Of the nearly 4,000 finished illustrations John R. Neill drew for the Oz book series, less than 10 percent are known to survive.
Perhaps surprisingly, most of what does survive is from Neill’s earliest work on the series. Of the 13 novels Neill illustrated for original Oz book author L. Frank Baum, at least one piece of finished artwork is known to exist for 8 titles.
Conversely, of the 19 Oz books Neill illustrated for Baum’s successor, Ruth Plumly Thompson, only 5 books have known finished examples. Sadly, this means many of the most vibrant drawings (and the most colorful characters) Neill drafted for the Oz books may have been lost to time. John R. Neill’s family retained none of the final artwork Neill created for the Oz book series (all was turned over to the publisher upon completion) but they did retain many of Neill’s preliminary pencil sketches, and over the coming months several are being offered for sale on a new website, Johnrneill.com owned and operated by David Maxine of Hungry Tiger Press.
In celebration of that, we’d like to take a look back at Neill’s “preparatory sketches of Oz"
Happily, much of Neill's preliminary Oz sketches are for characters and books for which no final artwork is known to survive, and they give us a rare glimpse into Neill’s process, and of the creation of some of the most beloved creatures in the Oz book universe.
Neill’s assignment of illustrating the Oz books was often a fast task, and there are frequent stories of his having received the finished manuscript so late, he had less than a month’s time to complete the final drawings before publication deadline. At the top of the blog is an image Neill composed for "Anything of Oz," an anxious attempt to begin work on the yet to be received manuscript of THE GIANT HORSE OF OZ (1928). But Neill’s imagination was readily accessible, and he often began sketching ideas right on the typed manuscripts as he first read them, as exampled by Neill's copy of the manuscript for SPEEDY IN OZ (1934) now housed at the San Francisco Public Library.
John R. Neill was an illustrator who frequently used models to capture expression and anatomy. And it's easy to imagine that Neill may have sketched in real time - perhaps even members of his own family as inspiration - for an early design of King Randy of Regalia and Planetty, the name sake of THE SILVER PRINCESS OF OZ (1938).
It’s equally understandable that often Neill’s surviving preliminary sketches are for creatures that don’t exist outside the worlds of fantasy. A particularly delightful example are those he drew for a seven armed shepherdess named “Handy Mandy,” one of the most whimsical characters in the entire series. On two pages, Neill attempts to sort out the details of how such a creature would navigate every day movements: running, jumping, pointing, lifting. Perhaps so tickled by his findings, the sketches became the basis for the endpapers of the final book, HANDY MANDY IN OZ (1937) and an inspired introduction for the reader into her unusal world.
The only surviving sketches from OJO OF OZ (1933) are for the character Snufferbux the Bear, and they detail another recurring theme in Neill’s preliminary sketches - how to make the ordinary, “extraordinary.” Back to anatomy, Neill seems to first want to master the realistic stance of the animal, then slowly embellishing and animating to create a non human character who speaks and dances. Similar sketches exist for other animals in the Oz universe, and they echo Neill’s desire to first satisfy realism before turning to fantasy.
John R. Neill’s finished pen and ink illustrations for the Oz books were usually done on Bristol board, and its a testament to both Neill’s frugality (and perhaps the frugal times the Oz books were written in) that Neill often used one side of the board for rough pencil sketches and the other for a final drawing (usually of a different scene in the book). Some of the most fun surviving examples of this are from THE ROAD TO OZ (1909), in which Neill had to imagine what Jack Pumpkinhead’s pumpkin house might be, and what the anatomy of the Shaggy Man’s head emerging from water might look like.
The last surviving examples of Neill’s preparatory sketches are from 1943 for a book Neill was meant to write and illustrate called THE RUNAWAY IN OZ. Perhaps because of publisher Reilly and Lee’s reticence to publish on the brink of World War II, Neill created an extensive collection of pencil drawings for his ideas. Sadly, Neill died before the book could be edited or the illustrations finalized. Eventually, the book was finished and illustrated by Eric Shanower, who used Neill’s rough sketches as inspiration for his final drawings.
In L. Frank Baum's family scrapbooks there is a tantalizing photograph of a 1904 window display at Siegel & Cooper Co. department store in New York City celebrating the release of Baum's second book, THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ.
