The Cartoonists by Susanna McLeod              


Garth M. Williams, Illustrator of 'Charlotte's Web' and Much More

April 30, 2012


His work is visible, but his name is less familiar. Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web, Little House on the Prairie... the books are ingrained as childhood reading staples. While the authors produced enchanting stories with words, Garth Williams produced magical illustrations with his pen. The seemingly simple lines were crafted into complex drawings as Williams drew characters awash in depth, warmth and innocence. Children, pigs, mice, spiders, and a whole range of critters came alive under the wonderful hand of the imaginative artist.


The philosophy of the illustrator was succinct. Williams, said Mel Gussow in his 1996 New York Times obituary on the artist, "believed that books 'given, or read, to children can have a pround 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.'"

Translating his viewpoint into a prolific artistic career, Williams gave readers and families an endless joy and love of illustrated books that has lasted for generations.

In New York City, Garth Montgomery Williams was born on April 16, 1912. His parents were immersed in art - Williams' father was a cartoonist with Punch Magazine and his mother a fine artist, painting landscapes. The family later moved to a farm in New Jersey. The chance to learn, explore and discover the ways of country life had a profound effect that would inspire the artist throughout his life. In 1917, the Williams family moved to Canada, then overseas to England.

Williams didn't leap into a career in illustration. His family then living in England, he first enrolled in architecture. Before long, he switched to a fine art program at the Royal Academy of Art. .

"Charlotte's Web" Illustrated by Garth Williams
The Classic Children's book "Charlotte's Web," Written by E.B. White, Illustrated by Garth Williams, 1952    

Upon graduation as a portraitist and sculptor in 1934, Williams accepted the post of Headmaster at the Luton Art School near the city of London. Along with teaching, he entered his sculpture work in the British Prix de Rome. Williams won the contest and gladly accepted the prize of a two-year art scholarship in Europe. While studying, Williams met and married his first wife.

Short years later, World War Two threatened at the doors of the peaceful citizens of the world. Back in Britain, Williams "was wounded in an air raid while serving as a Red Cross ambulance dispatcher in London," said Gussow. His wife and child were safe, safely sent to Canada at the beginning of the War.

Pulling up stakes and moving back to New York City, Williams began freelance cartooning. Sending a number of his cartoons to the editor, he was awarded with several pieces published in The New Yorker. Williams sent a portfolio of work to Harper & Row editor Linda Nordstrom. Awaiting the submission of an author's children's book manuscript, Nordstrom suggested that "Williams was welcome to tryout some illustrations for that when she received it," said Charles Bayless' essay on Through the Magic Door.

A series of fortuitous events and captivating drawings led Williams to become the illustratorof E.B. White's "Stuart Little." Published in 1945, the book launched Williams into a satisfying career children's illustration.

Creating the artwork for another White book, Williams devised the timeless drawings for "Charlotte's Web" in 1952. The artist's most-recognized work, the characters of the book resonate through both storyline and images. Distinctive with fine lines, poignant expressions and delicate shading, Williams designed his paintings with pen and ink and washes of colour.

Before long, Williams was fully employed with children's books. Illustrating a series of "Little House on the Prairie" books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, he also worked with prominent authors Margaret Wise Brown, George Selden, Margery Sharp and many others.

Heart-touching Illustrator Garth Williams
Immensely Imaginative Illustrator Garth Williams
"Stuart Little" Illustrated by Garth Williams

"Nearly half, or forty-eight, of all Garth's books were created in the first fifteen years of his career," Bayless noted. Although his book count dropped in the 1960s to 1990s, Williams "kept on illustrating." He later illustrated about six books annually.

Authoring and illustrating several books of his own, Williams created shorter stories for young readers featuring animals, such as Little Golden Books' "Baby Farm Animals, "Baby's First Alphabet Book," and "The Rabbits Wedding." Without realizing it, Williams caused a stir about two rabbits getting married.

Intending the premise to be a sweet story of warmth and love, the book published in 1959 was decried as "an attempt at social engineering," an endeavour to integrate blacks and whites in young minds. The book was banned from several libraries in Alabama. The problem? One rabbit was black, the other was white. Williams was taken by surprise. In his statement, said Gordon Campbell on Werewolf: Classics: The Rabbits Wedding by Garth Williams, the author said he was unaware that white animals were related to white people and that "I was only aware that a white horse next to a black horse looks very picturesque."

Another Classic, "Stuart Little," by Author E.B. White, Illustrated by Garth Williams, 1945

In the 1950s or '60s, Williams purchased property in Mexico and rebuilt a rundown hacienda into a beautiful home. The illustrator also kept a home in San Antonio, Texas.

Married four times, Garth Williams was the father of six children - five daughters and one son. Including his children in his work, Williams based "Fern," the charming little girl character in "Charlotte's Web," after one of his daughters, Fiona.

On May 8, 1996, the prolific illustrator Garth Montgomery Williams died in Guanajuato, Mexico at age 84. He was survived by his wife Leticia and all of his children.

Years after his passing, the family of Garth Williams offered the black and white cover art sketch of "Charlotte's Web" for auction. On Friday, October 15, 2012, the graphite and ink sketch was sold by Heritage Auctions in Manhattan, New York. Listed at an estimated $30,000, the 1952 E.B. White story cover page sold for an astounding $155,000.

Bravo, Mr. Williams. Your beautiful art is timeless, captivating and inspiring.

Garth William's Sketch
© Susanna McLeod 2012