This year would have marked the 120th anniversary of Chicago’s School of Illustration. As it happens, the institution lasted about half a dozen years, from 1898 to 1904. During this period, however, it brought together a host of illustrators, draftsmen, type designers and d other famous and upcoming artists. only building downtown.
But despite the fact that many of the people involved would become hugely influential in their fields – illustrators for some of the nation’s biggest publications, advertisers for companies like Anheuser-Busch and Kellogg’s, designers of now ubiquitous typefaces – the school itself- even has largely forgotten.
So, what is the story of this ephemeral artistic mecca? The school’s history begins and ends with its founder, John Francis Holme, known professionally as Frank Holme. Holme was born in 1868 in West Virginia, near the Maryland border. (Keyser, the town he grew up in, is the birthplace of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the songwriter of “Frosty the Snowman.”) After high school, he worked as an illustrator for the day-to-day Rolling Register before moving to Pittsburgh for a job at Pittsburgh Press.
There Holme achieved some fame as an illustrator after his 1889 drawings Johnstown flood were picked up by a New York newspaper. Then an editor at the Saturday Blade, a Chicago-based weekly, noticed them and offered Holmes a job. He moved to that city soon after and covered “murders, suicides, divorces, court scenes, disasters, any news item that could be dramatized”, according to librarian Rudolph Gjelsness. This included the trial of 1897 of Adolph Luetgert, the sausage-packing magnate who killed his wife and dissolved her in a tub of laundry detergent.
Holmes left the Blade a few years later when the newspaper introduced a point system. (As one obituarist wrote: “The installation of a clock…was to him an impertinence and an indignity. He absolutely refused to punch it and resigned.”) The departure from principle did not seem to affect Holme’s relationship with WD Boyce, the newspaper’s publisher (and founder of the Boy Scouts). Boyce wrote him a glowing farewell letter, albeit with one ominous final line: “I would caution you on this one point only – do not try to do the amount of work in the future that you have been doing since you came with me.”
Although Holme moved around the country frequently in the early 1890s, he spent most of that decade in Chicago, where he worked in a series of newspapers. He also tried to start a small press out of his attic with some second-hand type: the Bandar Log Press, named after the monkeys of The jungle Book (a friend had compared Holme and his wife to primates because of their equally short attention spans). He was also a founding member of Palette and Chisel, an artists’ club which still exists on the Gold Coast.
In September 1898, Holmes founded the School of Illustration. Located on one floor of the Athenaeum building in Van Buren and Michigan, the school was a relatively small rival to the nearby Art Institute, which taught nearly a thousand students.
Perhaps during a dig at this nearby giant, Holme pointed out that his school’s curriculum would prepare students for the real world. A pair of promotional brochures describe it as “a practical school” and “a school with a purpose”, whose students are “not theoreticians or dreamers… but artists in their line, men and women who will be qualified to take their place in the global army of workers.
To reinforce the pre-professional notoriety of the school, Holmes brought ringtones form the world of newspaper and popular illustration to serve as a teacher. Among them, JC Leyendecker, who had just started illustrating for the Saturday night post, where he produced hundreds of covers over five decades. Another teacher was Frederic Goudy, an influential printer and type designer who would go on to create typefaces like Goudy Old Style (you might recognize him from the Northwestern crest) and Copperplate Gothic (used in pre-2018). Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? logo).
The school appears to have been held in relatively high esteem: an 1899 booklet of “endorsements” includes blurbs from several Chicago newspaper editors and art critics. Then-Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison wrote, “I consider [Frank Holme] the best newspaper cartoonist in Chicago. (Harrison, former editor of the Chicago timehad known Holmes when he worked there.)
While typically only 50 students enrolled in the school—payment was weekly, so the number fluctuated—Holme organized correspondence courses for budding artists across the country. It was not unusual; one historian has described the correspondence schools of the time as “the leading academy of what we now call graphic design”. (Curiously, these institutions tended to be scattered throughout the Midwest and Rust Belt: Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Scranton, and Kalamazoo all housed popular correspondence schools.)
