I had just finished writing Justin Morgan Had a Horse, and wanted the best horse artist in the world to illustrate it. So I went to the library, studied the horse books, and immediately fell in love with the work of Will James and Wesley Dennis. When I found out that Will James was dead, I sent my manuscript to Wesley Dennis.
–Marguerite Henry, Dear Readers and Riders
Born 1903 in Massachusetts, Dennis grew up on a farm on Cape Cod. During his childhood, he enjoyed drawing pictures of surrounding animals along with his older brother. At age seventeen, he set out for Boston, where he found illustration jobs with several department stores. After his brother convinced him to try to make a living drawing horses, Dennis began sketching racetrack winners and gained some success with portrait commissions from the owners. Deciding to further his education, Dennis traveled to France to study with an expert on horse anatomy.
The 1940’s brought more changes to his life. First, he married Dorothy Schiller Boggs. Second, he published his first book, Flip, about a pony. His illustrations attracted author Marguerite Henry and thus began a 20-year collaboration which resulted in the publication of 15 books.
You can read more about this relationship in The Illustrated Marguerite Henry, a tribute written by Henry to the “artists who have made my characters come alive.” The idea to write the book arose as a result of curious letters from fans who wanted to know:
- Which of you gets the idea for the story line, the illustrator or the writer?
- Do you sketch rough pictures for the artist to follow?
- Does he use live people and animals for his models or do you send photographs?
- Do you work together on location or separately?
The just over one hundred pages of The Illustrated Marguerite Henry contains numerous black-and-white sketches alternating with full-color pictures, all from the artists of her books.
The first chapter is a profile of illustrator Wesley Dennis. In it, Henry writes that a first-time visitor to his home would be either terrified or overjoyed, depending on how the visitor felt about animals. Dennis owned geese, crow, peacocks, and even an emu.
Henry goes onto share other tidbits of her illustrator friend, such as the fact that their love of animals were about the only way the two were alike. Dennis resembled the swift thorough breed, while she was more like the plodding workhorse. Many times, he had the illustrations done for a chapter, long before Henry had finished the text.
The two both worked on location and collaborated on what illustrations to use. Dennis drew as many pictures as he were needed to tell the story. If a picture seemed more important than the text she had written, Henry would actually cut from it her story.
His library boasted a set of National Geographic, which he never parted with. Dennis found everything in them he needed to create his art. When they failed him, he resorted to illusion. On the rare occasion that Henry could lure him into a public library, he would stand in awe at the sheer number of published books. Yet this never stopped him from illustrating them; instead it seemed to motivate him.
Dennis lived all his life by the sea. Even so, he wanted to draw Misty on location. The ponies made natural subjects. People on the other hand became self-conscious. The two developed a routine, whereby Henry asked leading questions which inspired a variety of emotions, while Dennis would make lightning-quick sketches. The two also worked together to take photos from different vantage points.
KING OF THE WIND
Dennis is responsible for suggesting this story. Walter Chrysler had asked him to do a portrait of the famous sire for the letterhead of his stationery. He planned to use it at his stud farms where he raised Arabians. Dennis disliked research and sent his sister-in-law to the library to find a likeness of the stallion who was foaled in 1724. The ups and downs of the stallion’s life intrigued both Dennis and Henry so much that they decided to tackle another book together.
When they came to the climax of King of the Wind, neither were satisfied with his first painting. Henry writes that the design was too simple. “It lacked color and a credible setting.” Henry sought out old and rare books at the Chicago Public Library. She never found the picture she wanted, but instead pieces of description gleaned from dozens of books helped the scene come to life.
As part of her research for Brighty of the Grand Canyon, Henry and her husband explored the Grand Canyon in mid-February, when they were fortunate enough to have the canyon to themselves except for a guide. Henry shares that Dennis was not so lucky. All he encountered was mist and snow. After three days he flew back to Virginia to work on the illustrations. Therefore, in his color artwork, the details of the canyon are shrouded. Because flying back to the canyon proved too expensive, Dennis relied on his watching over and over a movie about the Grand Canyon.
BORN TO TROT
Dennis never signed his sketches or painting except by request. While doing drawings of the world champion trotting mare, Rosalind, for Born to Trot, Dennis became friends with the mare’s owners. He offered to paint a picture for their mantel. The wife didn’t want one, because she’d already heard enough talk of horses. Dennis replied, “No need to”. A month later, a crate arrived, which she opened with mixed feelings. To her relief, inside she found a portrait from Cape Cod of a fisherman.
Besides sharing behind-the-scenes stories, Henry also included correspondence from Dennis. One letter revealed that for the characters in Born to Trot, Dennis modeled their heads in clay and set them up on his drawing board. This proved a big help in getting their likeness in different positions.
WHITE STALLION OF LIPIZZA
Although the above examples suggest that Dennis preferred to work on location, this wasn’t always feasible. For White Stallion of Lipizza, Dennis relied on his magazines and a pictorial volume on Spanish Court Riding School.
