Monday, October 6, 2014

Victory Garden: Garth Williams Proposed New Yorker Cover Art

"At least one out of three families in the greater city is in a position to start a Victory garden and seems to be doing it, Mr. Sehlmeyer said."
Eugene Kinkead and Harold Ross
"Seeds of Victory," The Talk of the Town
The New Yorker, March 20, 1943, page 15

Victory gardens were a home front innovation in both the World Wars. A variety of fruits and vegetables were planted in residences and parks to increase the food supply and support the war effort. A rooftop Victory garden in midtown Manhattan is the spectacular setting for a 1943 proposed New Yorker cover by illustrator Garth Williams. This tiny plot of prime real estate with a stunning view to the north towards Central Park is improbably being used to reap sheaves of wheat. The original artwork from the artist's estate is being sold this month at Heritage Auctions. The lot listing states "unknown if published." Unknown?

The talented Garth Williams was never published on the cover of the New Yorker. He did illustrate many children's books in the postwar period, including E. B. White's Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web. It is interesting to speculate whether he met White during this time when he was publishing a few drawings in the magazine and trying to get his artwork onto the cover.

The New Yorker did publish at least six covers related to Victory gardens during the Second World War. Each of these covers is a comment on the upper classes who do not need to garden in order to eat, but who are happy to be engaged in doing something for the war effort. One cover shows a private citizen farming eggs in his yard, but it's the same basic gardening idea. The social perspective of the published covers are not that dissimilar from Garth Williams's cover proposal, but the Williams cover remains more fanciful because of the dizzying altitude and the preposterous choice of wheat as a rooftop crop.

Garth Williams, proposed New Yorker cover, 1943

Garth Williams's signature, 1943

Garth Williams, proposed New Yorker cover, 1943

As it happened, the New Yorker relied on three of its standard-bearing cover artists to depict wartime Victory gardens. They were Helen E. Hokinson, Perry Barlow, and Constantin Alajálov. First let's take a look at an earlier cover by Perry Barlow from the spring of 1941, months before America entered the war. This is a humorous take on the ritual of gardening with a valet assisting in the donning of knee pads. Here gardening is little more than an idle hobby of the well-to-do landowner with no greater social purpose envisioned.
Perry Barlow, The New Yorker, April 26, 1941

America entered the Second World War after Pearl Harbor, and by the spring of 1942 the Victory garden suddenly had become a real national priority. Now Helen E. Hokinson's matron is not afraid to get her knees dirty, and the plantings are abruptly changing from purely decorative flowers to vegetables which will help sustain the home front while food is being sent to soldiers stationed overseas. The gardener who has dug up the flower beds is bewildered.
Helen E. Hokinson, The New Yorker, May 16, 1942

In the summer of 1942, Helen Hokinson's well-turned-out scarecrow may be comical in appearance, but the national sense of sacrifice at the time is very palpable.
Helen E. Hokinson, The New Yorker, June 27, 1942

It's the spring of 1943 and Perry Barlow's patriotic homeowner finds himself running short of patience with the hens.
Perry Barlow, The New Yorker, May 29, 1943
Constantin Alajálov's cover from August of 1943 shows how the summer social scene has moved from the pool to the Victory garden just a few yards over. Fashionable bathing suits have been replaced with fashionable overalls.
Constantin Alajálov, The New Yorker, August 28, 1943
In the spring of 1944, Perry Barlow's determined couple can be seen doing their part for the war effort. By now, they seem to be old hands at this.
Perry Barlow, The New Yorker, May 13, 1944
At harvest time, Helen Hokinson reminds us that crops must be consumed when they're ripe. Waste not, want not.
Helen E. Hokinson, The New Yorker, September 16, 1944

So while Garth Williams drew a splendid midtown panorama, the above published examples give an idea of what the New Yorker's editors were really looking for. One glance at each cover and you know quite a bit about the personalities and motivations of the people who are depicted. Williams's cover drawing has an admirable technical bravura and it's a charming cityscape, but we don't know nearly enough about that couple doing the harvesting. They are industrious to be sure and the phonograph is an endearing touch, but their personalities are indecipherable in comparison with the serious couple in Perry Barlow's 1944 cover. Once America entered the War, gardening was no longer a frivolous pastime. The New Yorker's editors wanted to showcase not so much the Victory gardens as the people who were devoted to them and to their country.
Garth Williams, proposed New Yorker cover, 1943

October 19, 2014 Update: Sold!
Heritage Auctions, October 17, 2014

Note:  Many rejected New Yorker covers are fascinating. See examples of what didn't make it onto the cover of the magazine.

I haven't really given Garth Williams his due here, but I do have a few posts featuring his book artwork.

I have had more to say here about Constantin Alajálov than about perhaps any other artist, yet his work still keeps coming up here.

While you're at it, why not read more about Perry Barlow?

And let's not forget Helen E. Hokinson!  She's here on the blog as well, and usually in very good company.


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