Born in Hempstead, Long Island in 1926, Hilary Knight spent the first six years of his life in a wonderful old house a few yards from the public library -- a wondrous place that offered hours of reading and looking at pictures. Both of his parents are successful commercial artists and book illustrators, and Hilary grew up in an atmosphere where reality was art and making pictures was the everyday thing to do. His mother, Kathleen Sturges, came from Chicago and had studied oriental art in Japan, when she was 18. At the time, this was a remarkably bold adventure for such a young woman, and it would forever influence her thinking and work as an artist. Later, she became known in the commercial and fashion worlds of illustration for her graceful curving line and her use of birds and flowers in the Japanese tradition. Hilary recalls, "Her paintings were all around the house, full of color and fantastic birds and flowers, all very '30s in style, and also rather deco. In the dining room hung two of her full-scale murals that were quite spectacular."
"Both my parents," he went on to say, "had incredible technical training, which is rare these days. My mother painted these huge oil paintings for magazine illustrations. She was always very busy and would give me a paper and colors and I would work too. It all seemed very natural at the time." Hilary's father, Clayton Knight, was a well known aviation illustrator and an author, who commuted watch day to his studio in Manhattan. He was an active member of the Society of Illustrators, and some of his work can still be seen today in the society's permanent museum collection at 63rd Street and Park Avenue. AN immensely popular illustrator, Clayton Knight had an impressive client list of some of the most prestigious names in the graphics arena. It was during these years, the 1920s and 1930s, often called the golden years of the art of illustration, that the glossy magazine came into its own. Because photography was a fledgling art form just beginning to realize its enormous potential in the magazine world, artists had an abundance of work. Men and women such as N. C. Wyeth, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Norman Rockwell, and the Leyendecker brothers were drawn into the field. Advertising agencies arrived on the scene and were a powerful influence: they had large budgets, offered plenty of work, and created some historic images that are familiar to us even today. It was in this world that Hilary grew up.
The Knight family was close-knit and caring and shared many wonderful outings to the beach and trips to Florida to visit grandparents. Clayton Joseph, Hilary's older brother by 3 years, and he were best pals and played together constantly -- a friendship that continued until Clayton died at the early age of 35. The Knights' home was full of paintings and other art objects from the arts decoratifs movement that was the current rage; his mother loved its innovative flair. Any child growing up would have found the house a wonderland, but for Hilary the artist, it was to be the wellspring of his own unique high style, his fluid curving line, and a decorative sensibility as he began his own journey into art. His parents, as one might suspect, greatly influenced his work. His growing love for decorative and romantic side of life came from his mother, and his keen sense of technical accuracy from his father. When he was only five, he completed a sophisticated painting of a lady with birds -- obviously influenced by his mother's work. His parents, however, never exerted any pressure on his decision to become an artist. When I asked when he decided to become an artist, he replied, "I never thought I would be anything else." As a child, Hilary spent hours looking at illustrated books by such people as Boutet de Monval and Edmund Dulac. He would be forever influenced by the sophisticated compositional design, format, color, and attention to detail of de Monval, and the haunting beauty, romance, and fantasy of Dulac. This early interest in art did not mean that Hilary spent all his time absorbed in books and painting. An old black-and-white movie from the family's collection finds the young artist playing on the family swing, but instead of sitting on the wooded seat, he is upside down, swinging wildly, wearing a lopsided grin, and talking a mile a minute. Another clip shows him listening with rapt attention as his grandfather pokes around under the hood of an old Ford in the garage.
A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh was the young Hilary's first book choice, and he often says, he often felt that he grew up with Christopher Robin, Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, and the others. His affection clearly remains: "These are probably my most favorite books of all. They are so funny. Shepard's pen-and-ink drawings are so simple and direct; he was a truly remarkable artist. Dulac, on the other hand, was sheer fantasy. He was glamorous and exotic; he went from very elaborate and painterly watercolors to completely stylized Persian paintings."
When Hilary was 6, the Knights moved to New York, where they lived in an apartment just off Fifth Avenue. By the time he was 16, he had enrolled in the Art Student's League, where George Gross and Reginald Marsh became his first teachers. "Marsh," Hilary recalls, "was the one who really taught me to draw. How to see the figure and construct it."
World War II interrupted Hilary's schooling; he joined the Navy at 18 but when the war was over he returned to New York and enrolled at the School of Interior Design to become a set designer. His love affair with the theatre had begun and would be lifelong. Gradually, however, he returned to illustration, intrigued by the work in British magazines Punch and Lilliput, where he was introduced to the likes of Ronald Searle and Heath Robinson, with their energetic black-line drawings and caustic humor. Their work motivated Hilary to begin work on a series of funny drawings of children, some of them quite grotesque but nevertheless full of movement and wicked satire. Eventually these pictures brought assignments from magazines such as Gourmet and House and Garden. Then one day, Dede Dixon of Harper's Bazaar introduced him to Kay Thompson, the talented singer and supper club entertainer, and Eloise was born.
Besides the classic and timeless Eloise books, Hilary has also written and illustrated many classic children's stories and poems including "The Owl and the Pussycat," "Cinderella," and "The Twelve Days of Christmas.
Knight, who still lives in New York, has a summer studio on Long Island,
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Through The Looking Glass Children’s Book Reviews
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