The Illustrator of Oz

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Certainly few books in the history of the printed word have so captured the imaginations of multiple generations as Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.

There have been many proper tributes to the author’s imagination and genius, but it is good to see the original illustrator of Oz, Mr. William Denslow beginning to get credit for his timeless and pervasive images of Oz and it’s denizens.


I have reposted the following excellent article about the first edition and it’s illustrator, Mr. Denslow from the irreplaceable BibliOdyssey.

The entirety of the first edition of The Wizard of Oz can be seen online at The Library of Congress HERE.

An Original Oz

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William Wallace Denslow (1856-1915) attended art and design schools in New York City and published his first illustrations in ‘Hearth and Home’ at the age of eighteen. For the next twenty five years he plied his trade all over the country, supplying magazine, newspaper, advertising and book illustrations to a wide variety of publications, and he was a well known poster artist by the mid-1890s.

For a few years Denslow worked part-time for Elbert Hubbard at the Roycroft Arts Community in East Aurora, New York State, where his humorous social and political cartoons graced the community newspaper, ‘The Philistine’. He also provided drawings for the limited edition hand bound Roycroft books for which he trained local women to colour the illustrations. By this stage, Denslow was well known for including a hippocampus (seahorse) as part of his signature and the symbol was variously adapted as seals and watermarks and became synonymous with the Roycroft stable of handcrafted goods.

In 1898 Denslow supplied a couple of illustrations for inclusion in a privately published book (‘By the Candelabra’s Glare’) by an acquaintance, L.Frank Baum. They collaborated more closely the following year for Baum’s ‘Father Goose: His Book’. This was Denslow’s first foray into childrens book illustrations and both author and illustrator were adamant that the book should be printed in colour which required that they pay for the printing costs themselves. It proved to be the best selling childrens book of the year and no doubt provided the capital, momentum and confidence to repeat the process the following year.

‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ was an innovative book not least because of the twenty four full colour plates and myriad monochromatic illustrations in which the colour changed according to the location in the story (Kansas = grey, Emerald City = green and so on). With the illustrative vignettes often encroaching on the text area, the type was cleverly printed over the top of the coloured images. Such elaborate printing techniques again required that Baum and Denslow fund the printing costs and the book was published by George M Hill and Company of Chicago and New York in 1900 for $1.50 per copy. It was apparently successful.

Each of the books in which Baum and Denslow collaborated was held in joint copyright and it was probably inevitable that these two successful and strongly individual types would end up having royalty conflicts. Denslow published magazine and book illustrations featuring characters from the Goose and Oz books without Baum’s knowledge. The partnership ultimately ended over a dispute about the division of spoils from the Broadway musical of Oz in 1902. Denslow continued to produce many successful childrens books and with the fortune amassed from this and his previous work with Baum, he bought an island near Bermuda and installed himself as King, under the hippocampus flag.

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3 Comments

  1. I adore the art in the original Oz books, but I was not aware of Denslow’s connection to the Roycrofters. I have one hand-bound Roycroft book in my small collection, Elbert Hubbard’s Scrap Book, which may or may not contain Denslow art–it’s a simple two-color printing (black and orange), but all the initial page letters do look to be hand-lettered, at the least. It was bound and published in 1923.

  2. I love my copy of the Wizard of Oz with Denslow’s illustrations. It is a reproduction from about 40 years ago, but the art is beautiful.

  3. I only recently obtained an anniversary edition of the original book which is most wonderful, complete with all the plates and gilt-edged. I do like Denslow’s illustrations, however it is difficult for me to think of him as “The Illustrator of Oz” as he only illustrated the first book. As I eagerly devoured the entire Baum set of the series, I am much more familiar with John R. Neill’s renditions of the characters. This all gets me thinking I must go back and reread them again. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone created part of Oz within this world of ours?


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