I came across Franklin Booth, like most great sources of inspiration, via Pinterest. I was wandering down a virtual rabbit hole of pen and ink artists, when I suddenly saw an image that felt like an old friend. My immediate thought - can I pretend this is my work? (Forgive me please.) It was like seeing yourself, magnified, made smoother, more sophisticated, perfected... (a bit like in Harry Potter when Harry and Hermione appear out of the horcrux). Unfortunately, it turns out it was the work of Franklin Booth, an eminent artist from the early 20th Century, who would quickly become my new obsession.
Franklin Booth was an American illustrator, born in 1874 at the beginning of ‘the Golden Age of Illustration’. Booth worked prolifically throughout the first part of the 20th Century, featuring in hundreds of magazines, newspapers, books and advertisements. He worked for a huge range of clients, covering an equally varied number of themes: from landscapes to portraiture; fantastical scenes to naturalistic compositions of life in contemporary America.
Today, little critical or popular interest in Booth remains, and, like many commercially successful illustrators of the 20th Century, his work has fallen into obscurity. Many of Booth’s illustrations were published anonymously and there is no definitive archive of his work, but he undoubtedly deserves to be recognised as one history's best practitioners of pen and ink.
Growing up in relative isolation in rural Indiana, Booth had little formal training in his early years, stating: "My greatest lessons in art were when I worked on a plough or with the hoe in a field alone… There while working day after day in a field, I learned to really think." He would spend his days conjuring up compositions in his mind, before returning home and committing them to paper, or if he couldn’t find any, to his bedroom walls.
In his early 20s Booth did study for three months at the School of Art Institute in Chicago and for a period at the Art Students League of New York, however, it seemed to leave little lasting impression upon the man or his artistic development. In 1905 Booth embarked on a European art tour, where he studied under the tuition of Robert Henri, a hugely influential painter and leading figure in the American realist movement. Typically, Booth’s iconoclastic summary of the trip was to say: “I had a fine time painting and loafing around with bull fighters.”
Instead, Booth attributed his distinctive style to imitation. Apparently, a young Booth mistakenly believed the wood engraved illustrations he saw in various books and weekly magazines were ink drawings. He would spend hours dedicatedly attempting to reproduce the style in pen. The lack of evidence we have of Booth’s developmental work means his style often seems to have appeared ready-made in his 20s, altering very little throughout the subsequent 40 years.
However, that style is undoubtedly remarkable. Booth’s drawings are composed of thousands of variegated lines, which, when layered, create tone and depth. Areas of bold contrast frame the complex detailing of other elements, preventing the piece from becoming overwhelmingly decorative or flat. Booth only rarely scratched out the whites with a knife, or used white ink, preferring to layer up the black and leave negative spaces.
Although distinctive, you can see the influence of contemporary aesthetic trends like European Art Nouveau and the Pre-Raphaelites within his certain elements of his work, particularly in his depictions of women and use of illuminated hand lettering.
Although he mainly worked in pen and ink, Booth did complete some colour work, usually for limited editions of fiction as colour reproductions were still far more expensive. The best examples can be seen in the 16 illustrations he did for Flying Islands of the Night by James W. Riley and a 1917 edition of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. These works have a looser, less detailed character, drawing a similarity with trans-Atlantic contemporaries such as Arthur Rackham.
To my mind, it’s not just stylistically that Booth stands out as an artist, it’s also in his compositional skill. Booth frequently stretched the rule of perspective and focus, bringing the landscape down to the lowest section of the artwork and filling the space with gigantic skies, towering buildings or trees that seem to dwarf the central figures. This dizzying play with perspective evokes the flat rural landscapes of Indiana, which Booth said continued to captivate him long after he moved away, with its ‘indescribable haze, its luminous silence, its spiritual suggestiveness.’
One recorded example we have of Booth experimenting with his theories of composition and visual balance, is in an illustration from 1908, of W.G. Fitz-Gerald’s ‘War on the Tiger’, featured in McClure’s Magazine.
The tiger was vicious and dominated the scene; he was looking at you and you were looking at him; he was compelling in importance but small as a spot. All action was directed towards him. It was not necessary, therefore, to draw attention by using the largest space in the picture.
Booth’s compositions are made more impressive by his unusual creative process. Which often occurred organically, depending on the parts he drew first.
I first pencil in my entire conception. This is not complete, but rather generalised. Parts of this I then draw more fully and follow immediately with the pen. My drawings are somewhat involved, and a completed pencil drawing to begin with would become smudged in places in the process of inking other parts. I finish a section at a time and often this will appear in the midst of white paper and pencilled suggestions.
Booth’s first recorded artwork was a vignette of rural life accompanying a ‘Thanksgiving Ode’ he wrote, published in the Indianapolis News, November 30, 1899. He was paid $5. By 1904 Booth was taking regular commissions from national magazines and newspapers, like Scribner’s, Good Housekeeping, and The Reader. Between 1912 and 1917, he turned out around three hundred illustrations, averaging two pieces of published art per month.
Not only was Booth born into the Golden Age of Illustration, he also lived at the centre of it for a short period when he relocated to the New Rochelle artist colony in New York. New Rochelle was home to the most prominent illustrators and comic artists of the day, including Norman Rockwell, Clare Briggs and Nell Brinkley. In the 1920s, more than 50% of the illustrations featured in the US’s best-selling publications were produced by artists living in the city. This was a time when illustrators were well paid, enabling them to live comfortable suburban lifestyles, a far cry from the bohemian ideals of starving in a garret.
Booth was himself very prosperous, but he rarely seemed to struggle with often difficult relationship between artistic integrity and commercial success. In fact it was his ability to bring the same artistic reverence to his advertisements as to his literary illustrations, that made him so popular among advertising executives.
It is his sincerity, this belief in himself and in the integrity of his commission, that has kept his work on so high a plane. Designs by him made for advertising purposes are sought by collectors with the same eagerness as designs for less material purposes, for they have the same quality.
Ernest Elmo Calkins
While Booth’s advertisements exemplify his technique and imagination, they also show his commercial shrewdness: everything from soaps to golf courses, department stores to musical instruments, are imbued with elegance, refinement and wonder. They read like a 20th Century equivalent of a Sheeba cat food or Ferraro Rocher advert.
However, remove their context entirely and they stand alone as stunning works of art. In particular, the series Booth did for the Etsey Organ Company are outstanding. They depict various domestic scenes instilled with classical grandeur – with vertiginous ceilings and rooms filled with nymph-like spirits that pour from the instrument. The consistency of line work throughout the pieces blurs the distinction between the earthly and spiritual, a technique Booth returned to throughout his career for various purposes.
While it may be frustratingly difficult to get hold of definitive information about Booth, many of his pieces are readily available online thanks to the work of a few dedicated bloggers. You can also see the legacy of his style within the work of graphic novel artists like Bernie Wrightson and Roy Krenkel. In fact, the recognised brilliance of these artists, only serves to further emphasise Booth’s mastery of pen and ink by comparison. In Wrightson’s own words: “Franklin Booth always will be so much better than practically anyone who ever picked up a pen.”
Collections of high res images:
Auad, Manuel, Franklin Booth: American Illustrator (SCB Distributer Publisher, 2009) - Out of print
Fleskes, John and Roy Krenkel, Franklin Booth: Painter with a Pen (Flesk Publications 2015) - Out of print
Jellico, John, 'The Drawings of Franklin Booth, Recall a Talent that Richly Deserves to be Remembered', American Artist, Jan 1966, Vol. 30 Issue 1, (pp.42-78)
Rugh, Thomas E., Franklin Booth’s Art and Life: The Colors of Black Lines