Thursday, July 7, 2011

A master watercolorist rediscovers Wonderland

1907 was a HUGE year for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

Originally published in 1865, Carroll's copyright was up in 1907. (copyright at that time was not the near-century of protection it can be today) The popularity of the tale meant nearly every major publisher in Britain, and many in the US, had a new illustrated edition in the works. The most anticipated one at the time, was that of Arthur Rackham. Rackham's success in the gift-book market was already solid, and it remained to see how his Alice would hold up against the ingrained images of Alice's first artist, Sir John Tenniel.
After the flurry of 1907 releases hit the markets, one notable edition arrived a year later. (Probably due to the magnitude of the task) In 1908, an edition published by Thomas Nelson and Sons (London, Edinburgh, Dublin and New York) was released, with 92 full color illustrations by Harry Rountree (1878-1950). 92 color pieces. Rountree was an incredibly deft watercolorist. Unlike Rackham, Edmund Dulac or many others of the day, Rountree did not always rely on a solid line for his watercolor to fill (or did so rarely)—his style was different—His paintings often take true advantage of the watercolor as a medium, and display a sense of light that few other illustrators before him had captured. He also had the ability to present more realistic settings, without losing any of the charm that his characters portrayed . I am still in awe of the fact that this was in fact, a full-color print run, in 1908.
There are a few reasons why more of us are not familiar with this brilliant edition. The full-color run made it an expensive purchase in 1908. With a half a dozen editions out the previous year, most households that would be interested already held a new copy of Alice, and many of those would not be interested in a second one. The added delay of the full-color production would prove a costly one. Later printings featured some of the art, but rarely all of it—and Rountree would do two other editions of Alice in his career, but neither would contain this amount of color.
The edition today is prized among Alice collectors, and it did elevate Rountree's status in the market even further, putting his future on very solid ground. Rountree's animal work was to be the mainstay of his career in illustration. He was active in both books and magazines. Born in New Zealand, he came to London in 1901, and after an initial struggle, became part of the wave of success that period publishing brought illustrators of the day.

When considering which edition of Alice to bring to the Calla imprint, The Rountree Edition—due to its rarity, the brilliant full-color images, and the sheer depth of them—made me a strong backer for its joining the list. The Calla Edition is scheduled for a September release.

The Story of Wicked Tim
digital version of a 1914(ish) Rountree book

And some Rountree work currently available through the Chris Beetles gallery, in London.

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