A blog about the famous Victorian poet, designer, and Socialist, William Morris.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

One Good Thing to Come out of America

An Attack on a Galleon by Howard Pyle. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

This year, The Delaware Art Museum turns 100. Their excellent collection of Pre-Raphaelite art didn't join the museum until 1935, so the only works to fully celebrate the centennial this year are about a hundred pieces by a single artist: Howard Pyle. Pyle was an American illustrator, artist and author. His art formed the heart of the new “Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts” collection in 1912, after his grieving friends and students banded together to create an institution in his memory.

His illustrations for magazines and books were very well known in his lifetime, drawing praise from American and European artists alike. Vincent Van Gogh was especially taken with his drawings of an old-time Quaker village in Harper's Magazine in 1881, which he thought “astounding”.

Pyle is perhaps best known for his collection of tales, “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood”, which was published in 1883. Although the story of Robin Hood dates from the medieval period, and had been partially treated by the famous author Sir Walter Scott, Pyle's book was entirely devoted to the outlaw, one of the earliest books to do so in a popular fashion. It was a hit.*

The book even reached England, and found its way into the discerning hands of William Morris. It was right up Morris's street, and not just because of its sympathetic treatment of the tales. Pyle had carefully designed the whole book, which included flourishes of medieval manuscript motifs and sixty-one of this own illustrations. According to art critic Joseph Pennell, Morris had “thought up to that time [that] … nothing good artistically could come out of America." Pyle's beautiful, Romantic book changed Morris's opinion: he was “impressed greatly”.

So when I say Happy 100th birthday to the Delaware Art Museum, I mean to say happy birthday as well to the seed of its collection: Pyle's swashbuckling, adventuresome illustrations and paintings.

*No such luck for many others, including John B. Marsh's version from 1865.

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