Wednesday, January 15, 2014

James Thurber Illustrates Poetry

by Stephen J. Gertz

The four original illustrations by celebrated American humorist, cartoonist, author, and journalist, James Thurber (1894-1961) to accompany Charles Kingsley's poem The Sands o' Dee, as published in The New Yorker magazine March 25, 1939, have come to auction. Offered by Swann Galleries in its 20th Century Illustration sale January 23, 2014, they are estimated to fall under the hammer at $4,000-$6,000.

Executed in ink on paper, the artwork and poem appeared as part of The New Yorker's popular Thurber feature, Famous Poems Illustrated. Each drawing appeared above one of the four six-line stanzas:

 O Mary, go and call the cattle home,
          And call the cattle home,
          And call the cattle home,
      Across the sands of Dee."
    The western wind was wild and dank with foam
      And all alone went she.

 The western tide crept up along the sand,
          And o'er and o'er the sand,
          And round and round the sand,
      As far as eye could see.
    The rolling mist came down and hid the land;
      And never home came she.

Oh! is it weed, or fish, or floating hair,--
          A tress of golden hair,
          A drown├Ęd maiden's hair,
      Above the nets at sea?
    Was never salmon yet that shone so fair
      Among the stakes on Dee.

They rowed her in across the rolling foam,
          The cruel crawling foam,
          The cruel hungry foam,
      To her grave beside the sea.
    But still the boatmen hear her call the cattle home
      Across the sands of Dee.

Each original illustration is 279 x 216 mm (11x8 1/2 or smaller). Thurber's signature appears at lower left on the final drawing. Three of the illustrations possess faint preliminary drawings on their versos.

Thurber illustrated nine poems for The New Yorker, the others being  Excelsior (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow); Lochinvar (Sir Walter Scott); Locksley Hall (Lord Alfred Tennyson); Oh When I Was ... (A. E. Housman); Curfew Must Not Ring To-Night (Rose Hartwick Thorpe); Barbara Frietchie (John Greenleaf Whittier); The Glove and the Lions (Leigh Hunt); and Ben Bolt (Thomas Dunn English). They were collected in Thurber's 1940 anthology, Fables For Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated.

Established in 1997, the annual Thurber Prize honors outstanding examples of American humor.

With an affectionate tip o' the hat to Thurber keeper of the flame, fanatic and collector, Jay Hoster, who knows more about the man and his books than anyone alive.

Images courtesy of Swann Galleries, with our thanks.

Sands o' Dee reprinted via WikiSource under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.

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