Thursday, January 04, 2018


At the end of last year I offered one lovely drawing by an illustrator you've never heard of, H. J. Mowat.   Mowat has been lost in the sea of anonymous illustrators of the 1920s and 30s who worked in the loose, scribbly fashion of the day.  But I think he was really good.

To give him a fair chance, I promised some commenters I'd show a broader range of his work.


Mowat's pictures may seem a little fuzzy compared to today's sharper, hard edge fashions.  But plenty of mediocre illustrators can make sharp pictures of fuzzy concepts.  It's harder to create successful fuzzy pictures of sharp concepts.  

Take for example the drawing, "She used to come into the Petrovski barracks and empty her pistols into the poor devils who wouldn't bend."

I think this is a well staged picture, with selective use of lights and contrasts to direct your eye.  The figures are well posed and integrated to show how the professional soldiers are queasy about the bloodthirsty woman.  But most importantly, Mowat has made some highly unusual but smart choices: the "poor devil" has no face yet Mowat chose to emphasize his cowlick (which conveys his rumpled condition).  Also without drawing a face, Mowat shows us that the man's chin is raised by positioning his ears.

Just as Mowat drew rumpled hair, the man's clothing is one big wrinkle.  He has a defiant tilt to his head combine with a posture of resignation waiting for the bullet.  Mowat did not focus on the facial expression, which would preoccupy a more obvious illustrator.  For me, this is excellent, subtle drawing.

Note how, in 1927, ordinary Saturday Evening Post readers were presumed to be cultured enough to know the lyrics to Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado." 
Mowat used a bag of tricks to compensate for the cheap paper and primitive black and white printing of his era.  His medium would not permit him to display a blushing cheek or a steely glint in the eye, but he seemed to make maximum use of a tilt of the head.  

Many of the illustrators of the 1920s are best forgotten, but I think H. J. Mowat is one worth remembering.