The exhibit is lavish with detail: first printing copies of the book abound (in what appears to be both green and red cloth variants of the original binding), large doll like figures recreate the book's endpaper design (dedicated to Fred Stone and David Montgomery as the Scarecrow and Tinman from the 1903 stage production of The Wizard of Oz ) and a large poster teases "What Did The Woggle Bug Say? - a much heralded campaign that offered newspaper readers the chance to win weekly prizes.
Circling the entire window - on hangers and easels of various shapes and sizes are illustration boards, featuring John R. Neill's original pen and ink drawings for the book. The photograph in Baum's scrapbook is grainy, and it's been a fun and fascinating puzzle to try to guess which pieces of artwork are included. With special thanks to the sharp eye of our friend Bill Campbell of The Oz Enthusiast, we think we've been able to solve a bit of the mystery...
Top: Original photograph from Baum's scrapbooks. Bottom: Our estimation of the featured artwork.
Can you guess any of the illustrations hanging in the back?
Interestingly, none of the illustration boards identified here are among the small handful known to have survived. The caption under the photograph states a similar display was at Wanamaker Store in Philadelphia. For those who love to follow New York 'then and now,' the Sixth Avenue location of Siegel and Cooper Co. is currently the home of Bed, Bath and Beyond; the window display still retaining its original green patina molding
Special thanks to The International Wizard of Oz Club for images featured in the L. Frank Baum family scrapbooks.
One of the central fascinations at the center of the "Lost Art of Oz" search is that, with the exception of the artwork created by WW Denslow for THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (much of which was gifted to the New York Public Library in 1926), all of the original artwork created for the Oz Book series was retained by the publisher, Reilly and Lee.
So in looking at what has survived and what else might be 'out there,' the game often becomes trying to determine the 'how' and the 'when' individual pieces started going AWOL from the R&L archive.
A common practice for turn-of-the century marketing of children's books was for major retailers to create prominent window displays featuring for-sale books along with pieces of original illustration. Usually oversized and drawn on sturdy Bristol Board the artwork was an easy, eye-popping and inexpensive way to draw young eyes, and publishers were happy to lend them, with the caveat (sometimes honored and occasionally not) that they be returned when the promotion was over.
A popular legend in the Oz Collecting world is that a series of original watercolors created by John R. Neill in 1910 for THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ were loaned to Marshall Field & Co., an upscale department store in Chicago, to advertise the book but were never returned, only to be discovered decades later in the company's basement.
Someone else who managed to commission an original piece of Oz artwork from John R. Neill was an impassioned Ohio based radio writer named Jack Snow. Corresponding with fellow Oz collector, Roland Baughman in January of 1942, Snow shares his great pride in obtaining it.
The original John R. Neill watercolor in Jack Snow's collection was not from an Oz book, but was later reproduced
in the Winter 1986 edition of The Baum Bugle.
So, it's perhaps not surprising that the next known documentation of original Oz series artwork being in private hands would be in a note from Snow.
In a January 9, 1947 letter to a collector named William G. Lee (no relation to the publisher), Jack writes: "I have The Land of Oz, first edition, presentation copy in dust wrapper with four original Neill illustrations." Before he was done collecting, Snow would end up with a second first edition MARVELOUS LAND in a dust jacket (which may play a part in our story later on).
Despite his passion for Oz, which extended so far as to writing two books in the series (THE MAGICAL MIMICS IN OZ in 1946 and THE SHAGGY MAN OF OZ in 1949, as well as a readers guide called WHO'S WHO IN OZ in 1954) the later years of Snow's life were marked by tragedy and economic hardship. By 1955, he had sold most of his collection to prominent New York dealers Howard Mott and Gabriel Engel.
Though it's inconclusive what became of the four original Neill illustrations from the MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ in Snow's collection, it seems likely that three of these (along with the endpapers drawn by WW Denslow for Baum's DOT AND TOT IN MERRYLAND, and 8 assorted 1904 drawings by Denslow for a short lived comic strip based on the characters of The Scarecrow and the Tin Man) were purchased in November of 1955 by Roland Baughman for Columbia University (the subject of our previous blog). The cost for the 12 drawings was $400 (about $3,782 in 2018 dollars) which shows the relative low valuing of the original artwork at that time.
A far more impressive price was placed on Snow's two first edition, dust jacketed copies of THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ, which were offered by Mott for $200 each.