Besides the professors, many students of the School of Illustration have also made a name for themselves in the world of art and design. Oz Cooper created Cooper Black, a font “as endemic to design as confirmation is to Christianity. (For two wildly divergent examples of its use in pop culture, see the cover of Tyler the Creator’s Leprechaun and the opening credits of Different strokes.) Other alumni include comedian and radio commentator Harry Hirshfield, artist Cyrus Leroy Baldridge, and Bertha Lum, who popularized Japanese woodblock prints in the United States.
Then there was WA Dwiggins, the artistic polymath who made significant contributions to type and book design, calligraphy and puppetry. He is widely credited as the man who coined the term “graphic design” – but that’s a myth, exhaustively demystified by design historian Paul Shaw.
Dwiggins spent his youth in a number of small towns in Ohio and Indiana and came to Chicago as, in Shaw’s words, “a serious young man”. Shaw suspects that it was under Holme’s influence that Dwiggins developed his own irreverent sense of humor; the whimsical personality led him to do things like conjure up a family full of Teutonic braggarts: the imaginary Püterscheins whose name Dwiggins would adopt as a pseudonym for various writing and publishing projects. (The name apparently comes from a holiday gathering at which Dwiggins, unable to satisfactorily polish a metal pitcher, said, “I can’t make that fucking pewter shine.”)
Meanwhile, the School of Illustration is a success. Brush and Pencil, an industry magazine, noted about a year after opening that the school had expanded to twice its original size. Holme also published articles on education in various outlets, railing, for example, against those who viewed newspaper illustration as a “stepping stone” to greater commercial or artistic pursuits. Or, as he put it in a monthly magazine, the art exchange“No editor will voluntarily submit to being ‘trampled’ for any length of time.”
During it all, he apparently ignored WD Boyce’s decade-old warning about the dangers of overwork. In 1901, Holmes contracted tuberculosis. The disease, his friends thought, was the result of exhaustion. He moved to Asheville, North Carolina to recuperate, leaving his wife, Ida, and Cooper (suddenly promoted from student to administrator) to continue running the school.
While in the South, Holme resurrected the Bandar Log Press. He illustrated and published a 24-page book, with an evocative title, Swanson, Able Seaman, or The Melancholy Fate of an Unhappy Sailor. Most, if not all, of the 74 copies were intended for Holme’s acquaintances and friends.
To support Holme during his treatment, his friends also came up with the ingenious idea of forming the Bandar Log Stockholders Corporation, an informally traded company in which people could buy at $25 a stock – around $740 today. (According to an obituary by Holme, Mark Twain wanted a share, but they had all been sold. One of the artist’s friends eventually let Twain buy at double the price.)
In 1903, Holme moved to a ranch a few miles from Phoenix, Arizona, where he spent most of his time working seriously on the press, operating it out of an abandoned chicken coop. He has published numerous books, including the Roubaiyat of pokera semi-serious poker handbook in the style of the popular then Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyamrecently translated into English. He also published three slim volumes in a series called “The Strenuous Lad’s Library”, a satirical take on children’s novels of the time. Much of his work now realongside the University of Arizona Libraries, in a archive which also includes personal documents as well as drawings by his students and associates.
Holme traveled to Denver in 1904 in search of a cooler climate; In June he died at the age of 36. In the same year, the school of illustration folded, defeated, as Dwiggins biographer Bruce Kennett puts it, by “Holme’s incompetence in financial matters”.
Its faculty scattered across the country. The Athenaeum building was demolished in the 1920s and replaced by the Buckingham, a 27-story skyscraper. Even in archives or history books, it is hard to find a trace of the community of artists that flourished here more than a century ago, led by, as one note of condolence put it, “the most intimidating of bullies”. Yet their legacy lives on around us, whether we recognize it or not.