Monday, December 25, 2017


You've never heard of the illustrator H. J. Mowat (1879-1949).   He was lost in the sea of anonymous illustrators of the 1920s and 30s who worked in the style of the famous Henry Raleigh.

Thousands of popular magazines of the era featured loose pencil illustrations shaded with charcoal or blocks of wash.  It was an appealing style because it was fast and helped conceal a multitude of artistic weaknesses.

But if you flip through those illustrations, it's easy to spot the few artists with genuine talent. It shows in the selected moments of tight focus or restraint, in the staging, in the imaginative solutions.  Mowat wasn't one of the illustrators hiding behind this soft style, he used it from a position of strength.

Consider the two ursine figures on the left.  Mowat doesn't neglect their faces out of laziness or uncertainty; those blurred faces are part of a carefully orchestrated effect with bulky bodies, small heads, stooped posture and thick limbs.  

These are lumpenproletariat, and sharply defined facial features would only distract from the effect Mowat wants.
Next, in the figure leaning over the bed, all Mowat needs is one strong, carefully placed jaw line and a few rounded strokes on that arm to define the figure: 

Mowat has proven he knows anatomy; that leaves him free to go wild with the rest of the figure.

Or consider the focal point of the picture, the figure dying on the bed.  All you see is a tiny head-- a minuscule part of the picture's real estate, but it occupies a choice location right in the center; the shadow of the window on the wall serves as a spotlight directing our gaze; and the shadow on the right side creates one of the highest contrast spots in the picture.

Who needs details such as eyelashes or lips when you can achieve your result with such a broad range of other tools?

Among the glut of mediocre pencil illustrations in the first decades of the 20th century, some genuinely lovely drawings stand out.


Aleš said...

Very nice. I like it how the light falls upon the white sheets and portrays a bright window. With the expression of the old mans stretched face beneath the shining on the wall, I can sense his soul being on the verge of transition between the worlds.

kev ferrara said...

For Grugerites of the Golden Age there was a lot of competition to be the top second banana. Raleigh was surely the most successful of the bunch, given the fact that he eventually staked out original stylistic territory and was highly successful. Then I would put Arthur Brown, and then Mowat.

This is a nice Mowat; gets some of that loose, suggestive quality of a real Gruger here and there. The fact that all the hands are fudged is a strike against it, but the composing of the focal area is quite effective. After looking at it, though, I made the mistake of looking at my folder of actual Grugers, which are works of staggering beauty, and that was that; how can anybody compare to Gruger at his own game? Upon returning to this piece, I was immediately put in mind of reports that Mowat struggled in misery to produce his illustrations.

MORAN said...

Awesome picture. Mowat is new to me.

David Apatoff said...

Aleš -- Yes, unlike the vast majority of illustrations from this era, which were plodding and earthbound, Mowat's drawing certainly has its own spirit.

Kev Ferrara-- Yes, Gruger and Raleigh were certainly the twin pillars of that genre; I didn't see any shame in Mowat being inferior to Gruger; there was still plenty of room for brilliance beneath him. (Personally, I would say that Mowat's style was closer to Raleigh's because they both had a looser, more sketchy feel than Gruger, who seemed to build his figures with more of a chiseled structural integrity.)

I also agree that hiding hands is frequently a telltale sign, but I don't think so in the case of Mowat. Over Christmas vacation I spent several pleasant hours leafing through Saturday Evening Posts from the 1920s an 1930s, and saw dozens of Mowat drawings. He was not afraid of composing hands where they played a role. Here I think the characters had limp paws, and demarcated knuckles would've done the story no good. I know Mowat worked hard and took his drawings seriously. I don't fault him for that. But I do think his reputation was diminished because he was not as prolific as Gruger or Raleigh. Everyone has heard of Gruger and Raleigh but in my experience almost no one knows of Mowat.

The only place I part company with you is your apparent regard for Arthur Brown. I like his work; I know he was extremely popular among illustrators fo a variety of reasons, and he was a good yeoman artist, but his works always seemed a little wooden to me. Are there any examples of his work you'd care to point out?

MORAN-- I think Mowat will be new to a lot of people. That's one reason for pointing him out here.

Robert Cosgrove said...

Well, no one could accuse you of posting a stereotype happy Christmas drawing on Christmas day. But you are right that I never heard of Mowat, and am accordingly in your debt for introducing him to me. Nice drawing. Care to post any more?

kev ferrara said...
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