Welcome to my blog, featuring various pieces from my collection of Oz books, artwork and memorabilia!

Sunday, August 7, 2022

My Dear Mr. Neill (Part 1)

In August of 1935, John R. Neill received a letter that had been forwarded from the publishers Reilly & Lee. Looking at the envelope, it's clear that the letter did a bit of roundabout traveling! It was from Mrs. Elgood Lufkin of Rye, New York, and read as follows:

   My dear Mr. Neill -

    Mr Lufkin and I ever since we were very small have loved the Oz stories and their illustrations. So much so that now that we are older we have read them all to our children who love them and are as intrigued by them as we were and are.

    In fact we have called our place which we got last year “The Land of Oz”.

    However this is all aside from the point. We were very fortunate in obtaining two of your original water colors - the “Interior of the Scarecrow’s House” and the Scarecrow’s House with Dorothy the Wizard and Uncle Henry coming to pay the Scarecrow a visit. We are terribly anxious to get any others that we could and I wondered if by writing you and explaining a bit how we feel whether you would be willing to sell any to us.

    It would mean a great deal to the children and to us to have some more of your illustrations and I want you to know that they will be highly prized by us.

    Will you drop me a line and let me know whether you will do this for us. Please?

    Always Sincerely,

    Marie Murray Lufkin
    Aug. 8 1935
Once the letter eventually made its way to him, Neill must have replied promptly as another note from Marie, dated September 1st, followed. In this, she offers to send her car and chauffeur to bring Neill to have tea and visit. Or, if that didn’t work -

 …If you do not feel like coming out, if I sent the car would you let the chauffeur bring some out here to me? I couldn’t make out from your letter whether you had any or whether you would be willing to do some illustrations...

The offer of a car and chauffeur indicates that the Lufkins were people of some means; after all, 1935 was not far past the height of the Great Depression. In fact, Elgood Lufkin was the vice president of the Bank of New York. The couple had purchased a farm in Connecticut the previous year, and were hard at work renovating and decorating the house. As it happens, Neill bought a farm in Flanders, New Jersey the following year; most likely, the work of restoring the properties was a common point of interest between them. I particularly like the offer of sending the chauffeur to pick up a selection of artwork to view!

Apparently, there was no response to this letter and the correspondence died. But Marie wasn't ready to give up, and in June of 1936 another letter was forwarded to Neill from Reilly & Lee. She reintroduces herself, and again declares her interest in buying some Oz artwork.

…As I received no reply I took it that you were not interested but even so I am writing again to ask if you have any of the original illustrations for the “Emerald City" besides the exterior & interior of the Scarecrows house as we have those already.

    Please reply one way or the other as I am so anxious to know if we can ever find any for ourselves...

An intriguing side note to the correspondence is the fact that the Lufkins already owned two watercolors from The Emerald City of Oz! How they managed to acquire these drawings is not known, but it does seem to indicate that Oz art could be found in the wild. This time, she did receive a quick reply from Neill and hurried to respond:

 …What a relief receiving your letter! You have no idea how we loved it. From now until you have time to do something for us, I am going to pester you with letters so that you won’t get a chance to lose our address again.

    Your farm at Flanders sounds really magical. Just the way we feel ours is - and you must be the perfect wizard because although you say you are “expected to be a sort of Wizard of Oz without the qualifications,” to us you will always be the real Wizard of Oz, as you have made the stories live for us and our children…

Clearly, having finally won Neill’s attention, Marie wasn’t about to let go! This was to be the start of a relationship that continued until Neill’s death in 1943. The family were fans of Neill, and of the Oz books, and they assembled a unique collection as they befriended the artist. The first Oz book Neill wrote, 1940’s Wonder City of Oz, is even dedicated to the Lufkins.

 Click here for Part 2 of this article.


Cindy said...

What a fabulous archive!

Paul Bienvenue said...

Regarding how such original art could have been found "in the wild": It was the practice at the time for many publishing houses to lend out original artwork to book- and department stores for the purposes of promotional displays. I have an original piece from the Volland Mother Goose (1915) by Frederick Richardson that retains the publisher's loan instructions on the back: "This original painting is loaned to you temporarily to increase your sales of Volland 'Books Good for Children.' / "Please put on display promptly, and return same to us as soon as your display is taken down. You will thus help extend to other booksellers the privilege you are enjoying. / "When returning, please insure for $75.00 each." In this example, the "$75.00 is lined out and beneath is added in pen "150.00". This Mother Goose page is clearly one of those escapees. Aleph-Bet, the dealer of children's and illustrated books, had at some point in the early aughts a very large collection of Richardson's full-page art from the Volland Mother Goose, likely obtained from the publisher's archives through its successors. My piece, and two others I know of, were clearly not returned to the publisher as promised. The same, I believe, is true for some of the art from The Emerald City of Oz. At least two surviving plate paintings are rumored to have been found in the basement of the legendary Chicago department store Marshall Fields. The Lufkins may have obtained their Emerald City art from someone who "liberated" the artwork during a display, or who could have found it in the stored stock of an expired bookstore. In some cases, these "escaped" pieces may represent the only survivors of a classic book.

Bill Campbell said...

It’s a fascinating area of uncertainty - I agree that there could be many such “escapees” still floating out there, unidentified and tucked in a closet or attic, or hanging on someone’s wall, still waiting to come to light!