Born September 14, 1837
Died April 21, 1911
Montclair, New Jersey
Illustrator and painter
"At home I was only a little chap who liked to amuse himself with paints. After the bishop [encouraged] me, I felt myself dedicated to the work of transcribing the beauties of the world."
Harry Fenn was one of the great illustrators of the nineteenth century. Before photography came into regular use by the end of the century, illustrators created images for books and periodicals. Fenn worked for many of the leading magazines and authors. In addition, he was the major contributor to the highly popular and critically acclaimed "Picturesque America" series that appeared in Appleton's Journal and in a book published in 1872. The series showcased the variety of natural wonders in the United States, from mountain scenes of the northeast to lush vegetation and wildlife along the rivers and swamps of Florida. The book proved so popular that Fenn was also commissioned as the main illustrator for Picturesque Europe (1876) and Picturesque Palestine, Sinai, and Egypt (1883).
Harry Fenn was born with the name Henry on September 14, 1837, in Richmond, outside of London, England, to James and Alice Fenn. Fenn's father, who sold dry goods, recognized his son's talent as an artist and wanted to ensure those skills were advanced and could be put to practical use in a professional career. Fenn was working on a painting at age twelve in a local park and drew the attention of a bishop visiting from New Zealand. The bishop was so impressed with Fenn's talent that he bought the boy a box of paints and brushes. Fenn would say later in a magazine interview that the experience transformed him from painting for fun to becoming "dedicated to the work of transcribing the beauties of the world."
Soon after, Fenn's father apprenticed (worked as a student with an experienced adult) the young artist to the Dalziel Brothers, a wood engraving firm in London. As an apprentice, Fenn worked odd jobs in the firm while learning to master the skill of wood engraving. A wood engraver uses a sharp tool (a graver) to cut an illustration into a wooden block. Ink is placed on the illustration, and the block is pressed against paper to reproduce the image created by the engraver. The block can be used to recreate the picture many times in the printing process of books, magazines, and other items.
The Dalziel Brothers firm was engraving for the finest English illustrators, including Birket Foster (1825–1899), a leading watercolor painter of nature scenes. Engravers at the Dalziel Brothers recreated such illustrations so they could be included in print sources. By the time he was eighteen, Fenn was an accomplished engraver and had continued his own creative work by illustrating and painting works of buildings and landscapes.
Off to America
Having established his credentials as an engraver, Fenn set off to the United States at age nineteen with Charles Kingdon, a fellow worker at Dalziel Brothers. Fenn soon found work in New York City as a wood engraver for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in 1857 and 1858. Since newspapers were only beginning at that time to include multiple and sophisticated illustrations, Fenn's skills were in demand. Periodicals were becoming more picture-oriented, and photography had not yet developed enough for use in mass media. Fenn also found work illustrating mass-produced fiction called dime novels (the name refers to books produced cheaply and quickly that sold for a dime), which were popular at the time.
Fenn attended the Graham Art School in Brooklyn, New York, for further training. Around this time, he met Marian Thompson, the daughter of a Brooklyn silver engraver. Married in 1862, the Fenns would have six children, four daughters and twin sons. One son died in infancy and the other, Walter, would become an illustrator like his father. Shortly after their marriage, the Fenns traveled to Europe, which included a return to England for Fenn and a stay in Italy, where he studied painting.
After the couple returned to the United States in 1863, Fenn established a dual career as an illustrator for publishers and as a creative artist. He enjoyed drawing and painting his own works, including watercolors of landscapes for exhibitions with the American Watercolor Society. The Fenns lived in Brooklyn, but soon settled in Montclair, New Jersey, where several other artists lived. In Montclair, Fenn had closer access to nature but was still close enough to New York City to maintain business relationships. Fenn's work between 1864 and 1868 included illustrations of Trenton Falls for a New Jersey guidebook; images for a book of poems by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892); and pictures for gift books, including depictions of plants, birds, and farm life for Our Young Folks, published by the popular firm of Ticknor and Fields.
Fenn also began illustrating from photographs, which were still difficult to reproduce into mass publications at that time. Beyond the Mississippi (1867), by Albert D. Richardson, and A Journey in Brazil (1868), by Louis and Elizabeth Agassiz, were books that contained Fenn's illustrations made from photographs. By 1868, Fenn was working regularly for Harper and Brothers, New York's largest publishing house.
