The Story Behind Oz
Known as the "Famous Forty," the Oz Book series began in 1900 with L. Frank Baum's immortal American fairytale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Published by George M. Hill of Chicago and lavishly illustrated by William Wallace Denslow, the book, in both content and production, set a new benchmark for children's literature.
In 1904, a sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz was published by Reilly & Britton of Chicago, featuring illustrations by renowned magazine illustrator, John. R. Neill.
Baum wrote twelve additional sequels between 1907 and 1919, and upon his death, the publisher, now incorporated as Reilly & Lee, hired young journalist Ruth Plumly Thompson to continue penning the series.
Thompson would write 19 Oz titles between 1921 and 1939. Upon her retirement, the last of the Oz series was written by four different authors; John R. Neill (writing three books), Jack Snow (writing two), Rachel Cosgrove (writing one), and Eloise Jarvis McGraw, and Lauren McGraw Wagner concluding the series in 1963 with Merry Go Round in Oz.
Collectively, the Oz books are widely regarded as the most popular American children's novels of the 20th century
Five different illustrators contributed to the art of the original Oz book series.
WW Denslow illustrated The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The next 35 sequels would be exclusively the illustrative design of John R. Neill. For his work as illustrator of the Oz book series, John R. Neill created approximately 4,000 pen and ink and watercolor illustrations. Only about 250 are known to have survived.
Drawings created for the final two books in the series by illustrators, Dirk and Dick Martin are similarly believed lost.
How Was the Art Lost?
Reilly and Lee, the publisher of the Oz series, retained ownership of all original illustrations. Poorly stored and nominally valued, the original artwork was subject to various building moves, harsh weather conditions, theft, and purging of company files.
The Lost Art of Oz Project
Launched in 2018 by Brady Schwind, a celebrated writer and Oz enthusiast, The Lost Art of Oz is the first attempt to trace and definitively catalogue the surviving original art from the classic Oz series.
The project is bringing together institutions, libraries and private collectors, with the vision of celebrating the genius and imagination of the original artists who immortalized a classic piece of American literature, and to encourage the continued valuing and preservation of Children's Literature Illustration.
Image above: John R. Neill's original pencil sketches on Ruth Plumly Thompson's manuscript of Speedy in Oz (1934). Book, Arts and Special Collections, San Francisco Public Library.