Monday, December 14, 2009

Buried Treasure: The Merrill Company

Sometimes I think about the fact that tucked away here and there all over the planet are long forgotten caches of hidden treasure! Back in October of 2008, for instance, David Roach wrote about his discovery of a warehouse full of original British comic book art that he unearthed. This week we'll touch on another such story.

In Illustration Magazine #22, Jean Woodcock wrote a fascinating, profusely illustrated article describing the history of the Merrill Publishing Company and how she came to acquire it.

Around that same time, Jeanie and I began corresponding. It was always our intention to feature her Merrill artwork for a week here on Today's Inspiration - and now a new development makes this the appropriate time to do so: original art dealer Mitch Itkowitz, acting as Jeanie's agent, is about to release a catalogue of the first group of Merrill originals being offered for sale - and just in time for Christmas (hint, hint).

* The catalogue and related images on Mitch's website, will 'go live' tomorrow (Tuesday) morning.

Because Jeanie's article is already available from Illustration Magazine, I decided to take a different approach with this week's topic and focus instead on five of the artists whose work is featured in Mitch's catalogue. Many thanks to Mitch for providing a nice large scan for each of the artists we'll look at this week. We'll begin with Barbara (Briggs) Bradley.

Below is a "reprint" of a post first presented in February 2008 wherein Barbara described what it was like to work for Miss Marion Merrill. By way of introduction I'll add this amusing short note I received from Barbara back when she and I were first planning a week on her career for the blog:

Barbara wrote, "I'm stunned by how fast I used to be able to work. I cranked them out. I'm also amused at the vast number of hysterically happy children, bows, flowers, and fluffy clothing. My son says they are all on caffeine overload. These are social studies as well as ancient art."


"Queen of the Perkies and Cutes"

"Some of my early freelance work was for the Merrill Publishing Company (coloring book covers, paper doll books, etc.)" wrote Barbara in a recent email message. A cache of Barbara's original art for the publisher recently came to light, so I asked her if she would elaborate on the specifics of working for this client. Since the Merrill work occurred around the time when Barbara was still at the Cooper studio in New York - and continued for a period after her move to the West Coast - consider today's post a sort of "sidebar" to Barbara's narrative of her career. I think you'll agree that its a fascinating opportunity to better understand the nuts and bolts of one illustrator's life at that time and place.

As I remember, these covers paid $300. I may have received more for the Heavenly Blue Wedding. It was the year's major project and had many more figures. I was either offered more or bargained for more.

I wouldn't have done those for $300.

Remember that $300 went a lot further in the early 50's. My starting salary at Cooper's was $50 a week. Cooper raised that to $100 within a month. Starting salary for an Art Director at Y & R in 1951 was $65 a week. You could get a lunch at Schraft's for 50 cents so $65 seemed like a fortune to someone just out of Art School. Oh yes, I did the clothes for a few of my paper doll They were pure fun. No models to book..just fantasy. They paid $150 a page. (Remind me to send you a page from the only one I have.)

As for time... I'm guessing that I was given several weeks but that that involved about three to four total days of work. However, Marion Merrill wanted to see pencils so the work was always staggered with Cooper work at the same time. When I was salaried, I did freelance projects before and after regular hours and weekends. When I changed to commissioned work, I could fit them in as needed. Each usually took part of a day for preliminary sketches for myself, part of another for a model shoot and another to work them together in a composition, get any needed reference, and do the pencil. The painting usually took no more than a day. I also remember that the first deadline I ever missed was for one of the Merrill jobs. Lauchlin, my first child, arrived ten days before expected. Marion Merrill was quite understanding.

I didn't usually receive a layout but I vaguely recall that Marion indicated how many figures she wanted. She also always wanted to see pencils before proceeding with the finish. (In the Merrill Pub Archives are decades worth of pencil drawings). She probably suggested the content scene such as cake cutting. I might have had some kind of layout for "Pals to paint and Color", with the close-up of the little boy. I'd completely forgotten that one but recognized it when I saw it again. I painted the brush under the palettes so that must have been in a layout. I came up with most of the ideas, and definitely the gestures,compositions, and little businesses. The titles and samples of the book contents were usually enough to set the scene. I remember being pleased with incorporating the title of "Read, Write, and Count" in little slates and having the doll hold one.

Your statement that these fascinate you is amazing to me. Perhaps it's because the world of ideal childhood they represent almost seems like something from the 19th century rather than the 20th. No pants on girls. Bows everywhere. Every dress starched. I was queen of the perkies and the cutes. And note that every child was Caucasian.

Illustrators took that for granted then. Incidentally, the first time I was asked by an Art Director to show ethnic diversity was in the 70's. That was for a poster for Shasta soft drinks.

Barbara Bradley received the 2007 Outstanding Educator in the Arts Award from the Society of Illustrators. She is the retired Director of Illustration at the Academy of Art University. The Academy has created a blog, in her honor. She is also the subject of an in-depth interview and related article by Neil Shapiro in the current issue of Illustration magazine.

Addendum: Barbara Bradley died on May 2nd 2008.

My Barbara Bradley Flickr set.


  1. It's so great to see the work of Barbara Bradley. As a former student of this amazing lady I am grateful for all that she taught me about drawing. I remember her showing us some of her published work and thinking that it didn't begin to reflect her skill as an artist. Of course, I knew very little back then!
    Rest in peace, Barbara.

  2. Barbara was one of the most kind hearted dedicated teachers I've ever known. I became good friends with one particular student, while in Barbara's class. At 17, he was the youngest student in school, but a very serious, dedicated and hard working student. He was very shy, a little overwhelmed and probably intimidated by all that was required to be a successful illustrator.. but he was determined. Barbara understood that, and took him under her wing for the next 3 or 4 years, and after graduation, my friend moved to New York and had a long and successful career as an illustrator. He was a special guest at Barbara's awards acceptance for being an exceptional teacher. After 50 years, the teacher and her student were appropriately reunited.. sadly, for the last time. Barbara died not long after that event. My friend flew to northern California for Barbara's memorial service, and he and his wife spent an afternoon with us, before flying home. It was an afternoon of reminiscing, mostly about Barbara.

    Tom Watson

  3. Thanks for devoting this week to these artists. Often overlooked except by collectors. Even then noses turn in the air or go out of joint when you say you collect paper dolls. And then you start to show them the work and the same thing is always said, "Gee, I never remember seeing dolls like this when I was little." I just smile smugly. All of these artists nearly forgotten. And now for all practical purposes the art of the paper doll is dead.

  4. Leif, the links in the article to the Illustration magazine article are now broken. At the time this blogspot was written, it was "current22", it is now in the archives section at
    . You may want to update the link.

    The Flash plugin that displays the pages keeps crashing for me, though. I can't seem to get past the table of contents on page 3, and Jeanne's article starts on page 72.