The Free Library of Philadelphia’s Rare Book Department has on display an exhibition of original drawings and published works of Robert Lawson. The Department has a large collection of Mr. Lawson’s drawings and first editions of his books thanks to a generous gift from Frederick R. Gardner, a rare book dealer and avid Lawson collector.
Robert Lawson is probably best remembered as the witty and humorous illustrator of children’s books such as The Story of Ferdinand, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and Ben and Me, but in his long career (some 43 years, from 1914 to 1957) he created much more. He started his career in commercial art in the 1910s and 1920s, illustrating magazine articles and creating art for advertisements in titles like Vogue, Harper’s Weekly, The Delineator, The Designer and the Woman’s Magazine, and The House Beautiful. His drawings for the Johns-Manville Company’s asbestos shingle advertisements are especially striking in their detail and use of color, and we have two of them in the exhibition.
In the early 1930s, he took up etching to supplement his income and had two one-man shows in New York City. His etchings are my personal favorites. They display his remarkable drawing talent on subjects ranging from elves, fairies, and other fantastical creatures, to representations of past eras and historical personages. He also took up book illustration in earnest in the 1930’s, establishing his reputation with The Wee Men of Ballywooden in 1930, and becoming famous with The Story of Ferdinand in 1936, a collaboration with his friend Munro Leaf. In 1939 he began his career as an author when he both wrote and illustrated Ben and Me. He illustrated some 60 books in all, 40 written by others and 20 that he either authored or edited himself. Our collection has original drawings from 47 of these titles, and the exhibition includes drawings from 17 titles.
He is the only person to receive both of the highest honors for excellence in children’s books awarded annually by the American Library Association – the Caldecott Medal given to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children, and the Newbery Medal given to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. He received the Caldecott Medal for They Were Strong and Good in 1941 and the Newbery Medal for Rabbit Hill in 1945.
We hope you will come and see the exhibition and marvel at the tremendous talent of this prolific illustrator. The Rare Book Department is on the 3rd Floor of the Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia at 1901 Vine Street. The exhibition is free and runs through May 4th. Our hours are Monday to Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.