“I never mapped out a collecting campaign,” writes Kendra Daniel in her essay “A Collector’s Perspective” in the catalogue to the Flights into Fantasy: The Kendra and Allen Daniel Collection of Children’s Illustration exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum. “I simply slipped into a fever and followed my instincts.” The Daniels collect original paintings and works of art from children’s books, concentrating on works involving fairies and fairyland, such as John Anster Fitzgerald’s Rabbit Among the Fairies (above). “As I have searched for and collected these paintings by illustrators,” Kendra Daniels continues, “I have had the feeling that I am gathering dreams.” In Flights into Fantasy, the Daniels Collection allows us to share in those dreams, enchanting us back to a life of the imagination too many of us surrender at childhood.
Most of the works come from the “golden age” of children’s illustration from 1880 to 1940. The preface to the catalogue sums up the goal of the collection nicely: “Without attempting to develop a historical survey, their collection nonetheless educates us about imagination and myriad ways it can find expression.” Although the collection itself coalesces thematically, Kendra Daniel’s essay and the essay by curator Virginia O’Hara provide valuable historical context for the collection, offering what amounts to a crash course on the evolution of children’s illustration. Daniel sees one source of children's illustration's golden age in the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose “aesthetic approach to design and detail became highly influential… in contrast to the caricature and exaggeration in the work of earlier illustrators.” In America, the Brandywine school of illustration founded by Howard Pyle and continued by students such as Jessie Willcox Smith and N.C. Wyeth offered a vision of childhood “more idealized than sentimentalized,” taking its cue from the still-fresh Victorian conception of childhood as a state separate and unique from adulthood. (I couldn’t help but think of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings of his sons Nicholas and Jamie as more modern examples of idealized rather than sentimentalized childhood, especially in the context of Pyle and N.C. Wyeth.)
Jean De Brunhoff (1899-1937), Babar, Céleste, la Vieille Dame, et Zéphir (1932), watercolor and ink on paper, illustration for Jean De Brunhoff, Le Voyage de Babar (Paris: Editions du Jardin des Modes, 1932), collection of Kendra and Allan Daniel.
In her essay, Virginia O’Hara traces back the origins of fantasy art and children’s illustration to the Romantic artists Henry Fuseli and William Blake. She also credits the Pre-Raphaelites and the Victorian age’s “full-blown fascination with the spirit world” for the emergence of a distinct children’s literature separate from that for adults, which only crosses the Atlantic in the late 1800s in the art of Howard Pyle. “Howard Pyle was among the first American illustrators to offer sophisticated images for folktales and legends in the children’s magazines,” O’Hara writes. “As a teacher he bequeathed his philosophy and approach to subsequent generations of illustrators.” O’Hara then works through a short, illuminating history of children’s illustration, peppered with familiar names (many in the collection) such as Beatrix Potter, Ernest Howard Shepard (the artist responsible for the “classic” Winnie the Pooh), Jean de Brunhoff (creator of Babar; shown above), and William Pene du Bois (creator of Otto, an orange forebear to Clifford the Big Red Dog) .
Kay Nielsen (1886-1957), This Good Fairy Placed her own Baby in the Cradle of Roses and Gave Command to the Zephyrs to Carry Him to the Tower (1912), ink and watercolor on paper, illustration for “Felicia,” in Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, In Powder and Crinoline, Old Fairy Tales (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1913), collection of Kendra and Allan Daniel.
Along the way, many unfamiliar names rise to the top, especially Kay Nielsen, whom the Daniels have given a prominent place in their collection. As shown in the example above of Nielson’s work, “his range and style based on a blend of Art Nouveau, Japanese art, Nordic folk art, and English artist Aubrey Beardsley” make Nielsen a stunning stylist that should put to rest any illusions that children’s illustration doesn’t belong in museums. Nielsen also brought his talents to the screen, working on the Disney film, Fantasia.
Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935), Alice in Wonderland (1923), oil, watercolor and charcoal on board, cover illustration for Nora Archibald Smith, Boys and Girls of Bookland (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1923), collection of Kendra and Allan Daniel.
The story of the Daniels’ collection is the story of their marriage. Kendra and Allan met while collecting and joined their collections when they joined their lives. In this “marriage of true minds,” Kendra asked for and received Jessie Willcox Smith’s Alice in Wonderland (above) in lieu of a wedding ring. Kendra perhaps puts it best when she writes, “It is not just about children. It is about childhood, the state of being that is symbolized by children where the mind wanders freely into a state of wonder.” Flights into Fantasy re-teaches us the uses of enchantment forgotten along the path to adulthood, restoring that state of mind that is childhood in all its endless possibility and allowing us once again to wander through magical realms and mingle with the fairies.
[Many thanks to the Brandywine River Museum for providing me with a review copy of this catalogue and the images from the exhbit.]