quill-pen-and-inkwellIllustrator Frank Godwin

by Robert Neil

 

 

The golden age of illustration represents an iconic period in America’s artistic history, when pencil and brush were the tools that gave the public a unique view of life and the world before the arrival of sophisticated photographic technology. From the 1880s into the 1920s – and according to some experts as late as the 1940s – the golden age saw a number of industries relying on artists who had the ability to transform ideas, stories and moods into visual representations.  These works are not only still revered today, but also are valued as pieces of historical art from an era that continues to be romanticized by many.

The rise of the illustrations grew as a result of several unrelated factors, including the advent of new printing techniques and cheaper availability of paper production. Additionally, improved distribution, thanks to an expanding railway system, made access to major cities across the United States much easier.  As a result, magazines, books, calendars, advertisements and other forms of media began heavily featuring illustrations to a public that craved the artwork.  Very quickly those illustrations became an expected component of mass media of that period.

In particular, the transformative artwork used to illustrate adventure books was very popular and considered to be a very, uniquely American form of art. Illustrations for classic novels such as The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood and Ivanhoe, depicted a more active tone than work that had come before, when artwork helped advance the story, but showed little trace of action of consequences.  This new active style can be traced to Howard Pyle (1853 – 1911), credited with reinterpreted traditional Victorian themes to create a unique American artistic style.

Numerous other artists followed and made their marks on the genre, including Charles Dana Gibson (1867 – 1944), James Montgomery Flagg (1877 – 1960) and Frank Godwin (1889 – 1959).

In the 1920s, Godwin, whose noted works also included the comic strips Connie and Rusty Riley, illustrated some of literatures best known adventure books such as Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, King Arthur and The Black Arrow.

frankgodwinGodwin was born into the print business in Washington, DC in 1889.  He was one of four sons to Harold P. Godwin, city editor for the Washington Star newspaper, and in 1905, at the age of 16, the younger Godwin began an apprenticeship at the paper.  By that time, it was already evident he had an artistic gift, and although he was primarily self-taught, he studied for a brief time at New York’s Art Students League.

Sean Kleefeld, author of the book Comic Book Fanthropology, says while it might be safe to assume Harold Godwin was instrumental in helping his son secure the jobs in comic strips that would eventually come, it was the friendship formed with Flagg at the Art Students League that would really aide Frank Godwin’s career.

The two young men studied together at the school, where Flagg was turning into an exceptional talent who would go on to become one of the most accomplished – and highest paid – magazine illustrators in the U.S. After securing a job for himself at the humor magazine Judge, Flagg began offering assignments to his friend Godwin beginning in 1908, and by 1915, Godwin was contributing drawings and illustrations to most every issue of the weekly publication.

The work at Judge became more important to Godwin after he married Grace Congleton in late 1909 and began building a family.  He would eventually have four children with Grace, who saw him grow into an exceptional artist.  During these early years of his career, Godwin developed what every great artist needs, a unique and distinctive style, and illustration historian/critic Jim Vadeboncoeur described Godwin’s technique as follows:

While obviously influenced by Flagg (and Charles Dana Gibson), Godwin managed to create a style that was recognizably his and that stood out from both his idols and the mass of clones that were cropping up everywhere. His ability to create tones, especially facial characteristics, with his pen and brush were equal to and in some ways better than Gibson and, I think, obviously superior to Flagg. His use of pen and brush in the same illustration demonstrated an understanding of the medium that set his work apart from his contemporaries. It, combined with his tonal skills, gave his work a depth and weight that was seldom equaled. Walt and Roger Reed in The Illustrator in America, 1880-1980 credit some of this realism to his modeling of busts in clay for reference. They don’t say when he adopted this practice, but it’s unlikely that he was doing this so early in his career.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Judge; 1914
Judge; 1914

Like many men of his age, Godwin’s career was put on hold when he entered the military to serve in World War I. A story in a Wisconsin newspaper says he initially went into the service as a cameraman, but eventually became a pilot, and he reportedly helped design and make the first air-to-ground reconnaissance camera, now housed at the Smithsonian.

After the war, Godwin’s art work began to get the attention of editors and art directors at a number of publications, and he produced cover illustrations for magazines such as The Ladies Home Journal and Liberty.  By the early 1920s he was in high demand for a variety of work, including advertisements, which could sometimes be the more profitable form of work for freelance illustrators.

 

 

(The Ladies Home Journal; 1919)
(The Ladies Home Journal; 1919)

 

(Photoplay, 1926)
(Photoplay, 1926)
(Advertisement from the Holeproof Hosiery Company, 1921)
(Advertisement from the Holeproof Hosiery Company, 1921)
(Advertisement from Lazell, 1921)
(Advertisement from Lazell, 1921)

 

Godwin also demonstrated he was not limited to pen and ink, the medium mastered by Flagg and Gibson, and like the two men who had the greatest influence on his style, Godwin moved into oil and water color paints and excelled in these areas as well. His versatility and distinctive ability to capture expressive facial features caught the attention of book publishers David Mackay and John Winston, who were recruiting artists to illustrate classic adventure books.

At this time in America, the country was going through a transformation that would later be dubbed the “Roaring 20s,” and modernism in music, fashion, architecture and numerous other facets of culture saturated the decade. However, even as society was looking toward the future, there was still strong interest in novels of the past, and some scholars theorize several reasons for this phenomenon.

