John Rea Neill was a magazine and children’s book illustrator, best known for his exceptional run on the The Oz series. He Illustrated more than forty stories set in the Land of Oz, earning him the title of the Royal Illustrator of Oz.
Neill was born on November 12, 1877, in Philadelphia. He grew up in a family of eight children. After his father’s death, his mother continued to run the family laundry business, keeping the family together. In 1895 Neill enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. However he dropped out after one semester, stating they had nothing to teach him.
In 1896, Neill found work at a Philadelphia newspaper. He quickly graduated to the Philadelphia Inquirer. After that, Neill moved around quite a bit. First to Philadelphia North American, then to New York to work for the Evening Journal. Only to return to Philadelphia and the North American, then to the Public Ledger, then back again to the North American.
In 1904, he was approached by The Reilly and Britton Company to illustrate The Land of Oz. At the time Neill was overloaded with assignments, and it was only after three meetings that Reilly and Britton finally persuaded him to accept the work. In 1911, after illustrating five Oz books, Neill decided to resign from the North American so that he could freelance full time.
Although William Wallace Denslow illustrated the first Oz book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Neill illustrated every Oz book that followed up until his death. Which includes L. Frank Baum’s remaining run, the twenty books written by Ruth Plumly Thompson, and the three books that Neill authored himself.
Even though he is best known for is work on Oz, some of his best pieces were produced for other books, periodicals, and newspapers. Neill’s pen and ink work is incredible. He manages to have both a sensitive and humorous approach to his illustrations. Creating characters that really come alive on the page.
I do not believe there is a book dedicated to John R. Neill’s work as yet, though there really should be. Until that fateful day, you can find a lot of his Oz work on the Children’s Library website. Also Neill’s granddaughters has set up a website dedicated to her grandfather that features a lot of his sketches.