About John R. Neill

John R. Neill (1877 - 1943)


John R. Neill (1877—1943)

John Rea Neill (12 November 1877 — 13 September 1943) was a commercial illustrator primarily remembered for illustrating thirty-five volumes in the Oz series of children's books—thirteen Oz books by L. Frank Baum, nineteen Oz books by Ruth Plumly Thompson, and three of Neill's own. Today his pen and ink drawings have become identified almost exclusively with the Oz series, but Neill's career encompassed much more.

Neill’s father Robert Rea Neill, had been born in Skerries, County Dublin, Ireland, in 1845, and immigrated to New York City with his family in the 1840s. Neill’s mother, Mary Virginia Snedecker, of Dutch descent, was born in 1848 in Nyack, Rockland County, New York, where she and Robert Neill married in 1869. They had 12 children, eight of whom lived to adulthood.

The Neill family lived in New York City until the depression that followed the Panic of 1873, when they moved to Philadelphia and ran a family laundry business in the Bella Vista section. John Rea Neill, the fifth child, was born in Philadelphia on November 12, 1877. Three months later, on February 17, 1878, John R. Neill was baptized at Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Church, located in the Francisville section of Philadelphia.

After Robert Neill's untimely death in 1887, Mary Neill ran the laundry until her eldest son, John's older brother Harman, took over in 1889. John would remain close to his brother Harman "Harry" Neill for the rest of his life.

John R. Neill spent his boyhood in suburban Germantown and was educated in the public schools. When he was thirteen years old, he was confirmed on May 17, 1891, at the Church of Saint John the Baptist in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia.

John R. Neill's illustrations were first published in 1894-95 in the newspaper of Philadelphia's Central High School, where he graduated in June 1895. While still in high school, Neill began working on a now-defunct Philadelphia newspaper as a “cub” reporter. He was assigned to cover the Police Court and earned three dollars and fifty cents a week. One day during a hearing, a pencil sketch Neill drew attracted the attention of Lemuel Clarke "Pop" Davis, managing editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger. Davis gave Neill a letter of introduction to Col. James Elverson, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who hired Neill for the Inquirer’s art department. Neill's earliest identifiable published work was the group of illustrations for the Philadelphia Inquirer's newspaper's 1894 serialization of H. Rider Haggard's novel Heart of the World. 

In the fall of 1895 Neill entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, but dropped out after one semester to join the art staff of a local newspaper, probably the Philadelphia Herald. He subsequently worked for several Philadelphia newspapers, including the Inquirer and the Public Ledger, as a prolific illustrator. He also produced advertising art for Philadelphia's Wanamaker department store. While in the Inquirer's art department he befriended fellow newspaper artist Joseph Clement Coll, whose developing illustration style greatly influenced Neill's work. When the entire art department of the Philadelphia Inquirer went on strike in the late 1890s, Neill left to become a staff artist of the Philadelphia North American.

John R. Neill self-portrait in Everybody's Magazine, December 1919.

In 1900 Neill and Joe Coll moved to New York City and worked for the New York Evening Journal. Neill returned to Philadelphia and married his first wife, Elsie G. Barrows, on October 7, 1902. Born in 1885 in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Elsie was the daughter of cordage manufacturer John Barrows, a Philadelphia councilman at the time.

Working again at the Philadelphia North American, Neill produced the comic strip "Toyland" (1905-06) and the Sunday comics page "The Little Journeys of Nip and Tuck" with verses by W. R. Bradford (1909–10). Some of his work for the North American was syndicated nationally. Neill's North American newspaper series "Children's Stories That Never Grow Old" was re-issued in book form by Reilly & Britton, starting in 1908, and remained in print into the 1920s. Among the many novels he illustrated for newspaper serialization was L. Frank Baum's The Fate of a Crown in 1906. 

While Neill and Coll worked for the North American, they established their own small studio. They influenced and challenged each other, and the drawing styles of both men evolved rapidly during these years, about 1904-1908.