First of all, society was changing quickly and familiar stories of King Arthur, Robin Hood and Robinson Curios acted as an anchor. Secondly, stories of good guys triumphing over evil foes and hard times were uplifting to a nation fresh from World War I, which ended in the later part of 1918.  Additionally, there was an aristocratic feeling that Americans should be educated and well-read, and being familiar with the classics was part of that movement.

The talented Godwin found himself in the right place and time in history, and from 1920 through 1932 he illustrated numerous titles, including The Black Arrow (1923), Tales of Shakespeare (1924), Treasure Island (1924), Robinson Crusoe (1925), King Arthur and His Knights (1927), Swiss Family Robinson (1929) and Robin Hood (1932).

It’s been suggested that these illustrations, particularly those for King Arthur, were influential to Hal Foster, who went on to create Prince Valiant, according to an analysis of Godwin’s work by Kleefeld.

king-arthur_cover
(1927)
(1923)
(1924)
(1924)

Some of Godwin’s adventure book illustrations have been displayed at various museums over the years – usually as part of exhibits spotlighting the Golden Age of Illustration. Most recently, Godwin was featured in such a display at the Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery in Annville, PA, where two of his works from Treasure Island and two from Robinson Crusoe (including the book) were presented.

As Godwin’s career rose in the 1920s, his personal life went through some major transitions. His marriage with Grace ended, and by the end of the decade he had married his second wife, Sylvia, with whom he would have two children.

Meanwhile, the medium for his art also began to change near the end of the 1920s. Like many illustrators of the time, Godwin moved into comic strips, and the results brought the fame for which he is most remembered today.  Although he was a very active and successful illustrator for adventure novels, he is more often lauded as having created the strips Connie and Rusty Riley.

Part of the reason for this may be that few of his adventure book illustrations are available. It’s believed less than a dozen of his painting still exist; whereas, some of his work with comic strips have been republished and can be found in book form.  Additionally, the world of comics has a much larger following in general than the world of classic illustrations; however, scarceness of his work in the latter area has made his paintings more valuable.

Connie debuted as a Sunday strip from Ledger Syndicate in 1927 and in 1929 advanced to a daily strip. The adventure-style series followed Connie Kurridge, a curly haired blonde who went through various exploits and occupations as the strip evolved.  At first, stories revolved around her adventures as an aviator who was not only pretty, but also resourceful and smart.

Comic historian Don Markstein notes that Connie was the first female adventure hero in American comics. After America was hit by the great economic depression in late 1929, the strip changed, and Connie became involved with social issues, but her adventures continued.  She would ultimately have several jobs, including a reporter and an operator at a private detective agency, and both positons led her into various exploits.

(Connie, black and white strip, date unknown)
(Connie, color strip, 1935)
(Connie, color strip, 1935)

The strip ran until 1944, and during the time Godwin was with Ledger Syndicate, he also worked, uncredited, on some of the company’s smaller strips such as Roy Powers, Eagle Scout and War on Crime, according to Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr., a collector and authority on illustrators and comic art.  Vadeboncoeur also says Godwin drew Wonder Woman for National Comics in 1943.

Before starting his next strip, Godwin’s personal life would once again go through changes as he and wife Sylvia were divorced, and he married Georgiana Brown Harbeson shortly after World War II ended. Then, in 1948, he launched Rusty Riley for King Features Syndicate, a strip that would run until 1959 and prove to be his last major artistic contribution before his death.  The story followed a runaway orphan who is eventually hired as a stable boy by a wealthy racehorse owner in Kentucky.

Although Godwin’s art for the strip has been hailed as some of his best work in the medium, the strip’s stories are only considered mediocre and a prime reason the series was only moderately successful. Even though Godwin had created the strip’s scenario, writer Rod Reed was brought in to write the actual stores.

(Rusty Riley, 1957)
(Rusty Riley, 1957)

 

 

Rusty Riley was canceled in 1959, and Godwin passed away a short time later.  His legacy in certain corners of the art world is secure, but for some reason – with all his accomplishments – Godwin is still something of a forgotten genius in history.  The details of his life story reveal a classic American tale of a talented, good-looking man (6’2” with blue eyes and dark hair), who had a desire to work and create – and that’s what he spent his entire adult life doing.

(Portsmouth Times, May 17, 1952)

In addition to his artwork, Godwin’s meticulous attention to detail was evident in the air-to-ground reconnaissance camera he created during the war.  Late in his life he continued his craftsmanship by building a 4-foot, live steam model locomotive in his wood and metal shop at his home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  He cast many of the parts used to assemble the train in his shop, and the 250-pound model, which was completely functional, ran on a track in his garden.  He also found time to build a motorized telescope capable of following stars’ paths across the sky.

Godwin’s body of work shows his nickname of “Mr. Meticulous” was well earned in all the art forms in which he worked, and for a man who accomplished so much in his life, it is fitting that one of his most illustrious accomplishments came in the field of adventure stories.

 

 

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This profile of Frank Godwin is a special “pet” project by the O&F Studios’ editor-in-chief, Robert Neil, who, in addition to his knowledge of popular music from the 1970s and 1980s, is an admirer and supporter of artists in a variety of fields. The profile is part of a series spotlighting exceptional artists who have not yet received public recognition equal to their contributions.