Picturing the Picturesque
Fenn soon won a commission to work with New York's second-largest publishing firm, D. Appleton and Company, on its new "Picturesque America" series. Through magazines and books, Appleton wanted to provide illustrations of natural wonders that had been previously impossible to publish on a large scale with excellent details. Fenn was commissioned to travel to the South to create illustrations for Appleton's Journal. The choice of the South for the first issue was significant because it "promoted sectional reconciliation, satisfied curiosity, and attempted to expand the market of the magazine" following the Civil War (1861–65), according to Sue Rainey, who wrote a history of the "Picturesque America" series.
The series began in the November 1870 edition of Appleton's Journal with Fenn's renditions of river and swamp scenes from Florida. Later issues included Fenn's illustrations of rivers and mountains in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania, the Natural Bridge in Virginia, and ocean side scenes from East Hampton, New York. Many of Fenn's engraving formats were unconventional and innovative. He captured a sense of energy and wonder by careful attention to viewpoint, and he kept up with the latest advances in production of images, from sophisticated engraving techniques to improvements in the printing process. The dynamic quality he achieved kept Fenn's work valuable and popular for another century, and many of his prints sell as posters in the twenty-first century. A review of his work by the Art Journal of London in January 1877 praised Fenn as having "a very happy faculty of seizing upon unconventional points of view in a scene."
In the spring of 1872, the Appleton firm expanded the "Picturesque America" series to book form, available by subscription or sold as individual pages for fifty cents each. Fenn was the most prolific and the first contributor to Picturesque America, setting the standard and model for other illustrators to follow. Picturesque America was regarded as among the finest productions by an American publisher. That view became an official honor by an esteemed panel at the Centennial Exposition of 1876, a celebration of Americana on the one hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
The success of Picturesque America, meanwhile, led Appleton to plan a similar series on Europe. Fenn and his family went to England in 1873, where Fenn began his work. After sketching places in England and Ireland, Fenn traveled to Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, and Switzerland on assignments. Picturesque Europe (1876) won the same acclaim and success as the Picturesque America series. Meanwhile, Fenn had contributed to illustrated editions of The Song of the Sower (1871) and The Story of the Fountain (1872) by American poet William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878).
From 1878 through 1882, Fenn contributed to a third series on the Picturesque theme, this time focused on the Middle East. Fenn collaborated on this assignment with another illustrator, John Douglas Woodward. They combined to produce more than six hundred wood engravings and thirtyeight steel engravings for Picturesque Palestine, Sinai, and Egypt. Fenn and Woodward traveled in the lands mentioned in the book title, walking among the ruins and wearing traditional Arabian clothes. In 1879 and 1880, Fenn completed his work on the book in Haslemere, England, working from sketches and photographs. While in England, he became acquainted with poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), and would provide illustrations for several American editions of Tennyson's poetry.
Returning to the United States in 1881, Fenn found regular and profitable employment with Century magazine and continued to compose, exhibit, and sell watercolor paintings. His experience in the Middle East led to commissions for images of Egypt and the holy lands of the Bible for such books as The Sermon on the Mount (1886), Bethlehem to Jerusalem (1888), and Out-of-Doors in the Holy Land (1908). Fenn had become wealthy and built a huge home called the Cedars on Orange Mountain, near Montclair.
In 1890, Fenn made a trip to California to capture the essence of that state's towns, missions, wildlife, and landscapes. However, Fenn's type of illustrations was going out of style by the 1890s, when photography became more commonplace in magazines. Still, he never lacked for work. As he approached the age of seventy, Fenn composed a series of illustrations of insects for Harper's Monthly from 1904 to 1907. As late as April 1911, the month he died, Fenn's illustrations of suburban gardens appeared in the April edition of Harper's Monthly.
Fenn was active in the American Watercolor Society and the Society of Illustrators until the time of his death. Through these organizations, he helped develop younger artists.
For More Information
Books and Periodicals
Brooks, Sydney. "Harry Fenn: An Appreciation." Harper's Weekly (May 13, 1911): p. 10.
Rainey, Sue. Creating Picturesque America: Monument to the Natural and Cultural Landscape. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1994.
Reed, Walt. The Illustrator in America: 1860–2000. New York: Harper Design International, 2001.