Henry Patrick Raleigh was a superb draftsman and accomplished illustrator who flourished during the Golden Age of American Illustration. He was sought after by the most popular authors and publications. During his success, he was one of the highest-paid illustrators in the country. In 1925, Art Critic Evert Shinn proclaimed him “America’s greatest illustrator.”
Raleigh was born in Portland, Oregon in 1880, into a broken family and a life of poverty. He began working at the age of 9. Selling newspapers to support his mother and sisters. By 12 he dropped out of school and found work on the docks of San Francisco for a coffee importer. Working side-by-side with sailors from around the world, they filled his young head with amazing tales of life in places far away. Inspired by these stories, he began sketching and sharing them. His co-workers were impressed by his drawings, as was his boss. Taking a liking to the budding artist, Raleigh’s boss offered to pay his tuition at renowned San Francisco art school, the Hopkins Academy.
After three short years, Raleigh graduated from Hopkins. At just 17, his exceptional drawing ability landed him a job with the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper. There he worked as a cub reporter-artist, covering some of the most extreme, emotional and unpleasant topics including executions, fires and fatal accidents. He even illustrated at the morgue for murder and suicide stories. By 19, he was working for the San Francisco Examiner as one of their highest-paid artists.
Raleigh’s time working for newspapers taught him to have a keen eye, expert awareness, and remarkable memory. Days spent in the morgue gave him all the time he needed to study and understand anatomy.
The San Francisco Examiner happened to be American publisher William Randolph Hearst’s favourite newspaper. Discovering Raleigh’s work in the pages of the Examiner, Hearst asked him to relocate to New York City to work for The New York Journal. In just nine months of moving to New York and working for the Journal, Raleigh was offered a position at their rival paper, The New York World. With a large salary increase, his new role only required him to work three days a week. Assigned to illustrate Special Features, he covered high society events, drawing the well-to-do of New York.
The irony was not lost, that the young man from a desperately poor background was now known for his illustrations of opulent parties and fashionable socialites.
His short working weeks allowed him to take on commissions from magazines. Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazar, Collier’s, and Saturday Evening Post were among some of his early assignments. With his popularity was still growing, at just 30 years of age, Raleigh was making more money than he could have dreamed of. In 1914 he was chosen by Collier’s to create illustrations for a five-part serialized story of “Bealby” by H. G. Wells. As if by overnight, thanks to its success, Raleigh was one of the most sought-after illustrators in America.
Working feverishly, Raleigh was one of the most prolific commercial artists of the period. By his 25th year working professionally, he had published over 20,000 illustrations. Even during the depression, for three decades his average income was well over $100,000 per year. American Artist magazine later wrote:
“In his best years his annual take was in the neighborhood of $100,000. Considering the then value of the dollar and the relatively insignificant tax on income, Raleigh probably had more cash in hand at the end of the year than any other illustrator before or since.”
For almost 30 years, Raleigh illustrated over 500 Saturday Evening Post stories. Stories by cherished authors F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie, Stephen Vincent Benet, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, and Somerset Maugham. Fitzgerald wrote a fan letter saying, “Honestly, I think they’re the best illustrations I’ve ever seen!”
Raleigh spent his money freely, he gave away thousands of dollars to friends, travelled, maintained a yacht, owned a mansion and kept a large studio in downtown Manhattan. At his peak, Raleigh was able to indulge in a lifestyle of regular trips abroad with family and friends. He found that travelling to exotic locations was the balance he needed. It helped restore his passion for illustration.
It was a lifestyle he thought would never end. Unfortunately, by the late 1930s styles and tastes changed and his work dried up. Raleigh had already become reclusive and was not willing to accept the social changes. Work for Raleigh stopped coming in. Having spent frivolously, he became bankrupt and bitter. Sadly in 1944, Raleigh committed suicide.
In his life, Henry Raleigh achieved great things leaving a body of works that are as extraordinary now as they were when he created them. He has received many recognitions, among them are the Shaw Prize for Illustration at the Salmagundi Club in 1916, the Gold Medal for Advertising Art in America in 1926 and a place in the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 1982.
Raleigh’s seemingly effortless approach to illustration showcases excellent draftsmanship with a great understanding of composition. Well-placed lines are used to guide the viewer to the intended focal points. A very beautiful and noticeable aspect of Raleigh’s style is his combining of tight, carefully observed, drawing with loose, uncontrolled, scribbles. This is not a sign of laziness nor superfluous flourishes. In an interview, Raleigh said this of his work,
“The most beautiful picture is one which the observer is left free to complete for himself. The illustrator should be able to select the essential elements in any subject which will convey to the layman the entire scene in the simplest and most direct way, avoiding mere details which tend to cause either monotony or confusion.”
You can find out much more about Henry Patrick Raleigh on this website set up by his grandson. You can also see his work in print in the book Henry Raleigh: The Confident Line by Chris Raleigh as well as issue 43 of Illustration Magazine.