The Sunday Section: Art - Howard Pyle

My first experience of Howard Pyle was not as an artist but as an author when I bought a copy of ‘The Story of King Arthur and His Knights’ during our home-ed years. 

I’ve always been interested in the stories of King Arthur, and that interest rubbed off on the boys.  So I bought this to read to them, not realising that it wasn’t written in modern English.  Here’s a taster, when Merlin tells Uther-Pendragon of the prophecy after Arthur is born:

Lord, it is given unto me to foresee that thou shalt shortly fall sick of a fever and that thou shalt maybe die of a violent sweat that will follow thereon.  Now, should such a dolorous thing befall us all, this young child (who is, certes, the hope of all this realm) will be in very great danger of his life; for many enemies will assuredly rise up with design to seize upon him for the sake of his inheritance, and either he will be slain or else he will be held in captivity from which he shall hardly hope to escape.  Wherefore, I do beseech thee, Lord, that thou wilt permit Sir Ulfius and myself to presently convey the child away unto some place of safe refuge, where he may be hidden in secret until he groweth to manhood and is able to guard himself from such dangers as may threaten him.

That passage was on the second page, and I started to worry, not only that the boys might find the language difficult to understand, but that I would struggle to read it confidently!  As it turned out, they had no problem with it, saying it made the stories more interesting.  They were patient with me whenever I stumbled over some of the text.  Though I wish I’d managed to get a version with Pyle’s illustrations.

Orginally published in 1903

'A Knight'

'Sir Kay breaketh his sword'

Born in March 1853 in Wilmington, Delaware, Howard Pyle would grow to become not only one of America’s foremost illustrators, but a well-known author of books, mainly for young children.

At school he was interested in drawing and writing, and his mother encouraged him to study art.  Even then, his entire art training consisted of only 3 years at the studio of FA Van de Weilen in Philadelphia, and a few lessons at the Art Students League of New York.  After submitting an article about the island of Chincoteague to ‘ Scribner’s Monthly’, which he’d written and illustrated, one of the magazine’s owners persuaded him to move to New York to be a professional illustrator.

To begin with, he struggled in New York because of his lack of professional experience, but he was encouraged by other working artists, including Edwin Austin Abbey, known for his famous set of murals, ‘The Quest of the Holy Grail’. 

In March 1878, Howard Pyle finally published a double-page spread in ‘Harper’s Weekly’, after which his success grew.  He returned to Wilmington in 1880, an established artist.

'The Landing of the Pilgrims' (1882)

'The Awakening of Brunhild' (1882) - from 'The Story of Siegfried' by James Baldwin

In April 1881, he married the singer, Anne Poole, with whom he would have 7 children.

Anne Poole Pyle and children at Rehoboth Beach (1890) -  taken by Howard Pyle

Apart from collaborating on American history books, Pyle also wrote and illustrated his own stories, the first being ‘ The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1883).  The book won international acclaim.  Pyle took many of the Robin Hood legends and ballads, and integrated them into a unified story; he also toned them down to make them suitable for children.  For example, in the ballad, ‘ Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham’, Robin killed 14 foresters for not honouring a bet; in Pyle’s version, Robin defends himself against a band of armed robbers, and kills 1 man in self-defence.  Also, by including ‘ The Adventure with the Curtal Friar’ in the narrative, he reintroduced Friar Tuck, one of several characters who was developed beyond a single mention in one ballad or tale.

Robin Hood

Tragedy struck the family in 1889, while Pyle and Anne were in Jamaica.  Their children had been left in the care of relatives; sadly, one of their sons died unexpectedly.

From 1894 to 1900, Pyle taught illustration at the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry (now Drexel University).  In 1900, he founded his own school of art, named the Howard Pyle School of Illustration Art.  His students, who would go on to find fame themselves, included NC Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Elenore Abbot, Jessie Wilcox Smith and Allen Tupper True.  The studio and Pyle’s home in Wilmington are still standing today.

With mural painting being a popular form of public art, Pyle painted ‘ The Battle of Nashville’, which hangs in the Minnesota State Capitol, and murals for courthouses in New Jersey.

'The Battle of Nashville' (1906)

Howard Pyle working on 'The Battle of Nashville'

In 1910, despite suffering poor health, Pyle travelled to Italy with his family to study the old masters.  After barely one year, he died in Florence in November 1911 of a sudden kidney infection; he was 58.

Howard Pyle is credited with creating the flamboyantly-dressed pirate that we are now used to seeing.  With few actual examples or drawings of authentic pirate dress to draw from, Pyle came up with his own idea, creating a style that incorporated elements of gypsy dress.  

'The Buccaneer was a Picturesque Fellow' (1905)

Widely respected during his life, he is still held in high regard today.  In a letter to his brother, Theo, Vincent van Gogh, wrote that Pyle’s work “… struck me dumb with admiration”.

'Walking the Plank' (1887)

'Deianeira and the dying centaur Nesses' (sketch 1888)

'In The Wood Carver's Shop' (1895)

'Malvern Hill' (1896)

'Peractum Est' (1897)

'The Attack Upon the Chew House' (1898)

'The Battle of Bunker's Hill' (1898)

'Taking Over A City'

'Dead Men Tell No Tales' (1899)

'Guarded By Rough English Soldiers' (1904) - Joan of Arc

'Attack On The Galleon' (1905)

'Mellicent Stood Motionless ...' (1905) - from 'Mellicent'

'Why Seek Ye The Living' (1905)

'The Mermaid' (1910)