In 1911 Neill resigned from the North American and moved back to New York. He left newspaper illustration behind to concentrate on illustrating for magazines. He also left his marriage behind. In 1915 Elsie divorced him on grounds of desertion. In 1916 Neill met an actress named Margaret Lavinia Slattery, born 1889 in Lyons, Rice County, Kansas. Under the stage name Margaret Carroll she was starring in Broadway's Cort Theatre production of The Yellow Jacket as the character "Moy Fah Loy." Until her death in 1984 she was known to her family as Moy. Neill and Moy married in 1919 and had three daughters, Natalie Mather (1921-2019), Annrea Sutton Maleska (1923-2002), and Joan Farnsworth (1929-2011).

Neill did a great deal of magazine illustration work, largely forgotten today. He worked for an extremely broad range of publications, both famous and obscure, including The Ladies' Home Journal, The Delineator, The Saturday Evening Post, Argosy, Vanity Fair, Woman's World, and Boys' Life. Beginning in 1909, he produced a series of Neill Gift Books, volumes of poetry furnished with his illustrations. These volumes included Hiawatha and Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Snow-Bound by John Greenleaf Whittier, and The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. Neill had begun work on Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant when the series was cancelled by the publisher. Neill illustrated a wide range of other books, including more than a dozen series of books for boys and girls credited to such authors as H. Irving Hancock and Jessie Graham Flower, published 1910-14 by the Altemus Publishing Company of Philadelphia — The Battleship Boys, The High School Boys, The Automobile Girls, etc.

Tastes, styles, and printing techniques changed, and during the Depression years of the 1930s Neill found his magazine illustration career drying up. But he still had an annual Oz book to illustrate until the year of his death, 1943, when on September 19, he died of heart failure at the age of sixty-five.

Neill's association with Oz began with The Marvelous Land of Oz, L. Frank Baum's second Oz book, appearing in 1904 as the first publication of the newly formed Reilly & Britton Company of Chicago. (The first Oz book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was illustrated by W. W. Denslow and published by George M. Hill in 1900.) About 1904, publishers Frank K. Reilly and Sumner C. Britton of the Reilly and Britton Company of Chicago became impressed with Neill’s newspaper work and approached him to illustrate The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Neill turned their offer down. They asked again. Neill turned it down again. They asked a third time. Neill finally caved in and took the job. Neill illustrated his first Oz book while living at the property dubbed "Devil's Half Acre" on the Delaware River in Lumberville, Pennsylvania. With the publication of The Marvelous Land of Oz in July 1904, Neill became the Imperial Illustrator of Oz. Nearly every year for the rest of his life Neill illustrated at least one Baum or Oz book, including several of Baum's other children's fantasies, John Dough and the Cherub, The Sea Fairies, and Sky Island.

Neill continued to illustrate Oz books after Baum's death in 1919. Neill's artwork was praised for helping give the Oz books of Baum's successor, Ruth Plumly Thompson, legitimacy in the eyes of Baum's fans. Neill eventually succeeded Thompson as the designated "Royal Historian of Oz." The three Oz books Neill wrote for Oz book publisher Reilly & Lee appeared one a year from 1940 to 1942. These were The Wonder City of Oz, The Scalawagons of Oz, and Lucky Bucky in Oz.

Neill was not as prolific a writer as he was an illustrator. His verse appeared with his illustrations in The Sunday Magazine, including the series "Life Among the Macaronis." A couple of his short stories appeared—also with his illustrations—in Boy's Life magazine. In addition to the three Oz books he wrote and illustrated, he had completed the draft of a fourth, The Runaway in Oz, at the time of his death in 1943, but had not finished any illustrations for it. Due to World War II paper restrictions and falling sales of the Oz series, publisher Reilly & Lee decided not to issue The Runaway in Oz, and it lay incomplete until 1995, when it was published by Books of Wonder with illustrations by Eric Shanower. Neill left a second unpublished book-length manuscript at the time of his death, The Foolosopher, a picaresque story with fantasy elements set during the American colonial era. Neill completed many illustrations for The Foolospher, but the project remains unpublished.

www.johnrneill.com - John R. Neill  circa 1929

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