An early newspaper profile of Charley was titled “Charles Harper Shuns Garrets, Works 12 Hours a Day But He is a Real Painter,” 1 and by the mid-1950s Charley was indeed a very busy commercial artist. In addition to his continuing Ford Times work he was, among other things, doing ads for Lederle, illustrating maps for LOOK magazine, designing posters for Brazil Airlines, even painting private commissions. Edie recalled Charley being in the studio everyday from 7 am to midnight. When asked about his prolific early years Charley was typically modest: “I’m [just] proud that I've been able to support my family and survive being an artist.” 2
Charley’s earliest book illustrations were, perhaps not surprisingly, for Ford Times anthologies and compilations, such as the Ford Almanac, the Ford Treasury of Favorite Recipes and the Ford Treasury of the Outdoors.2 Here are a few of his covers:
After Charley’s 1951 painting of the Model T mural in the Ford Rotunda reception area and his illustrations for the Ford Times series “Horseless Carriage Adventures,” he clearly know how to draw an antique car, so the choice of him as illustrator for Philip Van Doren Stern’s Tin Lizzie was a perfect fit.4
Aside from the dust jacket and endpapers the rest of the book was done in spot-color. These one and two-color illustrations, which have been described as “lyrical,” were much looser and more informal than Charley’s previous work. They show a rather unique sense of humor, a completely novel sense of movement, and stand as a wonderfully unique interpretation of the subject.
Van Doren Stern – ever the historian – extensively illustrated Tin Lizzie with materials from the Ford archives so Charley’s work, as novel as it was, seemed like an afterthought. This was not the case with his next book Betty Crocker’s Dinner for Two Cookbook.5 It was completely illustrated by Harper – 157 illustrations over 207 pages (yeah, I counted them). The style and tone of his spot-color work was used here to even greater effect, and the result was nothing less than absolutely pitch-perfect: an early Harper masterpiece.
As wonderful as Charley’s Tin Lizzie and Dinner for Two illustrations were, however, they were just a prelude to his next book commission.
A Charley Harper Retrospective
1. “An Artist’s Life: Charles Harper Shuns Garrets, Works 12 Hours a Day But He is a Real Painter.” Cincinnati Post.7 Aug 1954.
2. Quoted from: Hillenmeyer, Kathleen. “Wildlife Artist Just Happy Doing What He Does Best (Charley Harper Has Devoted Fans),” Cincinnati Enquirer. 11 Dec 1994.
3. Strohm, John (ed). Ford Almanac. New York: Golden Press. The Almanac – a collection of farm, ranch and garden articles – was published yearly until at least 1981. Charley illustrated the 1957, 1963, 1964 and 1965 covers.
Kennedy, W. D. (ed). Ford Treasury of the Outdoors. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952. The book included reprints of various Ford Times hunting and fishing articles. Charley did the title page and his illustrations for “Eight Familiar Fish” are scattered throughout the text. The entire book is available online at the Internet Archive.
Kennedy, Nancy (ed). Ford Treasury of Favorite Recipes From Famous Eating Places. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950. This book – a collection of recipes from Ford Times – was published in several editions and volumes between 1950–1968, with various permutations of Harper covers and interior illustrations. You will need to work all of this out for yourself.
4. Stern, Philip Van Doren. Tin Lizzie: The Story of the Fabulous Model T Ford. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955. Stern, primarily a Civil War historian, is perhaps best known for his 4100-word 1943 short story, “The Greatest Gift,” which was the basis for Frances Goodrich’s screenplay for It’s A Wonderful Life (Capra, Frank, dir. Republic Pictures, 1946). Nearly 60 years later, Tin Lizzie is still a recommended introduction to the Model T.
5. Betty Crocker’s Dinner for Two Cook Book. New York: Golden Press, 1958. I cannot personally vouch for how good this cookbook was, although it was apparently good enough: New editions were published in 1964, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1982, 1984, and as Betty Crocker’s New Choices for Two in 1995 and 2002. N.B.: only the original 1958 edition was illustrated by Charley:
Unless otherwise noted all images are copyright © 2013 Estate of Charley Harper and are used here by permission.
21 Aug 2009, updated 30 Dec 2012 ‧ Illustration