N.C. Wyeth’s ‘The Black Arrow’ at Auction July 16

Our July 16, 2020 sale of Illustration Art features an iconic work by N.C. Wyeth—one of the most popular illustrators of all time—with impeccable provenance. The Black Arrow, A Tale of the Two Roses, 1916, is the original title-page artwork for the book by Robert Louis Stevenson, and shows three knights in armor on horseback, lances at the ready, with a castle on a hilltop in the distance. A fitting title-page image that beckons the reader into the tale of romance and adventure. Wyeth left two banners blank for the typeset title, author, and illustrator’s name.

N.C. Wyeth & Howard Pyle

The importance of Wyeth’s illustrations for The Black Arrow and the Scribner’s Classics line as a whole cannot be underestimated. Howard Pyle, considered to be the father of American illustration, was Wyeth’s mentor. He was well known for his medieval illustrations, especially those of the legend of King Arthur, and used them as instructional examples for his most famous pupil to copy. Their well-documented relationship ultimately turned sour, especially as Wyeth suffered the eternal struggle of wanting to eschew illustration to become a more respected fine art painter, but Wyeth would repeatedly return to commercial work as it allowed him creative freedom, familiarity, and a steady paycheck.

Scribner’s Classics

N.C. Wyeth, View of a Destroyed Town, World War I, charcoal, late 1910s. Sold June 6, 2016, in American Art for $11,875.

The most consequential of these commissions occurred in 1911 when an invitation from Charles Scribner’s Sons’ art director, Joe Chapin, to illustrate Scribner’s Classics series, would make Wyeth the most popular illustrator of the era. The Scribner’s Illustrated Classics were lavishly printed in full color, distributed widely, and, most notably, allowed Wyeth to choose whichever titles he wished to illustrate. His personal childhood favorite, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island was his first choice. His illustrations for it are considered to be among his best work. He followed that title with his other two Stevenson favorites, Kidnapped and The Black Arrow, A Tale of the Two Roses.

The Influence of the Brandywine Valley in Wyeth’s Illustrations

Two qualities in particular make Wyeth’s illustrations so memorable. First, his mastery of lighting, which he borrowed from his Brandywine Valley skies and landscape, struck a familiar chord with readers in America. Their minds would tell them that they were viewing the hills and clouds of old England, but their subconscious would register the light and countryside of a distinctly American topography. In addition to that stylistic adroitness, Wyeth’s commitment to historical accuracy makes The Black Arrow and his other works of Arthurian sagas so indelible:

The artist wrote to his father in early winter 1916 from Chadds Ford: “I spent some of the time in the [New York Public] library looking up medieval data concerning my forthcoming books….” Then, on March 3rd: “The medieval period is gradually drawing me down into its tremendous confusion of customs, costumes and its singular spirit. I feel all pent up with the crowding impressions of an age rich in picturesqueness but black with infamy. The history of those times is after all rather suffocating…my head is clogged with long-bows, spears, salets, doublets, mail, quarter-staffs, jousting bouts, ferries, skerries, and moats—and Lord knows what!”

The Randall Family

The Randall family has been steeped in rare books and fine art for decades. David A. Randall was the head of Charles Scribner’s Sons rare book department and later the first Director of the Lilly Library at Indiana University. In 1975, his son, Ronald, founded Randall House Rare Books in San Francisco before moving to a charming National Landmark adobe home in Santa Barbara. It established itself as one of the pre-eminent rare book businesses in the country and quickly became a haven for collectors of books, manuscripts, and fine art, handling important works like the Coverdale Bible, the Gutenberg Bible leaf containing the Ten Commandments, and blue-chip works of illustration by such masters as John James Audubon, William Merritt Chase, and Howard Pyle. This prized work was in the family collection since 1935, was sold privately in 1979, and returned to the family collection in the 1990s. It hung proudly in the shop and graced the cover of their 1992 dedicated catalogue XXIV “The World of N.C. Wyeth,” though it was not offered for sale.

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