On a sunny day in early April, 2010 I spent a delightful hour on the phone with a remarkable lady named Sheilah Beckett. Sheilah is 97 years old. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1913, Sheilah Beckett always loved to draw. She doesn't recall being inspired by the "Sunday Funnies" or any specific illustrators from her childhood but she does remember loving the artwork in her children's books and that those illustrations made a big impression on her.
Sheilah never attended art school... she is entirely self-taught. She began working immediately when she graduated from high school. Her first job was creating advertising artwork for a Portland area department store. From there she quickly moved on to Los Angeles and landed a contract to illustrate a series of Gilbert & Sullivan books.
"I went to England," Sheilah tells me, "to catch up with the Gilbert & Sullivan Players - the real ones - and followed them around during their summer season. I did three books... and then the war came."
"The war was just looming when I left, " explains Sheilah. "The Germans were already bombing England."
She chuckles as she remembers, "I came back on a ship called 'The American Farmer.' There were twenty-seven passengers on board and I didn't see a single soul until we arrived in Boston."
"We were hit by this terrible hurricane that went on for days and day. So the only man I saw on the the way across was the Captain who," she says with a tone of reverence, "was a great man."
Sheilah finally landed in New York where she managed to secure an artist representative. That rep found Sheilah some work illustrating children's books.
More importantly, it was during those early days in New York that Sheilah met the man who would become her husband - another illustrator - named J. Frederick Smith. She also connected with a friend from Portland who told her about an art studio where she should try to secure a position...
... an art studio owed by one Charles E. Cooper.
The Cooper Days
Sheilah Beckett recounts for me how she came to join the Charles E. Cooper studio during the early days of her illustration career. "I had a friend from Portland, Oregon who worked at the Cooper studio," she explains, "so I knew about it... and I went to see Chuck to ask what to do; should a get a representative or what - because I knew Cooper's was a men's studio - and he asked me to join."
"I was the first woman Chuck ever took on."
Sheilah began working as an illustrator immediately. "I had my own work doing children's books and I took on what ads Chuck could get me. The salesmen were great."
Describing her work space at Coopers she says, "I had a very small, very nice studio right next to Chuck. Every person there had his own room. It was just the most ideal situation for an artist. Just heaven!"
Sheilah seems to have had some steady accounts through Coopers - for Whitman's Chocolates and Necco Wafers at the very least - but she says she didn't get a lot of advertising assignments. The advertising art paid comparatively well, but, "I loved doing Christmas cards and I loved doing children's books... and I was busy with that."
When I ask her about her Necco Wafers ads she says with great emphasis, "Oh, they're awful! The drawing is so... so... I don't know... " she chuckles, "it isn't very great." I assure her that they're wonderful and much admired by those of us who enjoy seeing her work.
She remembers, "There was one ad that you don't have that was better than all of these others."
Today, while hunting through my files for anything I might have overlooked, I came up with one more Necco Wafer ad - the 'rocket ship' scenario reproduced larger below. I hadn't had a chance to check with Sheilah or her son, Sean, before preparing this post, but I'm hoping that when she sees it, it'll be the one she was referring to and that it will be a nice surprise for her to see it again after all these years.
I also took some time to check through some of my old New York Art Directors Annuals for Cooper Studio ads, and made a couple of interesting discoveries. I'm hoping that when Sheilah sees this post it will stir up some memories and that she'll be able to clarify some of the chronology of her career...
In the ad from 1942, below, you'll notice that Sheilah is not yet listed as a Cooper artist - but her husband, Frederick Smith, is. When we spoke on the phone Sheilah remembered them both being represented elsewhere for a short time before they moved up to Coopers. This ad seems to indicate that Smith moved there first.
The next volume I own is from 1946. This time, both Sheilah and Frederick are listed. But because of the gap in my collection, I can't say for sure what year Sheilah joined the studio. Also curious is that even in the '42 ad some women are listed. Edith Lawdham, Sally Quinn, Roberta Stephenson and Mary Tinker are names I've never come across before. If Sheilah remembers being the first female illustrator at the Cooper studio ( and she would certainly know, since she worked there in her studio room next to Chuck) then I wonder what the arrangement was with these other mystery women?
Below, a Sheilah Beckett DPS ad from a 1960 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. This would have been a relatively rare ad assignment at that point in time. "When television came in," explains Sheilah, "that really made things difficult... there wasn't as much illustration. Even in advertising there wasn't as much, so business at Cooper's petered out."
"I worked with Chuck Cooper until he died - after Cooper's was no more.
"But it was such a wonderful place with such wonderful people... very creative people!"
Sheilah's husband, J Frederick Smith, was also an illustrator during the '40s and '50s (an example of JFS' artwork below).
Smith had a good client in Esquire magazine publisher, Dave Smart. Sheilah explains that this relationship resulted in her getting the opportunity to do a cover for Esquire. "And Esquire and Coronet were connected - they were from the same publisher - and the art director at Coronet saw my work and began giving me assignments."
Based on the date of the cover above (1948) this was during a time when Sheilah and Fred were both at Cooper's.
"We were living in the center of Manhattan and I would put the baby and the artwork in the buggy and walk it over to the studio," she recalls with a chuckle.
But around 1950 - '51 the couple decided to move out of town to the countryside.
They didn't move to the artist's mecca of Westport, where so many of that era's big name illustrators lived and would have been handy to socialize with, but even so, "[fellow Cooper studio artists] Joe Bowler was near, Joe DeMers was near, and Coby Whitmore and his family were here for years and we saw them constantly."
Sheilah says, "Oh, I always wished we could be in Westport, only because I had so many illustrator friends there. We didn't have many illustrator friends where we were... they were hard to find." She chuckles again.
