Tuesday, September 15, 2009

William A. Smith: Condensed in '62

On a previous occasion when we were looking at some Sickles art from Reader's Digest Condensed Books, I received a note from Ferol Smith, the wife of the late William A. Smith. Ferol wrote, "One of these days I'm going to find other Reader's Digest Condensed Books illustrators; W.A.S. natch!! It was a great medium for some fine work by these artists."

So I was especially pleased when I stumbled across this particular volume... because W.A.S. did a remarkable twelve paintings for one of the stories therein.

I sent a note last night asking the members of the Smith family if they had any recollections of this job... for instance, how much time would the artists have had to paint all these gorgeous illustrations?

Eldest daughter, Kim, replied that she recalled her dad having about a month to complete the assignment - wow! - that's a lot of work to get done in just one month!

Especially when you consider the technical details and period costume Smith had to research and then render accurately.

Kim remembers her mom posing for the scene two above ( page 137 ) and adds, "I think it was also Dad in that painting."

* Addendum: A late note from Ferol Smith: "I'm 91,95,96, and 99. The tough looking old lady was a neighbor of ours and of the most kindly nature. She enjoyed a job with the local vet and worked with children during summer camp. Not so tough!"

As for the piece below, Kim Smith writes, "It was [Kim's older brother] Rick and me."

She adds, "Rick looks exactly like himself, though I look a little more like Alice in that painting."

To be honest, the poor paper quality and small reproduction size can't possibly do justice to William A. Smith's paintings. They look this good in spite of the RDCB's shortcomings.

When I look at these I am reminded of the first time I laid eyes on a W.A.S. illustration -- and mistook it for Robert Fawcett's work.

And that in turn always makes me think of a great anecdote Charlie Allen recounted of the time he had dinner with Robert Fawcett and Haines Hall, who was Fawcett's brother in law and a partner in the SF art studio at which young Charlie Allen was working.

During a lull in the conversation at the table, Charlie, still very much a junior illustrator - and somewhat in awe of being in the presence of 'the illustrator's illustrator' nervously asked Fawcett if he knew the painter William A. Smith...

Charlie writes, "[Fawcett] did a double take, turned to Haines, and gesturing to me, said, 'who's this?' I think his actual words were 'who the hell is this?' Haines explained (I was the favored new kid on the block)."

Charlie continues, "RF reluctantly turned and said, 'yes, Bill is a good friend....and he's a fine painter'. He did not say 'illustrator'. That was the only conversation from him for the evening, with me at least. At the time I naturally was in awe of RF, but was also an admirer of Wm. A. Smith."

And we are in awe of Charlie Allen, who once again demonstrates the extent of his skills with another broad range of samples from his many years of service as a West Coast advertising artist. Go to Charlie Allen's Blog and check 'em out!

* My William A. Smith Flickr set.

* This post has been simultaneously published on The Art of William A. Smith blog.


  1. These illustrations really bring back memories for me! Thank you, Leif!

    Kim Smith

  2. I couldn't help noticing that some of these are nearly monochromatic. I would imagine that's one of his time saving devices - still fabulous of course !

  3. i wish someone would do a william a. smith art book!....

  4. Thanks Leif, great post. Thanks also to Kim for the interesting anecdotes (...1 month!!)

  5. Chad Sterling5:30 PM

    Definite similarities with Fawcett in the acuity of the draughtsmanship but more painterly in approach.What a talented generation of illustrators were working in that 20 year period after WW2, thanks for posting Leif.

  6. Any idea of who did the illustrations for the Reader's Digest Treasury for Young Readers (1962)? What medium did they use, ink wash and transparent guash? Excellent craftsmanship, period detail and mood.

  7. Great post! Love these illustrations - I second the development of a 'Smith' art book!

  8. I'm astonished at how he could have produced twelve illustrations of this quality in a month.
    I recently had an assignment of a similar number in the same time-frame. Just gathering reference, doing preliminary sketches and chasing AD's to get approval took up most of the timeframe.
    Wonderful stuff!

  9. Anonymous1:35 AM

    I have many readers digest books from the late 1950's into the 1960's and the reason was because of the great art. I collected these in the late 1960's. They are still available at thrift stores.
    Also the stories were fantastic. Papilon became a movie w steve mcqeen and dr. no also my favorite Cary Grant's alfred hitchcocok movie To Catch A thief. Story was just like movie. Nicely illustrated.