My grandfather, illustrator Garth Williams - part 2

Posted by Estyn Hulbert on

My maternal grandfather, Garth Williams, didn't live a life that can be summarized in a blog post. He lived in at least five countries, married four times, had six biological children and a stepson over a span of nearly forty years, played classical guitar, restored an old hacienda in Mexico, and illustrated dozens and dozens of children's books including classics such as Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, the Little House in the Prairie series, the Rescuers series, the Cricket in Times Square series, and Bedtime for Frances.

Listing those book titles makes me feel antsy, because so many other books are missing. Equally delightful books. Books full of pictures he drew that changed us, and how we feel about each other and about the creatures (many of them furry) that share our planet.

All this to say that I won't even try here to give a thorough biography. Instead I'd like to share some photos and details from his life that strike me as interesting. Want to know more? There's a whole book about him.

Garth Williams was born in New York City on April 16, 1912.

Baby picture of Garth Williams in the arms of his father

His early childhood was spent in New Jersey until his mother left his father and after living for a short time in Canada, she took him and his sister to England. 

Garth Williams with his little sister Fiona

Garth Williams with his sister Fiona

His sister, Fiona, was three years younger. I love this picture of the two of them. They look a little wild, like tired urchins after a long day.

I know almost nothing about Fiona. She died suddenly when she was 11 or 12, while away at boarding school. Diphtheria? Angina? I don't know. I just know that she died very young and that my mother was named after her.

I imagine that losing his sister and suddenly becoming an only child living with a single parent must have been difficult. Especially since his mother suffered a deep, grief-stricken depression.

Garth Williams as a child

Garth grew up with artist parents and must have started drawing very young, inspired by the drawing and painting happening constantly around him. 

Once in England he won several school prizes for his drawings and went on to win a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art in London. He also studied sculpture at the Westminster School of Art. 

Garth Williams' first ever sculpture, 1933

Illustrator Garth Williams when he was art student, London

In 1936 Garth won the Prix de Rome for sculpture.

The British Prix de Rome gave selected artists a scholarship to study in Rome, including both living and studio space. Garth's bursary was for two years.

Illustrator Garth Williams with his Prix de Rome winning sculpture

His time in Rome was to start in October of 1936. That summer he took a trip to Germany, where he bumped into my grandmother, Gunda von Davidson, while hiking. By the end of the year they were engaged.

They were married in Florence and returned together to England when his residency in Rome was over. They stayed with his mother in Surrey for a while. 

In 1939 they rented a large house in London and established an artists' co-op.

The war had people evacuating the city for the countryside and properties were available for cheap. They rented a large house at 23 Brechin Place, in Kensington, and used the largest rooms as studios and made the basement kitchen into a communal dining room. They shared chores and household expenses. The house was a gathering place for artists and musicians.

They held exhibitions of their art in the large studios and invited everyone they could think of. When my mother was born, two of the fellow resident artists became her godfathers, and apparently she slept happily through the piano and voice rehearsals and guitar jams that constantly filled the house.

In September 1939, Garth joined the Red Cross Civilian Defense.

The month that Britain joined the war, Garth joined the Red Cross Civilian Defense and St. John's Ambulance Organization. Together with the other men living in the house, he became part of the Air Raid Precautions (ARP).

In her novel Life After Life, Kate Atkinson vividly describes life in London during the Blitz and in particular the devastating scenes that civilian volunteers encountered. The incomprehensible became part of the everyday. Reading the novel gave me a glimpse into what it must have been like.

Garth remembered helping a woman deliver her baby in a soggy garden dug-out. But he also later wrote, "...one's whole life is destroyed. Pieces of people, burnt people, boiled people, crushed people. People with long slivers of glass in them, invisible in the out flowing blood. We looked for missing limbs, heads..."

 Garth Williams in ARP uniform, carrying sculptures

Garth and fellow artist and ARP volunteer Ralph Roberts with some of their sculptures.

In late 1940 my grandmother evacuated to Canada with my 1-year-old mother.

They were on the last British-sponsored ship to Canada. One of the boats in their convoy was torpedoed during the crossing. 

Gunda, it turned out, was pregnant with my aunt Bettina. Had the authorities known, they would never have allowed her to take the trip.

My grandparents' marriage didn't survive their wartime separation. Gunda remained in Canada for the rest of her life. She remarried and had two sons, my uncles Ian and Renny. (Her story deserves its own blog post.)

In 1941, Garth returned to New York.

For the first years after returning to the United Stated he found what work he could, including taking commercial photographs and working as a lens-grinder in a war plant, meanwhile doing all he could to show and sell his artwork. 

He did some illustrating, including little sketches for the New Yorker and the New York Times, and he was eventually hired to illustrate several children's books.

In 1945 he submitted three sketches of a mouse to Harper's editor Ursula Nordstrom and was chosen to illustrate Stuart Little, the upcoming book by E. B. White. My mother remembers spending that summer with him in his apartment on 14th Street and watching him sketch the real mouse that visited them. 

The book was a huge success and cemented his career as a children's book illustrator. 

More next month...

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