Tuesday, November 20, 2012


ACCORDING TO HIS ENTRY in Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975, John O'Hara Cosgrave II, illustrator of Upton Sinclair's Gnomobile, was an illustrator, painter, graphic artist, writer, engraver, and cartoonist. It substantiates those claims with a long list of exhibitions from Paris, France to all over America, awards he has won, a selection of books he has illustrated, and the note that he did illustrations and covers for the magazines Life, Fortune, and Yachting.

Gale Biography In Context adds only slightly more personal information. Born October, 10, 1908 in San Francisco, California to Charles O'Malley and Margaret (Mahoney) Cosgrave. Reached the rank of staff sergeant in the United States Army, Office of Strategic Services during his wartime service, 1942-1945. Married Mary Silva, a children's book illustrator, November 21, 1952. Died May 9, 1968 in Pocasset, Massachussets.

This entry neglects to mention that Mary Silva was Cosgrave's second wife. His first wife, the portrait painter Esther Flack Cosgrave died June 26, 1952 at home in New Hampshire.

Even his obituary in The New York Times is scant on information. It highlights several of the books he illustrated: Bouquets and Bitters: A Gardner's Medley (1940) by Julian Meade, Pardon My Harvard Accent (1941) by William G. Morse, There Were Two Pirates (1946) by James Branch Cabell, and several others. But why these books were chosen as a representation of his work is unclear, as The Times chose to omit Gnomobile (1936) by Upton Sinclair, Wind, Sand, and Stars (1939) by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, and Come In and Other Poems (1943) by Robert Frost, all of which might have proven more interesting. It even leaves out Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (1955) by Jean Lee Latham, which won the Newbery Medal.

There is one thing that almost all sources mention, however, and that is that Cosgrave was the nephew of John O'Hara Cosgrave, who was the editor of The New York World's Sunday Magazine for fifteen years.

And that's about it. For a man who was so prolific, often in highly visible projects, it is surprisingly (and depressingly) little information. At the library, I retrieved books illustrated by Cosgrave from the Children's Department, the Humanities Department, the Social Science and History Department, and the Visual Arts Department. And every single one poured dust out on my scanner as I scanned from them. How could someone who left so many traces as an artist, leave so few traces as a man?

From Come In, and Other Poems (1943) by Robert Frost

Particularly frustrating to me is that there is no information on how Cosgrave got involved in Sinclair's Gnomobile. Sinclair's bios never give the book more than a paragraph, and none of them mention Cosgrave. Here are a few things I have noticed, however.

Cosgrave's first job in book illustration was for Sailer, Beware! (1933), published by Farrar and Rinehart. John C. Farrar of Farrar and Rhinehart was married to one of the inventors of the crossword puzzle, Margaret Petherbridge who had been secretary to John O'Hara Cosgrave I at The New York World. Perhaps then, it was through a favor to his uncle (who also published books with Farrar and Rhinehart) by his uncle's former secretary that Cosgrave II got his first illustration job.

Three years later, Farrar and Rhinehart published The Gnomobile with Cosgrave's illustrations. He would do many other books for the publisher over the years, so perhaps it was simply through the publisher that Cosgrave got involved with Sinclair's book. However, the first edition of The Gnomobile actually appeared earlier in 1936 in an edition published by Sinclair himself with the Cosgrave illustrations already in place. So perhaps it had nothing to do with Farrar and Rhinehart.

After all, Cosgrave I had published articles by Upton Sinclair in The World and other magazines he worked on, so perhaps it was again through the younger Cosgrave's uncle that Cosgrave II illustrated Sinclair's book.

Or maybe it was for some other reason entirely.

From Clipper Ship (1963) by John O'Hara Cosgrave II

One other thing that comes out in the various sources, but most obviously in the work he actually did was Cosgrave's love of boats and boating. For awhile, it seems, Cosgrave was one of the go to artists for boats and other maritime subjects. He authored several books on the subject as well.

The Cosgrave illustrations used throughout this post are from the following books, all of which link to the corresponding set on my Flickr account where a wider selection is available:

Wind, Sand and Stars (1939) by Antoine de Saint Exupéry
Come In, and Other Poems (1943) by Robert Frost
Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (1955) by Jean Lee Latham
Clipper Ship (1963) by John O'Hara Cosgrave II

If anyone has further information on John O'Hara Cosgrave II, please let me know, and I will add it to this post.

From Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (1955) by Jean Lee Latham


All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.


  1. Cosgrave's papers are at the University of Oregon: http://nwda.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv72176 and I'm sure their librarians will have some biographical information for you. Google News Archive lists various book reviews of books illustrated by Cosgrave, as well as a couple of exhibits, etc. If you want genealogical information, I can dig that up too.

    1. Thanks. I knew the papers were at U of O, but I didn't think to contact them. I don't know why. My interest is in the Sinclair in particular, but any info you want to add here is more than welcome. Thanks for the input. ASW

  2. A link to a story about Robert Frost's Christmas cards came up in my ISP's newsfeed just now. The card shown in the story is by JHO. I remember his artwork from children's books (and I believe he did some of the illustrations in Childcraft (the orange volumes from the 40's)). I thought I'd look him up so I Googled, and found your blog. I'm now going to take a look at your other posts....I think I'll be able to read up on some favorite authors/illustrators.

    P.S. Merry Christmas!

  3. Sometime in the early 1940s, the publisher George Macy corresponded with Cosgrave about a commission to illustrate an edition of George W. Cable's Old Creole Days for the Limited Editions Club (LEC). Cosgrave was recommended to Macy by Edward Larocque Tinker (1881-1968), a well-known biographer, bibliographer, philanthropist, book designer, illustrator and literary critic (he had a prestigious Sunday column on the New York Times for several years). So Cosgrave had at least one influential admirer!
    Cosgrave accepted the commission and his watercolour sketches of New Orleans made a major contribution to what turned out a very attractive book. They were hand-coloured with up to as many as 10 shades in one illustration. Indeed so painstaking was the work that the colourists were unable to complete it on schedule, and the 1500 copies had to be despatched to LEC subscribers as and when they became available during August 1943.
    The book's red leather binding is handsome but unfortunately hasn't always worn well: this may be the reason why copies can be bought for very reasonable prices.
    I'm glad to have come across the wealth of information about Cosgrave's other work that you've put together because as an LEC collector, I've always regretted that Macy never offered him another commission. I don't know why this was; maybe they quarrelled (Macy was noted for his sudden rages), or it may be that he found Cosgrave too meticulous and slow: he wrote of him: “Mr. Cosgrave went to New Orleans, wandered through the "narrow, multicolored and dilapidated streets" and made hundreds upon hundreds of sketches. Every time he looked at them, he decided that they were not good enough, and made them over. Every time he made them over, they looked more charming.” And he added rather wryly: “It is probable that only his induction into the Army prevented him from turning these sketches and drawings into some of the great masterpieces of art!”

  4. Cosgrove also designed the cover for James Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), published by Knopf, his design acknowledge on the inside flap of the cover. Interestingly, Baldwin rejected the cover originally designed for the book and used on advance copies sent to reviewers and others. This is described in James Campbell, Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin (London, 1991), illustration 13 between pages 146-147.