If Sheilah's work up until this point in her career isn't already lovely enough, its clear that during the early-to-mid-'50s she really began to establish her style.
You can begin to see it formulating in these examples from the December 1953 issue of Coronet.
Sheilah says she always loved drawing children's books and fairy tales and its evident in these examples that she was meant to do work of that type.
Her clean, appealing style and sense of whimsy is perfectly suited for that sort of subject matter.
I asked if she was looking at the work of any other children's book illustrators of the time for inspiration - like the popular Golden Books artists of the '50s, Art Seiden, the Provensens, etc. - but Sheilah replies, "Not too much because I work so very differently." I think it shows in her work. Sheilah only recalls doing a couple of assignments for Golden Books... most of her projects came from other publishers.
"It wasn't dependable," she emphasizes, "but you know, I kept busy all the time."
Greetings Cards, Paperbacks and Other "Emerging Markets"
Sheilah Beckett recalls, "When television came along... that really made things difficult, you know. There wasn't as much illustration - even in advertising."
Like many other illustrators, Sheilah had to find clients outside the traditional magazine and advertising industries. We looked recently at the emerging market in paperback cover art during the 1950s...
... here are a few examples of paperbacks illustrated by Sheilah.
Paperback covers weren't exactly a rare thing for the artist but, like the album cover art below, they also weren't a major component of her various commissions.
By contrast, one of Sheilah's long-running clients was American Artist Group greeting cards.
"The change in magazines [around 1960, due to television and photography] didn't effect the market for children's books and it didn't affect greeting cards," Sheilah explains.
"Everything was freelance... but American Artists went on for years and years..."
"... until the price of stamps went up so much. That destroyed that business."
When I told Sheilah I had been completely unaware of that aspect of her career she replied with a chuckle, "I've done murals too! I've done five hospital murals, one community center, and a church."
"What I do is, my son sets up a four by eight foot panel, and then I paint the panels and then they put them together. One really huge one at a hospital I worked on for two years! (Only going once a week though) But that was on the wall... that was kind of fun!"
When I express my amazement at her accomplishment and say, "Wow! So you were like Michaelangelo!" Sheila has a good laugh and corrects me:
"On the wall - not on the ceiling," she says, with another chuckle.
A Fairy Tale Career
Last year there was a show at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, Maryland called "Golden Legacy, 65 Years of Golden Books". Some of Sheilah Beckett's originals were included in the show. As well, a title card provided a glimpse into the life and motivation of the artist. It read in part...
"Ms. Beckett ... vividly remembered a fairy tale book from [her childhood] with a beautiful illustration of a prince and princess. She wrote, "It would be lovely if some child remembered an illustration of mine as vividly and with as much love. I always think of small persons studying each detail of a picture as I work, so I try to put plenty in to be discovered."
I had really only been aware of Sheilah Beckett as one of the many talented advertising illustrators who worked at the Charle E. Cooper studio during the '40s and '50s... but advertising, paperbacks, record albums and all the rest had only been a sidebar for the artist. The one constant of Sheilah Beckett's varied career was her tremendous love for creating fairy tale pictures and children's stories.
Early on in our conversation Sheilah had talked about how when she first considered approaching Chuck Cooper about a job she knew "Coopers was a men's studio." I asked her if being a woman had carried any negative connotation for her professionally at the time - either for clients or among her peers. She assured me it did not. "I didn't have that feeling," she said.
Speaking specifically about her storybook work she said, "Publishers didn't care if [the artist] was a man or a woman." But she qualified her thought and added, "I don't think the prices for storybook work would keep a man very well though. I had to do an awful lot of books to make a living."
Sheilah explained, "When you do children's books, they'll give you a very small amount... but then they always say, "but you'll get royalties." But the thing is, a lot of these books will be displayed on a spinner rack. And they always need space on that rack for new books. Usually your books would get taken off the rack every two years, so the royalties never really got going."
If there is an up-side to this dilemma it is that we have had the benefit of enjoying Sheilah Beckett's tremendous output over the many years of her career. The blog Love for Books lists a few of the 70 books Sheilah has illustrated and shows several more examples of her artwork.
And she shows no signs of stopping any time soon! With the help of her son, Sean Smith, Sheilah has even ventured into the field of print-on-demand self publishing. Her book, The Six Wives of Henry the VIII is available in hard or softcover at Xlibris.com
Below, a real treat: pencil sketches and finished art from Archibald, a children's book in search of a publisher, written and illustrated by Sheilah Beckett.
Sean tells me, "Archibald has been around for awhile, she started it around 10 years ago. It went to some publishers and one of the comments was the story was too moral. I'm trying to get the right people to see this work as I think it would be a very good story for our times."
"The work was done traditionally, before my mother got into the computer."
Yes, believe it or not, for the last four or five years, Sheilah Beckett has been illustrating in Photoshop with a Wacom Tablet!
As we discuss illustrating with the aid of 21st century graphics technology, I have to pause and ask again, "Sheilah, how old are you... 96?" ... and she quickly corrects me with emphasis, "Ninety-seven!" I tell her, "Wow! I am just so incredibly impressed and inspired by you!"
"Well," says the remarkable Sheilah Beckett, matter-of-factly, "its my life and I love it."
"Its exciting all the time!"
* Sheilah's son Sean asked me to let readers know that he has limited edition prints by Sheilah Beckett available for sale. Anyone interested in purchasing prints can contact him through his website for further details.
* Sean has also set up a Facebook Fan Page, The Art of Sheilah Beckett where you'll be able to see many more examples of Sheilah's work. Become a fan!
* My Sheilah Beckett Flickr set.