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Illustrating Horatio Alger: The Art of John Watson Davis

This exhibition originally ran in Rare Books and Special Collections in May 2004, in conjunction with "Dash to DeKalb II," the 2004 Conference of the Horatio Alger Society.

Please note: this exhibition contains many large images, scanned from the original items in the exhibition. In most cases, the scanned images have been reduced in size to better fit the web format, and thus do not reflect the actual size of the originals.

John Watson Davis (1870-1959)

Photographer and date unknown. John Watson Davis. Courtesy of Georgetown University Art Collection. Washington, D.C. Gift of Margaret Williams, 2003.

"John Watson Davis had a career for six decades as an illustrator; in addition to his religious commissions, his drawings appeared in Zane Grey novels, in editions of Sherlock Holmes tales and Bluebeard, and in other books and magazines. His father was John Steeple Davis, also a book illustrator. Born in New York, Davis moved with his family to Paris when he was ten years old, where he received his art training. This was a time when many artists from North America and elsewhere flocked to Paris, then the pre-eminent city for the visual arts, to study with masters in schools that emphasized rendering of the human form.

Davis returned to Brooklyn when he was in his twenties, and began his commercial artist career. To avoid confusion with other artists named "John W. Davis," he began signing his work "J. Watson Davis." He married Agnes Danforth, with whom he had four children; they subsequently moved to Hollis, New York. Davis was living in California at the time of his death." ( 1)

"Davis is also known for his religious illustrations depicting missionary and humanitarian activities of Catholic nuns and priests. These were commissioned by various Catholic organizations, especially the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, which published them on a series of calendars in the late 1940s. The Georgetown University Art Collection featured their collection of Davis' religious drawings in an exhibition that opened in late 2002." ( 2)

The bulk of the drawings shown here are action-oriented, sometimes violent episodes from the texts they inhabit. This provides an interesting contrast to Watson's religious works, which were generally more serene depictions, and helps to illustrate the breadth of his talent as an artist.

A.L. Burt & Company

Specializing in reprints, A.L. Burt began publishing in 1883 after a stint as a traveling salesman. His first publication was The National Standard Dictionary. Other useful titles soon followed, including Standard Encyclopedia, Law Without Lawyers, Household Recipes, and The Family Physician. In 1890, Burt became a pioneer, publishing classic texts in attractive clothbound formats that were still affordable. The publishing company that he established was formally incorporated in 1902. In addition to publishing the works of Alger in multiple editions, Burt also published writers such as Zane Gray, G.A. Henty, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Mary Roberts Reinhardt, and P.G. Wodehouse. Burt's main competition was Grosset & Dunlap. Both companies specialized in cheap hardcover books, meant to stand up to some use, and yet still be inexpensive. Burt died in 1913, leaving the business to his three sons. When his eldest son, Harry P. Burt, retired in 1933, the business was taken over by Blue Ribbon Books, which in turn was purchased by Doubleday, Doran in 1939, and later, the Burt Home Library was purchased by Random House. ( 3)

Burt used the drawings of J. Watson Davis for several different issues of his "Alger Series for Boys." The printed examples in this exhibition are all drawn from the various issues within this larger series. Each original illustration lists the page number where it was intended to be inserted, along with a caption for the point in the story which is illustrated. Not all captions were used by the publishers as noted. In some cases, the captions are quite different from those written by the artist.

Books | Periodicals

1 Alan, David C. "Religious Drawings by John Watson Davis." Georgetown University Art Collection. 2002. http://www.library.georgetown.edu/dept/speccoll/guac/ davis_02/intro.htm (accessed 19 April 2004).

2 Glazer, George. "Theseus and the Minotaur for Tanglewood Tales." George Glazer Gallery, 2003. http://www.georgeglazer.com/prints/illus/davismino.html (accessed 19 April 2004).

3 Chase, Bradford S.Horatio Alger Books Published by A.L. Burt. Enfield, CT: 1983. pp. 93-94. See also: Tebbel, John. A History of Book Publishing in the United States, vol. 2: The Expansion of an Industry, 1865-1919. NY: R.R. Bowker, c1975.

Text by Lynne M. Thomas; banners designed by Charles Larry; Scans by Jessica Witte.