My grandfather, illustrator Garth Williams - part 1

Many artists have to carve our their career path in families where no one understands their creative urge. Not so for me. 

The most objectively successful person in my family was an artist grandfather, children's book illustrator, Garth Williams.

Garth Williams illustrated invitation to his daughter's wedding

My parents' wedding invitation, illustrated by Garth Williams.

Garth Williams humorous self-portrait in pen and ink

Detail of my parents' wedding invitation — Garth Williams self portrait, sleeping under a tree. 

"Grandpapa Garth" was already living in Mexico when I was born. He had already illustrated Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web, the Little House in the Prairie series and many other books. 

We didn't see each other often.

My family lived in Europe. International travel has become so commonplace and we're able to communicate so effortlessly and cheaply these days that it's easy to forget that up until twenty-some years ago we were limited to letters and the occasional expensive long-distance phone call.

Garth Williams in Switzerland with wife Leticia, son-in-law Alastair Hulbert and granddaughter Estyn Hulbert

His wife Leticia, Garth, me and my father in the garden of Swiss friends. (The striped shutters indicate that the house is a manse.)

Garth visited us several times while we lived in France, when I was between the ages of 3 and 6. I remember taking a sight-seeing boat ride with him on the Seine river in Paris. He gave me a pretty Japanese printed glassine envelope that contained small pellets of compressed paper that opened into brightly colored flowers when dropped into a glass of water. They were magical.

We took an epic trip to North America.

The summer that I was ten, my parents and brother and I spent a month visiting my mother's family in North America. We visited relatives in California, Quebec and New York.

There was a family gathering in Rhode Island, with all of Garth's daughters from his different marriages present.

Illustrator Garth Williams with his 5 daughters, Rhode Island 1981

Garth with all five of his daughters in 1981 — back row: my mother Fiona and aunt Bettina; front row: my aunts Estyn (yes, there are two of us in the family), Dilys and Jessica, who is the artist and jewelry designer I came to work with two decades later.

And we spent time with Garth and extended family at his home in Guanajuato, Mexico. 

Garth Williams with daughter Dilys and granddaughter Estyn Hulbert

Garth with my aunt Dilys and me.

While we were there, we took a trip to the pacific coast together. We drove, taking two days and stopping overnight in Guadelajara. I remember Grandpapa Garth keeping my brother (also called Garth) and me company in the hotel restaurant and introducing us to club sandwiches.

We drove in two cars — Garth, Leticia and Dilys in one, my parents, brother and myself in the second. At some point, out of boredom, we switched and I rode with Leticia and Garth. I remember jungle-coverd volcanic mountains passing by as we played the Bee Gees on the 8-track.

Estyn, Alastair and Garth Hulbert in Mexico, 1981

With my father and brother, Club Maeva, Mexico, 1981

We spent a luxurious few days on the beach and in the pool, sipping fruit juice from coconuts. I tried to be helpful by carrying things for Leticia. Everyone made sure "little Garth" didn't get sunburned. 

Somewhere I have a sketched caricature that Garth drew of all of us in the swimming pool, Leticia lounging at the edge. 

I didn't get back to Mexico until 1994.

The year that I moved to the United States, my mother and I flew down to see Garth. He was beginning to lose his memory and was no longer illustrating, but he was surrounded by family and love and he continued to be silly and playful.

Garth Williams goofing around with granddaughter Estyn Hulbert

Goofing around with Garth at dinner, Guanajuato, Mexico, 1994

I traipsed around Guanajuato with my newly-met cousin Laura, visiting the Diego Rivera Museum and the indoor market in search of milagros.

Garth and Leticia took us to explore San Miguel de Allende for a few days, and we stopped for lunch at some hot springs on our drive there. 

Garth Williams autographing book for granddaughter Estyn Hulbert

Illustrator Garth Williams with granddaughter Estyn Hulbert

Illustrator Garth Williams making faces with his granddaughter Estyn Hulbert

Garth autographing my copy of The Little Fur Family and making silly faces.

That was the last time I spent time with Garth; he died a couple of years later, in 1996.

His legacy surrounds me.

Both in this artist's life I've chosen to live and when I'm out in the world. I encounter his illustrations everywhere — in bookstores and thrift shops and friends' homes. The drawing style is so familiar to me that it's almost like seeing a familiar face.

Last year the Society of Illustrators awarded him the Original Art Lifetime Achievement Award. I'm so grateful that his work continues to have a lasting impact on readers around the world. 

Garth Williams book autographed dedication

More next month...

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  • What a delight to discover by accident, this blog posting! Born in 1957, I grew up mesmerized by the illustrations by Garth Williams. We didn’t have much, but my mother had bought us two of the Tall Books. I would find myself transported by the pictures in The Tall Book of Make-Believe, especially the ones with mermaids. My brother would read me the stories anytime I would ask. I still have those two books and now collect all I can find. There was a special magic and joy in his illustrations, and I will treasure his legacy til the day I breathe my last. What a lucky little child you were to have been his granddaughter!

    Melissa Hoover on

  • It is a joy to discover this blog site. I knew Garth well in his later years, doing many events and book signings with him in the midwest and here in Michigan. When we arrived at one venue a line of hundreds awaited him. He inquired about the crowd; I told him “They are here for you, Garth. You’re a rock star.”
    Being around him for so long was a perfect way to hear so many of his stories of a life that was simply incredible. I visited the family twice in San Antonio; sorry I never had a chance to see that fabled home in Mexico. It is so nice to read your memories of this great guy.

    William Anderson on

  • I recently ran across a letter my father wrote to his parents in which he tells about Garth Williams and his wife Dorothea visiting us in Sackets Harbor, NY, for Christmas in 1946. They came with my aunt Grayce Bradt and Saro Murabito from NYC. Garth drove to Toronto and brought back his daughters Fiona and Bettina with whom I played. I was 3 years old. Garth gave my parents an ink sketch of me that he’d drawn during a previous visit. I have the framed sketch. I do not know how Garth came to know my family. My parents and my aunt are no longer living so there’s no one to ask.

    Cynthia Williams on

  • I am hoping that this will lead to a re-connection between your mother Fiona and me. We met and became very good friends in the summer of 1960, when she was visiting Garth in Aspen. We spent many hours together, having tea and sharing pastries, as well as deep conversations. We lost connection, as I was in California and didn’t keep up the letter-writing that would have extended our friendship. I have always regretted that and hope that somehow we might resume a long-distance friendship. She meant a lot to me, but I was swept up in graduate school and in getting married. Is there a chance you might bring us together? Your pictures and stories of your grandfather was such a delightful discovery. Best wishes for your work. Carol

    Carol Anderson Sherrill on

  • Sometime around 1980 My boyfriend at that time was a friend of your Grandfather Garth Williams. We went to stay at his house in Maril. Meeting Garth, Leticia & I think the toddler was Dylan was a very memorable visit. Garth & Leticia were the perfect hosts. The house was amazing your grandfather explained many details how it was made. I have a few pictures of the house but wonder if there are more pictures online. Love to you & you families.

    Bette on

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