, his own bohemian lifestyle co-incidentally proved to be a very apt fit with his subject matter. After he won the job of illustrating a new edition of the Little House series of books, Williams visited the then 80 year old Laura Ingalls Wilder at her home in Missouri. Just beforehand, as he told Horn Book magazine in 1953, Williams and his family had been living on a very primitive farm in New York state, in a house without phone or electricity that had necessitated drawing water by hand pump, from a spring in the woods.

“It was not surprising then,” Williams wrote, “ to find that as I studied the books that time seemed to slip back seventy or eighty years. I had to clean lamps and trim wicks, and I would place little bits of decorative red flannel in the glass bowls of lamps, as Caroline Ingalls had done in the book I had just put down.”

Williams noted that Pa’s fiddle – as any reader will recall, a loved object in the Little House books – is kept in a museum in Pierre, North Dakota, and recounts how once a year the fiddle is brought from its case and played in commemoration. At Laura’s house, he also held the calico quilt that Mary Ingalls had made after she went blind. To top off his immersion in the story, Williams then embarked on a long, ten day driving expedition along the same trail that the Ingalls family had taken, and eventually re-located the place on the prairie where the Ingalls house had once stood. The trip culminated in a search along the riverbank along Plum Creek where the family had built their sod house home, so long ago. Williams writes, in his 1953 account :

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. I took my pictures, and returned to Walnut Grove..”

This was not just some fanciful attempt at being a Method Artist. As he says, what Williams wanted to do was to be able to see the house on Plum Creek not as some people – say, himself in his previous incarnation as a budding architect – may have done, as a sad, primitive hovel. But rather 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.

Williams married four times, and helped nurse one of his wives through a terminal illness. Reading his own account of his life in the Something about the Author series, it is striking that his succession of wives tended to be extremely young – one, a ward of the family, another a young woman with polio – when he married them. In the 1960s and 1970s, his restless, adventurous spirit took him to Mexico, where he bought the ruins of an abandoned 400 year old silver mine, and rebuilt the adjacent villa as his home and studio. Reportedly, the villa contained an internal waterfall and a dining room that could seat up to 150 people.

In many such respects, Williams seems to have been untouched by age, and retained his youthful vision until the end of his life. Only half jokingly at 80, when one interviewer noted that his youngest daughter was now 50 years old, Williams reportedly replied : “ But how can that be – when I’m only 42 !”

Williams wrote only a couple of books on his own. One of them was to cause something of a sensation. Written in 1959 in the midst of the civil rights movement, The Rabbit’s Wedding was removed from the open shelves in at least one library in Alabama because…it featured the marriage of a black male rabbit and a white doe rabbit, who go off to live together in the forest. At least one editorial in a Southern newspaper editorialised against this attempt at social engineering – because clearly, the newspaper believed, the book was an attempt to plant the idea of mixed race mating in the minds of the young and impressionable !

Williams was understandably stunned by this reaction. “ I was completely unaware,” he said ironically. “that animals with white fur such as white polar bears and white dogs and white rabbits were considered blood relations of white human beings. I was only aware that a white horse next to a black horse looks very picturesque…”

Indeed, The illustrations for The Rabbits Wedding were particularly lovely. As the Virginia Kirkus reviewer noted at the time, the illustrations have the subtle hazy quality often found in Chinese screen paintings. Others noted the use of the softest of misty gray charcoal sketches, tinted in subtle creamy yellow, dull slate-blue or muted yellow–green…

It is, finally, quite difficult to select the finest aspects of Williams’ drawings. His related training as a sculptor lends a full rounded warmth to his drawings of people, and to their movements. The rich, glowing colour palette was achieved in many instances, by a careful combination of a very thin oil paint almost like watercolour, and a judicious use of inks and pen lines for added definition.

It was his life, and he knew just how lucky he had been to find such an apt outlet for his talent and for his languidly restless temperament. “ My adult life has always been an extension of my childhood, it seems,” he told Leonard Marcus in a profile for Publishers Weekly, on turning 80. “ I was born bald, toothless and impossible. I’ve always been a horrible perfectionist. I don’t like anything I do. I don’t like anything anyone else does, either. I was five years old yesterday and have never felt older than twenty. The life of an illustrator is a very pleasant one, and so I have remained one….” Garth Williams died in 1996, at the age of 84. The books endure. – by Gordon Campbell.