A friend of the Dennis family sparked the idea for Black Gold. She told of reading a book, Horses of Destiny, which featured an unforgettable horse. “Coming down the last stretch in his last race, his rear foreleg napped. He faltered a lightning of a second but then drove on–to finish the race.
U-See-It is Black Gold’s dam. Henry shares that as she wrote U-See-It’s part, she became so involved that she ultimately shared spasms of pain as U-See-It strained to give birth to Black Gold. The description was frowned upon by editors and almost deleted. Dennis threw his support behind Henry: “Don’t let them blot out the truth and the beauty. It’s basic to the story. Kids understand these things.”
CATS, DOGS, AND FOXES!
Although Henry mostly wrote about horses, she also wrote about cats, dogs, and even a fox! Dennis suggested the story behind at least one of their dog books. Hidden in a lengthy favorite article was a nugget about a mongrel puppy belonging to the treasured of a small circus. The two decided to create their own version in a book titled Little or Nothing.
Dennis initially didn’t think he could illustrate a cat book. He called cats the most difficult creatures to draw. When Henry told him that a workhouse could be featured, Dennis relented and turned to his own cat, Midnight, for inspiration. Apparently, Midnight obligingly hissed and spat and howled and purred and played stand-in for the real cat in the book Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin.
Knowing that Dennis preferred working with live models, Henry sent him a fox cub during their work on Cinnabar. The vice-president of Rand McNally gallantly offered to deliver the cub to Dennis. It escaped in his Washington office, where he hid for hours before he tore the place to shreds. When the vice-president finally got the cub to Dennis, the fox received pajamas and an unoccupied rabbit hutch. Alas, the fox escaped again! Henry writes that the next morning, the pajamas were found hanging on a pine tree.
Dennis and Henry worked on two albums together, the first being Album of Horses. One Christmas, the gift from the Dennis to Henry was a decorative tile. The tile depicted a mare and a foal looking out over the half door of their stall. Henry had already delayed work on her horse album twice, allowing other books to interrupt, but the now the album was taking shape and she needed a cover. The tile was it! The painting is considered one of his finest accomplishments.
Henry shares many other anecdotes of their collaboration together on the album. One of my favorites involves the segment on draft breeds ought. Henry suggested to Dennis that it ought to include the English-bred Suffolk Punch. She reports that he got a faraway look and worked in a fever. When he finished the painting, Dennis brought it to the Rand McNally himself. After a long silence, the editor declared that he wanted to hang the painting over his desk where he could see it every day.
While Dennis was becoming established, his brother had already established as a painter of dogs. Morgan therefore was actually commissioned to work on the Album of Dogs with Henry. As fate would have it though, Morgan got sick and Dennis was asked to take over. “Hope you don’t mind,” Dennis wrote Henry. “I’m tickled.”
Capturing the characteristics of so many breeds, as well as trying to indicate their purposes in life, proved a feat. Dennis invited all his friends who owned purebreds to bring them over for a trick-or-treat session. “I felt like the Pied Piper,” Dennis said, “but each dog contributed a bone to the Album of Dogs.”
Dennis died at the age of sixty-three in 1966. After his death, Henry thought she’d never write again. And for a year, she didn’t. But then the story of Wild Horse Annie came into her life. So began Henry’s search for another illustrator. She ended up working with three in her remaining lifetime.
Robert Lougheed had painted a Christmas card with an old-time range of horses which Henry believed looked as if they might have been straight out of Annie’s world. She approached Lougheed with half a manuscript. He turned her down, saying he was a painter and not an illustrator. With more assurance than she felt, Henry suggested he do his large-scale color illustrations for her book and then send the originals to wherever. A partnership was formed. Some of their correspondence is included in The Illustrated Marguerite Henry.
Next Henry worked with Lynd Ward. His credits included writing six novels in woodcuts without words, studying for a year at the National Academy for Graphic Arts in Germany, and traveling the Italian countryside. He had also won the Caldecott for The Biggest Bear, along with several other awards. He was the perfect choice to illustrate Gaudenzia, the Pride of the Palio (also known as The Wildest Horse Race in the World).
After finishing this project together, Henry learned that one of Ward’s earliest memories was of a student in his father’s seminary class drawing pictures to entertain him. It was the first time Ward had ever seen anyone draw and it fascinated him. Henry also noted that Lynd works from observation, perception, and imagination. Aside from rough sketching, he has never worked from a live model.
Her final collaboration occurred with the then young Rich Rudish. He had grown up spending hours copying the work of Wesley Dennis! One day, Henry received a fan letter from him. He enclosed some drawings, which she filed as “Promising” but eventually forgot about. Then a friend sent her a greeting card depicting a horse in action. The artist signature was…. Rich Rudish! After she began seeing his name on distinguished horse magazines, Henry tracked him down and asked him about doing some illustrations. In spite of a busy schedule which included riding, exhibiting, and judging (the ways in which he supported himself), he “leaped all hurdles” to work with Henry.