Howard Pyle

Howard Pyle’s highly romanticized novel  'The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood’ has rarely been out of print since its publication by Scribner’s in 1883. His version of Robin Hood and his men’s mystic life has long influenced American writers and illustrators and continues to influence modern film producers to this day.

I have always had an interest in book illustration and I adore his art work. He quite literally breathes life into the legend in a way that was never done before. Writing his own text based on the chapbooks and garlands and combining strength of line and decorative detail, Pyle created 23 unforgettably beautiful sets of full-page illustrations in the tradition of William Morris.

The language he uses is ‘quasi-medieval’ and he honestly admits that this adventure in ‘the land of fancy’ is ‘bound by nothing but a few odd strands of certain old ballads (snipped and clipped and tied together in a score of knots).’ He created a marvelous simplistic medieval world that would herald the massive transition of the Robin Hood legend into children’s books and comics.’ The timing of the publication of Pyles’s ‘Adventures of Robin Hood’ coincided with the gradual acceptance of English literature as a required subject by British education committees. School teachers and administrators began turning to the Robin Hood tales as a means of providing students with an easy-to-understand positive overview of their English heritage.

His text included all the elements that are now considered essential to the legend, including Robin’s fight over a river with Little John, the archery contest for the Golden Arrow, the lavish feast in Sherwood Forest, the killing of Guy of Gisborne, Friar Tuck carrying Robin across a stream and King Richard being waylaid by the outlaws and their eventual pardon.

Pyle’s ‘Adventures of Robin Hood’ was specifically designed for American boys. His re-telling of the ancient legend depicts a hero’s life without rules, where ‘boys’ could roam the hills, explore the forest and feast in the fun of the outdoor life that he had experienced or dreamed of as a child. His interpretation of the legend is uniquely his own and is no doubt influenced by listening to the works of Scott and Ritson. The dialogue he uses is peppered with ‘thees’ and ‘thous,’ terms more American Quaker than Nottinghamshire-British. Pyle never visited England.

                                          Howard Pyle with his daughter

Born in 1853, Howard Pyle grew up in a Quaker home near Wilmington, Delaware, in a house full of books where his mother often read to him and there were fields and woods to roam. He later said that his mother brightened his childhood with "an illuminating joyfulness in beautiful things." She read aloud to her children and introduced them to the Grimm fairy tales, stories from the Arabian Nights, Slovenly Peter, A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales, Robinson Crusoe, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Ritson's collection of ballads about Robin Hood. He spent hours reading illustrated novels by Dickens, Thackeray, Bunyan, and Defoe and enjoying the illustrations by Thomas Bewick, Felix Octavius Darley, and John Tenniel in Punch. His mother also exposed him to important British artists and illustrators of the 1860's including: Arthur Boyd Houghton, Charles Keene, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Holman Hunt, and Edward Burne-Jones.
Pyle attended the Friends' School and later a school conducted by Thomas Clarkson Taylor. But, as Pyle himself later recalled, "He spent his time largely in scrawling drawings on his slate and in his books." So realizing their son's lack of interest in studying, the Pyle's gave up their idea of sending Howard to college and instead his mother encouraged him to study art. At the age of sixteen he was commuting daily to study in Philadelphia under the Belgian artist Van der Weilen. During the next five years Pyle set up a studio at his parents’ home in Wilmington and, he continued to draw and experiment with writing in his spare time.
In February 1877 he received his first letter of acceptance and a check for his set of verses and illustrations about a magic pill. This was followed by his fairy tale for children in the renowned children’s magazine ‘St Nicholas’. This inspired him to write an article and eleven drawings for Scribner's Monthly in April 1877 which was also accepted.
At the age of 25, Pyle’s work became noticed and he continued to grow in the esteem of his peers. Whilst in New York he gradually became an established illustrator for Harper’s and soon his work was in great demand. Realizing he had learned as much as he could he returned to Wilmington, Delaware.
By 1880 Pyle had became engaged to Anne Poole and in April of 1881 they were married. They later had seven children, Sellers (1882), Phoebe (1886), Theodore (1889), Howard (1891), Eleanor (1894), Godfrey (1895) and Wilfred (1897). His work remained in constant demand as an illustrator, both for books and articles by others and for his own illustrated articles.

When Pyle began writing his Robin Hood at the age of 30, he asked his mother to send him the original copies he had owned as a child. He began researching his novel whilst visiting a public library in New York and no doubt it was whilst there that he read of Washington Irving’s descriptions of his ‘ramblings’ through Sherwood Forest. But the Sherwood Forest in Pyle’s imagination, created for American boys, is a combination of the countryside he had played in around Delaware and the mythical land he had heard about in the stories of his childhood.
Using the techniques and styles he admired in early book production and medieval manuscripts, Pyle produced beautiful decorative head and tail pieces as well as full page illustrations that guided the reader and created the mood of the story. It would later be described and praised by critics as ‘total design.’ Dobson and Taylor, authors of the celebrated ‘Rymes of Robyn Hood’ (1997) stated that ‘Robin Hood’s conquest of late nineteenth-century America ‘reached its climax’ with Pyle’ superbly illustrated work.

