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Dorothy Lathrop - signature

Dorothy Lathrop - HittyDorothy Pulis Lathrop was born April 16, 1891 in Albany, New York. One of the most influential and important illustrators of children's books in the thirties and forties, she began her career in 1918. At that time she was a 27 year old teacher of art in Albany. Arguably her most famous works were the illustrations for Rachel Field's, Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, the story of a doll. The book was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1930 and a new edition was in the stores for Christmas 1999. An image from the book is at the right.

Lathrop was awarded the very first Caldecott Medal in 1938 for her book Animals of the Bible (1937). She mentions in her acceptance speech that she was personally attracted to the stories of the fiercer beasts, but her editors worried that such images might frighten the young readers. Dorothy thought that was the point (opining that she "must have been a ferocious child"), but accepted the editorial suggestions anyway. Anecdotes like this always make me wonder whether, left to her own devices, she would have been more or less successful.

Her mother was a painter, her grandfather owned a bookstore, and her sister, Gertrude, was a sculptor, so she seemed destined for a career in art and literature. She studied drawing with Arthur Dow at Teachers College, but she was just as interested in writing, "In fact during the early years, I wrote more than I drew." She also studied at the Pennsylvania Academy under Henry McCarter and at the Art Students League under F. Luis Mora.


Dorothy Lathrop - Tales From the Enchanted IslesShe gravitated towards (and wrote) books about animals. Again and again she chose or wrote stories about animals and even included them in other types of drawings as design elements. Her sister Gertrude tells of an ever-changing menagerie at the house she shared with her sister. The animals earned their keep - functioning as inspiration and models for both women.

Fairy tales were a natural subject for her, as well. The 1926 Tales From the Enchanted Isles by Ethel May Gate was primarily done in a languid pen line. Seven chapter heads, including the lovely water nymph at left, plus a full-page frontispiece also in pen & ink to which three flat colors were added.


Dorothy Lathrop - Three Mulla-Mulgars (A)One of my favorite Lathrop books is The Three Mulla-Mulgars by Walter de la Mare from 1919. It's also the earliest book of hers that I've seen. A fable of three royal monkeys, it was right up her alley and she took good advantage of the myriad opportunities to depict the main characters in the many incredible settings of the story.

There are 12 plates, drawn in finely stippled pen and ink or painted in soft but luscious colors, plus many smaller vignettes. It's a fun book, but hints at some of the darker aspects of her art that she might have incorporated into Animals of the Bible. Some of the illustrations remind me strongly of Sidney Sime who had provided some memorable art for the novels of Lord Dunsany a decade earlier.


Dorothy Lathrop - The Three Mulla-Mulgars (B)The cave-dwelling Minimuls with their smoldering "magic sticks" (looking ever-so-much like chain-smoking delinquent mice) at right are actually tame compared to Ummanodda, "The Nameless", shown in one of the color plates as a menacing black shape crouched on frozen rock. Another plate, in b&w, has two of the brothers and two of the black-faced, white furred "Men of the Mountains" (seen at lower right above) being attacked by a swarm of fierce birds.

She would illustrate several other de la Mare titles in her career, the second being Down-A-Down Derry - A Book of Fairy Poems from 1922. That book contained some stellar examples of extravagant stipple work that would rival Dugald Stewart Walker. This early work is very fluid and capable artistically, but is all over the map - stylistically. Some of the plates in these books mark the one and only time she drew in that particular manner. Others show the influences of Rackham, Heath Robinson, Kay Nielsen and others. I should stress that I really do mean influenced. Sometimes an artist's work is too derivative of a more famous style. Not so with Dorothy Lathrop. Revisiting these early images I'm struck by how hard she tried not to let the influence show and how good she was so early in her career.

Dorothy Lathrop - CrossingsAnother early fairy book was Crossings (1923) (her third by Walter de la Mare). Literally a fairy play for children, Dorothy's luminescent frontispiece of a fairy queen and her court by moonlight (at left) is beautifully haunting. Interior drawings in pen & ink included stage settings and character depictions and hint at a Beardsley influence that never totally disappeared from her pen work.

I'm surprised at how diverse her influences were, especially for someone noted for her softly rendered pencil illustrations of children and furry animals. It's as if she would pick up a pen and become a different artist entirely. You've probably guessed by now that I am a bit enamored with that side of her personality. It wasn't easy to pass over some of the excellent pen & ink samples in order to include a representative sampling of her work. The one exception to my observation is Hitty, probably her most famous book and the least representative. She chose a slightly archaic, stilted style, probably in deference to the title character's age and lack of true mobility. It probably worked for the story (it must have since the book won the Newbery), but it never worked for me. You shouldn't judge her work by this one title. As you can see, she was capable of ever so much more.


Dorothy Lathrop - Mr. Bumps and His MonkeyOther De la Mare titles were: Dutch Cheese (1931), Mr. Bumps and His Monkey (1942) which Dorothy illustrated in a very different style featuring very softly colored plates and very calm and peaceful compositions (at right). All of the drawings convey a very palpable sense of serenity. Even the one image of the monkey and other animals in cages is much less foreboding than she might have crafted it.

The last Lathrop-illustrated de la Mare book is Bells and Grass (also from 1942), a collection of poetry with myriad small b&w images in a light pencil style. She also provided a two-color dj and repeating endpapers. It is precisely her way with "small things" that endeared Lathrop to both de la Mare and the children who read his books. She invested more in a 2"x2" drawing of a limbed snake, and made it seem much more likely to have existed, than nearly all of her contemporaries. She knew that her audience was inclined to pore over the pictures again and again and she made sure that her work would reward such scrutiny.


Dorothy Lathrop - The Colt From Moon MountainShe began writing her own books in 1931. Her first was The Fairy Circus. Another very charming creation was The Colt from Moon Mountain (1941) about a young unicorn. The soft pencil/charcoal style, seen at right, was perfect for the story. Notice how even in a drawing of a girl and a colt, Lathrop added a chicken. More samples of her writing can be found in Angel in the Woods (1947), Bouncing Betty (1936), Dog in the Tapestry Garden (1942), Let Them Live (1951), Littlest Mouse (1955), Puffy and the Seven Leaf Clover (1954), Skittle-Skattle Monkey (1945) and others. The latest book I've been able to locate is the 1960 Follow the Brook.

Indicative of the frustration inherent in writing this page is the fact that I can't even find out when Lathrop died. I have a fairly extensive collection of reference books and she appears in only the three listed below. I was simply flabbergasted that such an important artist has been omitted from our literature. I hope this page takes a small step towards filling that void.

Thanks and tip of the mouse to Maureen Goodman, who has supplied us with December, 1980 as the date of her death. She also found more information in "The Children's Hour" (16 Volumes ) published in 1954 by The Spencer Press.


References

To learn more about Dorothy Lathrop, see:

Illustrators of Children's Books 1744-1945
also Illustrators of Children's Books 1946-1956
Bertha E. Mahony, Louise Payson Latimer and Beulah Folmsbee, 1947 The Horn Book
Caldecott Medal Books: 1938-1957 Bertha Mahony Miller & Elinor Whitney Field, 1957 The Horn Book
Price Guide and Bibliographic Check List for Children's & Illustrated Books 1880-1960 E. Lee Baumgarten, 1995 E. Lee Baumgarten
The Vadeboncoeur Collection of Knowledge Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 1997
The Vadeboncoeur Collection of ImageS B&W 5 Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 2010 JVJ Publishing

Illustrations copyright by their respective owners.
This page written, designed & © 1997 by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. Updated 2011.

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