But that doesn’t diminish my admiration for writers and artists who specialize in things.
One of the best was Edwin Tunis.
He was born in 1897. His father’s work took his family from town to town. Edwin studied art, became a World War One pilot, held design & art jobs, lost design & art jobs, and chased work as a freelancer.
“As a commercial artist I lacked the ‘snappy’ style beloved of advertising agents, but I could draw furniture, architecture, and historical stuff, so I made out well enough.” he said.
He designed a Maryland commemorative stamp, and painted historical murals. The Depression hit him hard and he took a momentary career detour as a radio announcer. World War Two arrived and he found himself working for the Black and Decker Company.
In 1943, the McCormick Company commissioned Tunis to paint a “History of Spices” mural in its Baltimore harbor office. It was 145’ long and took him two and a half years to finish. While researching the subject, he discovered “there was no one book which recounted the whole basic story of the development of ships in a simple way that might interest young people.”
“An outline, a dummy, some pages of text, and one finished illustration went to a literary agent who sold Oars, Sail and Steam within a week, he said”
It was published in 1952, launching fifty-five-year-old Edwin Tunis on a brand new career.
Other books followed: Weapons, 1954; Wheels, 1955; Colonial Living 1957; Indians, 1959; Frontier Living, (a Newberry Medal Honors winner), 1961; Colonial Craftsmen, 1965; Shaw’s Fortune, 1966; The Young United States, ( runner-up for the National Book Award), 1969; Chipmunks on the Doorstep, 1971; The Tavern at the Ferry, (an A.L.A. Notable Book), 1973.
Tunis believed that “illustrations should be as pleasing as the illustrator's abilities permit, but their prime purpose…is clear explanation. They must try…to put the object itself on the page.”
Chairs, chests, tilt-top table, gate-leg tables, sailor’s knots, samp mortars, stirrup stockings, sugar cutters, mill gears, wagon wheels, pugmills, saw mills, querns, hetchels, hats, horses, horns, pewter mugs, and pocket-hoop farthingales.
Do you want to learn how to scutch flax? Play huzzlecap? Pack a hogshead? Tunis shows you.
All are remarkably drawn with painstaking accuracy, yet with a buoyancy and immediacy that gives the images a singular liveliness.
I’m especially fond of Tunis’s elaborate scenes that combine landscape, houses, wagons, people… and horses. I’m jealous of his horses. Whenever I sketch horses, they have an odd anatomy of misplaced, jutting bones and it takes me forever to correct. (Don’t ask me about cows. They’re impossible. I’m convinced cows were designed in a rush on a late Friday before a long, holiday weekend.)
Tunis died in 1973. In time, his fabulous books fell from print.
But sometimes a bit of serendipitous good luck prevails, this time in the shape of Johns Hopkins University Press.
“Edward Tunis’s work has been known to me for years, owing to his Pratt Library (Baltimore) map of Maryland,” History Editor Bob Brugger said. “ We (at JHU Press) realized that rights to his books on early America were available and reprinted the major ones. ”
Good for them!
And great for us.
There is much to admire about Tunis: His extraordinary artistic skill, and his dedication to accuracy, to be sure. But his dogged pursuit of a life in the arts, one that didn’t find success until late in life is also inspirational, at least to this battered ex-freelancer who didn’t come to children’s books until he was over forty.
But life, being what it is, delivers a piquant end to the Tunis story.
In 1989, The McCormick Building was demolished. With it went Tunis’s Spice mural. And just like in the Joni Mitchell song, in its place they put up a parking lot.