Monday, March 17, 2008

In Praise of Edwin Tunis

I’ve written a book in which a biplane played a major part of the story. In another, it was an old time car. But you’d never be able to recreate the airplane from one of my drawing, nor build a car using my image of the auto. That’s okay. Biography is my interest, not machinery. The images did their job: to advance the story about a person.

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.


Monica Edinger said...

I love Tunis's books. I do a big unit with my fourth graders on the Pilgrims and often go to our wonderful school library (happily full of out of print books) for Colonial Living or Colonial Craftmen to help a student understand how something of that period worked. (I do love things, I must admit.) As you have noted, the illustrations are superb. I hadn't realized they were out of print and so am glad to know that they are being brought back.

Unknown said...

What a good post! I want to read Tunis’s books! Also, I felt the sadness of the destruction of the mural.

Becky said...

My kids, especially my sons (ages seven and eight-and-a-half), have a special fondness for Edwin Tunis -- and also Eric Sloane. Probably because they have a fine appreciation for things. Which I think isn't unusual for boys, especially young ones, but which gets overlooked as subjects for books, especially nonfiction ones.

They've adopted "Frontier Living" as a sort of instruction manual, not really as it was intended but definitely great fun and I'd like to think Mr. Tunis would have approved.

I hope the new editions mean more children, and adults, come to know and enjoy his work and all of its detail; though I'm partial to the old hardcover editions. Many thanks for a fine appreciation!

Becky at Farm School

Wendie O said...

I live near Baltimore City and have seen the wonderful mural at the (now long gone) McCormick Building.

A parking lot? Nothing so mundane. A beautiful hotel was built on that site, with an adjoining high rise parking lot that serves both the hotel and visitors to Harbor Place. (The hotel's pool is on top of that parking lot with a beautiful view of the harbor area.)

And people who miss the smell of spices being ground at Harbor Place in downtown Baltimore City now get the same scent wafting in the air in the Cockeysville/ Hunt Valley area north of town. Cockeysville was, by the way, the home town of Edwin Tunis.

-wendieO (another fan of Tunis's books)

Libby and Ed's neice Susan said...

What I write is just an extremely small portion of a personal glimpse of growing up with and loving my dear Uncle Ed. It has been very interesting for me to read the comments. I came across "I.N.K." tonight when a friend from Colorado posted links to my Uncle Ed Tunis' information. Oh my, what a delightful man he was! His wife Lib (Elizabeth Hutton) was my Dad's sister. They didn't have children and "adopted" we four Hutton kids. We celebrated holidays either at their home "far from civilization" on Falls Road, or at our home in Catonsville. Each Christmas Eve, after we had all sat down, Ed would walk slowly around our large dining room table and place a sparkling new silver dollar at our places. You could have heard a pin drop! Such happy memories there are of two of my favorite people. Both taught me so much. As a budding artist, I sat in awe watching Ed at his drafting table, and felt so proud of him as he showed us all his latest work. I was tickled when he let me look at his brushes, pencils, and ink pens. He gave me special pointers in drawing which I remember to this day. Lib's unique talent with oil painting was passed on as well. We were all given his books over the years, and now we've given our own children their Great Uncle Edwin Tunis' books and knowledge of his mark in history. As they've grown, our children have heard many stories and memories that Lib and Ed, and my parents, Joel and Vera passed along to us.

They lived a simple life in a very modest home out in the country. Having lived in the City, they moved to the home he designed, "Long Last", in 1938. Each Christmas, Ed gave his Lib a large watercolor painting. Each one a gem.

When my husband and I built our house here in Easton, Maryland, Lib and Ed's mantle was built into the brick fireplace in our living room. Where he had drawn the Colonial style lettering on the front piece were etched out the two words and the date: Long Last 1938. The man who purchased the house and property from the estate (sadly) tore down the house and took down many of the trees where the house nestled. Before this was done, I requested that the mantle be saved for me. He used the knotty pine which lined the house's walls in his new family room. Where there was once groundcover, lilies of the valley, and a small brick patio for tea or brunch, remained a pristine lawn. I don't feel bitterness that a new family lives there, or even that they made it their own. I do feel remorse though that I returned. Lib and Ed's homestead is no more, but the many memories those who knew and admired them both have will go on. As his books have given us pleasure, we are so very pleased that his work is remembered and that libraries, classrooms and homes are acquiring them again.

Yes, BRAVO to Johns Hopkins University Press for bringing Edwin Tunis' work back to light. Back to enlighten young and old. Funny, I never thought of them as "children's books". They were so much more! So special to this neice, and it's wonderful to see and hear, special to others as well. A well respected man, and his dear wife, will never be forgotten. Our living room fireplace is used through the colder months, just as they did at Long Last. Since it was finished in the fall of 1998, our homestead is "At Long Last."

Please note that the McCormick Company stored the painted mural until their new headquarters were being built in Sparks, Maryland. We Huttons were invited to attend a reception there and were so very delighted to see sections of the mural throughout part of the building. The Tea Room that Ed designed for McCormick (downtown), was carefully dismantled before the demolition, and rebuilt in the Sparks headquarters. It was originally used for salesmen to relax while they waited for appointments.

Libby and Ed's neice Susan said...

You may still see Edwin Tunis' "Historical and Literary Map of Maryland" commissioned by The Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, Maryland (1932).

There are at least five in our family! We've also seen them in Restaurants, and heard of other "sightings". What a treasure it is.

Ed also did other maps for sponsors. One we have here in our living room is of the Eastern Shore of Maryland (where we are!). There's one of Gibson Island, and a humorous map of Maryland for National Bo(hemian).

Good grief, there's so much more! He was an incredible artist. Prior to writing his own, Ed illustrated books of other authors with his magnificent paintings. My Aunt Lib gave me a proof copy of one of these illustrations that is truly treasured. It is exquisite.

Libby and Ed's neice Susan said...

"You may still see Edwin Tunis' "Historical and Literary Map of Maryland" commissioned by The Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, Maryland 1931" (not 1932 as previously noted).

On the face of the map reads:

“An Historical and Literary Map of the OLD LINE STATE of

Showing Forth Divers Curious and Notable Facts Relating to Scenes, Incidents and Persons Worthy to be Recalled on the State’s
Designed and drawn by Edwin Tunis”

I could go on and on, but I must get up out of this chair for a bit. Later today, I'll do work on my own non-fiction!

Pass the word about Edwin Tunis' work. There are so many people who would certainly enjoy. They are wonderful gifts for young and old. Contact the local school libraries, and public libraries as well. I've done this, and they are extremely grateful.

So glad I was given the link about this special person in my life. Thank you.

Susan Hutton Tawney
At Long Last
October 10, 2009