One of these copies would be obtained by Oz illustrator and collector, Dick Martin. Also in Martin's collection was an original illustration from THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ, featuring Tip admiring the newly formed Jack Pumpkinhead. Across the board is a crack, almost identical to fractures in the illustrations purchased for Columbia University.
Could this be the fourth original illustration from Snow's collection?
If so, it might be the first piece of original Oz series artwork connected to Dick Martin. It would certainly not be the last, as we will explore in our next blog.
The road to tracing the existing original artwork created by John R. Neill for the Oz series is more often than not a scavenger hunt. It starts with a lead, which leads to a lot of inquiry work, and occasionally - just occasionally - results in an undiscovered treasure.
Such was the case of a recent search in the vaults of Columbia University.
Now, Neill, himself, retained none of the illustrations he drew for the Oz books. They were expressly the property of the publisher, Reilly & Britton (later Reilly & Lee, and later still Regnery and then Contemporary Books).
By the time Contemporary sold the last of its Oz archives in the early 1980s, but a tiny fraction of the original artwork was left. It's largely believed most of the artwork was purged by the publisher in the early 1960s, and so it's always intriguing to learn of a collection in private or public hands that pre-dates that time period.
The first major exposition of L. Frank Baum's work was in 1956 at Columbia University, and it was the brainchild of Roland Baughman, who was the Head of the Department of Special Collections at Columbia, and a fervent collector of L. Frank Baum and Oziana himself. The exhibit contained books and a few pieces of original artwork by Denslow and Neill that Columbia purchased specifically for the exhibition.
In the decades since the exhibition, the drawings have been housed with the effects of Roland Baughman's papers (gifted to Columbia upon his death in 1961) and as is often the case with Neill's art, misidentified in the school's records. Thanks to the efforts of the dedicated staff at the Butler Library, the works were traced and brought out of the vaults, for what may have been their first viewing in a very long time.
Still encased in the inexpensive black wooden frames they were put in for the 1956 exhibit (and covered in decades worth of dust), the three illustrations from THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ nevertheless remain- well, absolutely marvelous.
The first drawing, featuring Tip and Jack Pumpkinhead sleeping on the side of a hill, while the Saw Horse watches nearby corresponds to the colored plate on page 56 of the published volume. Neill, incidentally, with the exception of his watercolors for THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ and DOROTHY AND THE WIZARD IN OZ did all his works in pen and ink on Bristol Board, with the colorization happening later (and by other hands) in the printing process. This work is especially notable in it's homages to traditional Denslow flourishes; in particular, the outline of a larger than life sun overhead may have been Neill's attempts to mirror the style of his highly successful predecessor on the Oz series.
The second sketch of Tip, Jack and the Sawhorse crossing a river is intriguing in that it is the only original art for a half-page sized illustration that is presently known to have survived from MARVELOUS LAND. A fun surprise is seeing that despite the rather small size of the illustration in the published book, Neill took an entire full-sized board to craft the drawing! Neil apparently made some changes to the design of this illustration as there is an 'insert' piece of paper pasted on the middle of the board and drawn over.
Both illustration boards unfortunately have major damage to them; large cracks cross the entire length of the image. Interestingly, this damage corresponds to a similar split on another illustration board from LAND sold at auction in recent years, and would indicate the damage may have been sustained in the storing of the works at the publishing house. How the works came to leave Reilly and Britton remains a mystery...
The third illustration from MARVELOUS LAND is on a slightly smaller board (and one with a slightly different sheen). Though familiar, there was something instantly 'off' about the image, but it took a moment to realize what it was. When compared to the finished illustration in the published book, something is missing. Can you see what it is?
Ah yes! It's our old friend, H.M. Wogglebug T.E., MIA from the pen and ink illustration! But what could that mean? Is this illustration at Columbia a copy? A drawing for an abridgment of the story in which the Wogglebug doesn't appear? Or was this a preliminary drawing done by Neill that perhaps was rejected upon the realization that a major character from the episode was missing?
An early (and persistent criticism) L. Frank Baum had of John R. Neill's work was that he failed to astutely observe the details in his narration. While we may never know what exactly is the story behind it, it seems likely that this was (perhaps the first) instance in which Baum finger wagged his new illustrator for not closely reading his story.