In the portrait, the little boy’s blue eyes twinkle as he looks straight ahead. His apple cheeks shine. There’s a gap in his teeth, and his reddish-brown hair is slightly tousled. He’s an all-American boy.
He’s Dick, of the illustrated Dick and Jane series that helped teach generations of American schoolchildren in America and beyond to read from the 1930s to the 1970s.
He’s also Nancy Childress’ childhood neighbour and the model for the drawing by her father, Robert Childress, that along with Jane, Sally, Spot and others brought the pages of the reader to life.
Nancy Childress is selling her father’s artwork at auction in the state of New Hampshire this month. Along with Dick, there are other portraits, black-and-white drawings of John F. and Jackie Kennedy and offerings from his collection of pastel paintings of college buildings around the country.
“As an artist, there were many illustrators during the time my father was working,” said Nancy Childress, who lives in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. “This was the day of the illustrator. What’s different about my father’s illustrations is that most could either do landscape or people, and he had the uncanny ability to do both equally well.”
Childress said her father , who died in 1983, never took an art class, learning to paint with a set given to him as a gift from an aunt and uncle before he was 10. And he didn’t just use the neighbours’ boy as a model for the series that he illustrated during the 1950s and ’60s: Nancy was Sally, her sister Susan became Jane and their mother was also one of Robert Childress’ inspirations.
“We loved it,” she said. “My sister and I loved getting into costumes. He would always include us. He would ask us, ‘What do you think of this? Is it too green? Is it too blue?’ But the opinion that mattered was my mother’s.
Born in South Carolina, Childress was living in Ithaca, New York, when he was commissioned to paint a portrait of H.E. Babcock, a former chairman of the board for Cornell University. Through his connection with Babcock, he met Duncan Hines, the home food entrepreneur whose cakes and other products still stock grocery shelves. Childress painted the portrait of Hines that would adorn his product packaging and Childress launched a career in advertising.
Auctioneer Ronald Pelletier said estimates for the 50 lots ran from US$100 to US$2,000 and because it was an “absolute auction” there was no reserve bid, meaning the lowest bid wins.
Pelletier is most struck by how multidisciplined Childress was.
“I mean, the man could work in any medium,” he said.