Robert Fawcett, though quite successful and in demand, was not the most popular illustrator of his time or the highest paid. He was, however, probably the most respected (and perhaps envied), by his peers.
Fawcett earned the appellation “the illustrator’s illustrator” from that admiration. Highly skilled, independently minded, and committed to quality and mastery in his work to a degree rarely encountered, Fawcett earned a place at the pinnacle of early 20th Century illustration.
At a time when modernist faddism and stylistic meanderings in the name of popularity were strong undercurrents in the field, which was facing increasing pressures from a publishing industry that was turning to photography for more and more of its illustration needs, Fawcett remained steadfast in his ideals. Those same ideals are likely what propelled him into the field originally.
Encouraged by his father from an early age (or even “over-encouraged”, as Fawcett himself puts it, by a father who was himself a frustrated artist), Fawcett traveled back to his native England, from which his parents had emigrated to Canada when Fawcett was a teenager, to attend the well respected Slade School of Art. I don’t know if the curriculum there was strictly academic, but the school had a reputation for unstintingly rigorous training in the traditional fundamentals of art.
It was this training that formed the foundation for Fawcett’s art, which was always grounded in traditional draftsmanship. Fawcett found his original intention to be a gallery artist frustrated, in kinship with many classically trained artists who were facing an art market increasingly dominated by the anti-academic forces of modernism.
Fawcett’s emphasis on draftsmanship, and his command of drawing skills, were the underpinning of all of his work, emphasized and extended by his mastery of value and composition.
Throughout all of his illustrations, paintings and drawings is an underlying strength that is often not found in the work of his contemporaries, perhaps part of the source of their admiration, coupled with his insistence on doing work to his own high standards, even if it meant turning down more lucrative jobs.
Much of the kind of admiration other artists felt for Fawcett and his work is brimming from the covers of a wonderful new book, Robert Fawcett: The Illustrator’s Illustrator from Auad Publications.
Auad is a small specialty art publisher, whose titles I have long admired and written about previously (see my posts on Frank Brangwyn, R.A.: The Way of the Cross, Franklin Booth, Alex Toth and Alex Niño).
I was delighted to receive a review copy from Manual Auad, the publisher, who has for years wanted to do this particular book.
Working from his own deeply held regard and affection for Fawcett and his work, Auad has enlisted the cooperation of David Apatoff, author of the superb blog, Illustration Art, who wrote the text. Auad selected the images, edited and arranged the book. The reulting volume is what must now be considered the definitive work on this great American illustrator.
That the book is a labor of love, I think, shows in every page. Sharply written, wonderfully designed and printed with great attention to production values, the book shines, a fitting tribute to an artist whose own standards were so high.
It gives a broad overview of Fawcett’s career and is filled to overflowing (profusely illustrated, as I love to say) with over 100 of Fawcett’s beautiful color illustrations, and numerous black and white plates. Many of the images have been photographed from the original artwork.
Fawcett was one of the founding faculty of the Famous Artist School, and the introduction to the volume is by Walt Reed, our foremost authority on American illustration, who worked alongside Fawcett as a member of the faculty and speaks glowingly of Fawcett and his skills.
Fawcett was also the author of a highly regarded instructional book, The Art of Drawing, which is still in print and available from Dover Books.
Robert Fawcett: The Illustrator’s Illustrator, though obviously enjoyable as a coffee table book of superb illustrations, might also serve as a master class in illustration, just from the power of Fawcett’s skill, aided by Auad’s selections of rare life drawings and a number of preliminary sketches. The stylistic influence Fawcett exerted on mid-20th Century illustrators (not to mention great comics artists like Alex Raymond and Al Williamson, to name just two) is obvious in the style that emerges as you move through Fawcett’s career.
Auad has made an unusual, and I think brilliant, choice in the way the work is arranged and presented. Though the initial chapters on Fawcett’s life, drawing style and approach to composition and painting are accompanied by specifically appropriate illustrations (as well as an interview with Fawcett), in the second half of the book, more or less the “gallery” section, instead of arranging the work chronologically or by subject matter, Auad has presented the work by series, like the famous series of Sherlock Holmes illustrations that cemented his reputation, his stint as the premiere illustrator for Agatha Christie’s stories as they were originally published in Colliers and a selection of his advertising work. He then has arranged the other selections by publication. These gather and highlight work for Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, This Week Magazine and Cosmopolitan.
Apatoff nicely gives us a picture of Fawcett’s (sometimes difficult) relationship with the magazines, the demands of doing illustration for each particular publication and in the process provides a context that I think is much more instructive about the nature of Fawcett’s devotion to his work, and refusal to bend to the vagaries of popular taste, than could be provided any other way.
The Auad Publishing page has a slideshow of images from the book (accessed by clicking on the cover image) but they are too small and brief to do the book, or Fawcett’s work, justice. (The same should be said for my too-small images above.)
For more, see David Apatoff’s post on the book and on The Training of Robert Fawcett. For a good selection of Fawcett’s work, see Leif Peng’s Flickr collection, as well as his blog post with an excerpt from the book, another with an overview and some additional images, and another titled “Robert Fawcett, Abstract Artist“.
Also see my previous post on Robert Fawcett, which includes additional resources.