The Book Illustrations of Wharton Esherick

By Henry Wessells

With A Checklist of Books Illustrated by Wharton Esherick
 
 

Wharton Esherick, recognized as a key link between the pre-1916 Arts and Crafts Movement and the renewed interest in the crafts following the Second World War, is most widely known for his sculptures and non-traditional furniture designs from the late 1920s and 1930s onward. In his long and varied career, Esherick (1887-1970) joined the traditions of the decorative arts with those of the fine arts. He was also a noted printmaker and book illustrator whose work was published in popular magazines and in elegant limited editions and remains sought after by collectors to this day.
     Curiously enough, Esherick's woodcut work, produced almost entirely between 1922 and 1936, occurred in a period of great artistic transition for him, when he sought a medium in which he could evolve his own characteristic style. Formally trained in oil and watercolor painting, Esherick soon abandoned painting as he developed an identifiable style in his woodcuts. He also began to carve simple, woodcut-like designs on antique furniture, to experiment more freely and less academically with sculpture, and to design furniture to be ornamented with carvings. By the early 1930s, Esherick began receiving important design commissions and had a rising reputation. His Pennsylvania Hill House interior was exhibited at the New York World's Fair in 1940, and major exhibitions of his furniture and sculpture followed during the next decades. Esherick's studio, a building of his own design that evolved over a 40-year period, incorporates countless marks of its owner's personality; a larger woodworking shop, constructed in 1956 from plans by architect Louis I. Kahn, bears many of Esherick's distinctive design signatures.
     Wharton Harris Esherick was born on July 15, 1887, in Philadelphia. He was one of seven children. His family resided on Locust Street, in an area now occupied by the University of Pennsylvania, and possessed independent means. From an early age, Esherick was interested in drawing, and soon determined to become an artist, despite the fact that his parents discouraged him.  He attended the Manual Training High School where he took courses in woodworking and metalsmithing and graduated in 1906. Esherick studied painting at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts), and earned a scholarship to a two-year program at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He studied under William Merritt Chase, Thomas Anschutz and Cecilia Beaux, and produced technically proficient work, yet became disenchanted and left before completion of his studies.
     Esherick worked briefly as an illustrator for Philadelphia newspapers and as then resident commercial artist for the Victor Talking Machine company. In 1912, when he lost his job, Esherick and his wife Letty moved out of the city to a farmhouse in Paoli, Pennsylvania, where he concentrated on painting. Yet before long, Esherick found himself dissatisfied with the work he produced using the academic