His highly praised and distinctive pen and ink art work was also used on Pepper & Salt, The Wonder Clock, Otto of the Silver Hand (also written by Pyle), and The Garden behind the Moon. He cemented his reputation with the four volume Arthurian legends which included The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, The Story of the Champions of the Round Table, The Story of Lancelot and His Companions, and The Story of the Grail and the Passing of Arthur. His medieval story Men of Iron was made into a Hollywood movie in 1954 and re-named The Black Shield of Falworth. And it is from his fabulous illustrations for the Book of Pirates that our present-day concept of pirates has come.

At the time when it was customary and fashionable to study in Europe, Pyle had a strong conviction that students should seek their training and inspiration in America. In 1894 he began teaching illustration at the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry (now Drexel University), and after 1900 he founded his own school of art and illustration called the Howard Pyle School of Illustration Art. He was always determined to teach beyond the formal institutional walls of a place like Drexel, so in the summer months between 1898 and 1903 he took his students to a mill nearby at Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania on the Brandywine River. These selected artists became known as the ‘Brandywine School.’

On Pyle’s fiftieth birthday one of his students (and later also a famous illustrator of Robin Hood) N. C Wyeth wrote to his mother of the celebrations in Pyle’s honor:

‘Our plan was … to represent, to the extent of our numbers, the characters originated and pictured by Mr. Pyle during his illustrious career, such as Robin Hood characters ….Little John etc. There were about seventeen of us costumed out absolutely correct in detail and color and it so happened that each statue was utilized in such a way as to fit their characters absolutely ….. A red and gold curtain rose, displaying a gorgeous gold frame containing a striking resemblance of Robin Hood. It completely fazed Mr. Pyle and amid enthusiastic applause from our small but mighty audience we were exhibited one by one, each taking some pose easily recognized by its ‘Maker’.’

As a teacher, Pyle attracted a large number of students, inspiring them as much by his idealism, as by the high standards he set for picture making. He incorporated the recording of emotions, the outdoor sketching, the lectures on historical backgrounds and costumes. His classes developed such later well known artists and illustrators as N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Olive Rush, Elenore Abbott, Jessie Willcox, Maxfield Parrish, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Gertrude A. Kay, Charlotte Harding (Brown) Harvey Dunn, Stanley Arthurs and Edward A. Wilson. Of his 110 students, significantly, 40 were women, in a time when few women were becoming professional artists.

He taught his students to look at new ways to tell a story. He wanted to move away from the ‘staginess’ of illustrations from previous generations and sought to dramatize and portray basic human emotions. His work made the reader an eye-witness to a vivid experience. No area of the picture was to be wasted and through the details, the viewer’s eye is purposefully led toward the focal center.

Pyle died from a kidney infection while he was studying mural painting in Florence, in Italy in November 1911. It was his second trip abroad. After his death, his students collected many of his original paintings as a nucleus for the present comprehensive collection of his work in the Deleware Art Museum. His legacy was to be the roster of brilliant talent that followed; the greatest testament to his teachings.
Elizabeth Nesbitt (Howard Pyle. London: The Bodley Head, 1966) described Pyle’s ‘Merry Adventures of Robin Hood’ as the ‘most beautiful example of his twin talents as author illustrator’. Its publication established him as one of America's foremost writers and illustrators for children.’

But for me, Howard Pyle brought the simplest and strongest of ‘Robins’ back into the publishing mainstream and created the iconic mould of the merry outlaw that would be used right up until the 21st century.


Clement of the Glen said...

Howard Pyle (1853-1911)

'The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood’ 1883.

Ladytink_534 said...

I'm not positive but I think his version was the first I ever read. I remember it being one of the first books to make me cry.

Avalon said...

I have his work. One of my faves! Authors just do not write like they used to.

Clement of the Glen said...

His artwork certainly inspired me to draw. There is so much detail and design in his pictures and quite literally they are a feast for the eye!

But we musn't forget how his version of the 'Robin Hood legend' inspired countless other books and later the silver screen.

S. Waters said...

I have the book, too, and I couldn't agree more about the beautiful illustrations! I did miss the Maid Marian\Robin Hood aspect, though... call me a romantic, lol ;)

WoodsyLadyM said...

Howard Pyle's version of Robin Hood still has to be my all time favorite. They really don't write them or illustrate them like they used to. I was not aware that N.C. Wyeth was his student, but he is also one of my favorite Robin Hood illustators. Thanks so much for this insightful post.