Friday, August 16, 2019


The great illustrator Mark English, who played a dominant role in American illustration for decades, passed away on August 8.

Through a rare combination of moxie and creative talent, English worked his way from picking cotton in the fields near Hubbard Texas for $1.50 per day to becoming a nationally renowned illustrator who received more awards from the Society of Illustrators than any other artist. 

He was the last remaining member of a small band of artists who clawed their way up from small towns, secured low paying jobs in Detroit working on car ads, and from that rigorous training ground launched hugely successful free lance careers.  That path is now closed to young artists, but while it was still available, audacious young talent such as English, Bernie Fuchs and Bob Heindel were able to distinguish themselves and come to the attention of the top art directors in the country.

Like Fuchs and Heindel, English took big gambles.  I've previously quoted his recollections of the chances he took moving his young family from Detroit to become an illustrator in Connecticut:
I had moved to Connecticut and in my first year there I made 20% of the salary that I had made in my last year.... It was a tough year and I had a lot of time on my hands.  I think not having much work enhanced my career more than anything else.  I spent a lot of time experimenting, trying to come up with something unique and different, and I think toward the end of that year I managed to do that on a job for the Readers Digest [for the book, Little Women]....I think that three or four of the illustrations were accepted into the Society's annual exhibition that year.  One of them won an award and got me a little attention.  After that I got into magazines and my career was launched.
English recalled that during that dry spell he went eight months without getting a single assignment. His wife became worried as money became very tight but he wouldn't turn back. "I think [it was] the best thing that ever happened to me, but at the time I didn't think so.... I don't think that I ever worked harder at anytime than I did during those eight months, trying to get better and be more competitive."

When the lucrative illustration market began to dry up, like Fuchs and Heindel English didn't quit or become paralyzed with fear.  He boldly pushed forward in new directions and became a highly successful gallery painter.

English was the last of a truly remarkable generation of artists in America.  He made excellent use of his years so that, in the words of John Milton, he could present a true account of his talents to his maker.  For this, he deserves to be remembered and celebrated.  I highly recommend his biography by Jill Bossert.


MORAN said...

English was my idol in art school.

Anonymous said...

This was a great tribute. Thank you!

kev ferrara said...

Such a sensitive line and subtle color sense, combined with excellent design skills and creativity. Maybe he wasn't at the same level as Heindel, Peak, and Fuchs, but he wasn't too far from it either.

chris bennett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chris bennett said...

A long time ago when we purchased our first house I designed and built a standalone bookcase for it. It took me over two weeks to complete but it was a splendid thing and has followed us to every home since then. Over those years it has become the shrine in which I keep my most treasured art books (a graveyard filled with tombstones to my past enthusiasms if you will). But I visit it often, and there among the tomes on Michelangelo, Jeff Jones, Vermeer, Ben Nicholson, Constable, Degas, Garcia Lopez, Diebenkorn, Palencar, Vermeer, Titian, Uglow and many, many others... is Jill Bossert's biography of Mr English. Sitting on a middle shelf.

Anonymous said...

It’s a shame there are no more illustrators like Mr.English anymore but this tribute explains why. Who nowadays would put in this kind of hard work and dedication? Recently saw an article in NY Times about a prize winning cartoonist and his drawings were litterely stick figures.

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- Yes, it turns out he was an idol of many.

Anonymous-- Thanks for writing.

Kev Ferrara-- I had the pleasure of talking with both Fuchs and Heindel about English, and they had great respect for him as a peer. Perhaps because they all labored on the same assembly lines in Detroit, they did pal around together after meeting in the Westport area. Fuchs was the first one to chart the path--no one had made the transition before him--but later English and then Heindel followed in his footsteps.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- Sounds like we have similar taste in books. The difference is my books are stacked on the floor while it sounds like you have a very nice bookcase. I fear my house is about to buckle under the weight of all these art books.

Anonymous--I can't think of a reason why today's illustrators should, as a general matter, be so different from an English caliber illustrator. Compare the range of creative approaches by English in this post-- always with that undergirding of technical skill acquired in Detroit-- with the types of formulaic art that often dominate the current Society of illustrators annuals.

Jesse Hamm said...

English was marvelous. I'm sorry to learn he died. I recall, as a teen, buying a Shakespeare volume he illustrated for the cover alone. Such a delightful combination of training and spirit in his moody, expressive work.

Francis Vallejo said...

RIP. English was a giant. I was remarkably fortunate to study with him. The best way for me to celebrate his life is to share this collection of his work I put together. 300+ images. You might enjoy David.