This year would have marked the 120th anniversary of Chicago’s School of Illustration. As it happened, the institution lasted about a half-dozen years, from 1898 to 1904. Over that period, however, it brought together a host of famous and to-be-famous illustrators, cartoonists, type designers, and other artists in a single downtown building.
But despite the fact that many of the people involved would become extremely influential in their fields — illustrators for some of the country’s biggest publications, ad-men for companies like Anheuser-Busch and Kellogg’s, designers of now-ubiquitous typefaces — the school itself has largely been forgotten.
So, what is the story of this short-lived artistic mecca? The history of the school 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 in which he grew up, is the birthplace of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the songwriter behind “Frosty the Snowman.”) After high school, he worked as an illustrator for the daily Wheeling Register before moving to Pittsburgh for a job at the Pittsburg Press.
There, Holme gained some fame as an illustrator after his drawings of the 1889 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 Holme a job. He moved to this city shortly after and covered “murders, suicides, divorces, court scenes, disasters, every news item capable of being dramatized,” according to librarian Rudolph Gjelsness. This included the 1897 trial of Adolph Luetgert, the sausage packing magnate who killed his wife and dissolved her in a vat of lye.
Holme quit the Blade a few years later when the paper introduced a clock-in system. (As one obituarist wrote: “The installation of a time-clock…was to him an impertinence and indignity. He refused absolutely to punch it, and resigned.”) The principled departure didn’t seem to affect Holme’s relationship with W.D. Boyce, the paper’s publisher (and founder of the Boy Scouts). Boyce wrote him a glowing farewell letter, albeit one with a foreboding final line: “I would only caution you on this one point — do not attempt to do the quantity of work in the future that you have done since coming with me.”
Though Holme frequently moved around the country in the early 1890s, he spent most of that decade in Chicago, where he worked at a series of newspapers. He also tried to start a small press out of his attic with second-hand type: the Bandar Log Press, named after the monkeys in The Jungle Book (a friend had compared Holme and his wife to the primates because of their similarly short attention spans). He was also a founding member of the Palette and Chisel, an artists’ club that still exists in the Gold Coast.
In September 1898, Holme founded the School of Illustration. Housed on a floor of the Athenaeum Building at Van Buren and Michigan, the school was a relatively small rival of the nearby Art Institute, which taught nearly one thousand students.
Perhaps in a dig at this neighboring behemoth, Holme emphasized that his school’s curriculum would prepare students for the real world. A pair of promotional pamphlets describes it as “a practical school” and “a school with a purpose,” whose students are “not theorists or dreamers…but artists in their line, men and women who shall be qualified to take their place in the world’s army of workers.”
To bolster the school’s pre-professional reputation, Holme brought in ringers from the world of newspaper and popular illustration to serve as faculty. They included J.C. Leyendecker, who had then just started illustrating for the Saturday Evening Post, where he would produce hundreds of covers over five decades. Another teacher was Frederic Goudy, an influential printer and type designer who would go on to create fonts like Goudy Old Style (you might recognize it from Northwestern’s crest) and Copperplate Gothic (used in the pre-2018 Who Wants to be a Millionaire? logo).
The school does appear to have been held in relatively high esteem: An 1899 booklet of “indorsements” includes blurbs from several Chicago newspaper editors and art critics. The mayor of Chicago at the time, Carter H. Harrison, wrote, “I consider [Frank Holme] the best newspaper artist in Chicago.” (Harrison, formerly publisher of the Chicago Times, had known Holme when he worked there.)
While typically only 50 students enrolled at the school — payment was week-to-week, so the number fluctuated — Holme ran mail correspondence courses for aspiring artists across the country. That wasn’t unusual; one historian has described correspondence schools of the era as “the leading academy of what we now call graphic design.” (Curiously enough, these institutions tended to be scattered throughout the Midwest and Rust Belt: Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Scranton, and Kalamazoo were all home to popular correspondence schools.)
Apart from the professors, many of the students at the School of Illustration also eventually became well known in the art and design worlds. Oz Cooper created Cooper Black, a font “as endemic to design as confirmation is to Christianity.” (To take two wildly divergent examples of its use in pop culture, see the cover of Tyler the Creator’s Goblin and the opening credits to Diff’rent Strokes.) Other alumni include humorist and radio commentator Harry Hirshfield, artist Cyrus Leroy Baldridge, and Bertha Lum, who popularized Japanese woodblock carvings in the United States.
Then there was W.A. Dwiggins, the artistic polymath who made significant contributions to type and book design, calligraphy, and puppetry. He’s widely credited as the man who coined the term “graphic design” — but that’s a myth, exhaustively debunked by the design historian Paul Shaw.
Dwiggins spent his youth in a number of small Ohio and Indiana towns, and came to Chicago as, in Shaw’s words, “an earnest young man.” Shaw suspects that it was under Holme’s influence Dwiggins developed his own irreverent sense of humor; the whimsical personality led him to do things like conjure up a family full of Teutonic blowhards: the imaginary Püterscheins whose name Dwiggins would adopt as his pseudonym for various writing and publishing projects. (The name apparently comes from a holiday gathering during which Dwiggins, unable to satisfactorily polish a metal pitcher, said, “I can’t make the damn pewter shine.”)
Meanwhile, the School of Illustration was a success. Brush and Pencil, an industry magazine, noted a year or so after it opened that the school had expanded to twice its original size. Holme also published articles on education in different trade outlets, railing, for instance, against those who saw newspaper illustration as a “stepping-stone” to greater commercial or artistic pursuits. Or, as he put it in one monthly magazine, the Art Interchange, “No managing editor will voluntarily submit to being ‘stepped on’ for any length of time.”
During all of this, he apparently ignored W.D. Boyce’s decade-old warning about the dangers of overwork. In 1901, Holme contracted tuberculosis. The illness, his friends speculated, 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 released a 24-page book, evocatively titled, Swanson, Able Seaman, or The Melancholy Fate of a Hapless Mariner. 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 had the ingenious idea of forming the Bandar Log Stockholders Corporation, an informally traded company people could buy into at $25 a share — around $740 today. (According to an obituary for Holme, Mark Twain wanted a share, but they had all been sold. One of the artist’s friends eventually let Twain buy in at double the price.)
In 1903, Holme moved to a ranch a few miles outside Phoenix, Arizona, where he spent most of his time working seriously on the press, operating it out of an abandoned chicken coop. He published a number of works, among them the Poker Rubaiyat, a half-serious poker handbook in the style of the then-popular Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which had recently been translated into English. He also put out three slim volumes in a series called “The Strenuous Lad’s Library,” a satirical take on the era’s dime novels for children. Much of his work now resides at the University of Arizona Libraries, in an archive that 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; that June, he died at the age of 36. The same year, the School of Illustration folded, undone, as Dwiggins’s biographer Bruce Kennett puts it, by Holme’s “ineptitude in financial matters.”
Its faculty dispersed across the country. The Athenaeum building was demolished in the 1920s and replaced by the Buckingham, a 27-story skyscraper. Even within archives or history books, it’s hard to find a trace of the community of artists that flourished here well over a century ago, led by, as one note of condolence read, “the bulliest of bully fellows.” Still, their legacy lives on around us, whether or not we recognize it.