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The Red Rose Girls

November 3, 2011

This is the first post in an occasional series of stories from the collections of the University Archives. Today Brian Stewart tells a tale he uncovered while researching Jessie Smith.

Howard Pyle (1853 - 1911), author and illustrator of children's books and a member of the Drexel faculty (1894-1900) is perhaps best known for The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, first published in 1883. The Merry Adventures was one of the first modern interpretations of the story of this now-famous outlaw, and featured a new standard in detailed illustration and a storyline that greatly appealed to children. The book is often credited as being the foundation for the character's popularity, which continues to this day. Another of Pyle's works, the novel Men of Iron, was later adapted into the 1954 film The Black Shield of Falworth. Pyle was also a much sought-after instructor in the art of illustration, and both established and directed the Drexel Institute Department of Fine Arts' School of Illustration in 1894. Though Pyle retired from the Institute in 1900, he went on to found his own school; the Howard Pyle School of Illustration Art. The distinctive style that characterized the work of Pyle and many of his students would become known as 'the Brandywine School.'

Among the students who sought Pyle's instruction were Violet Oakley (1874 - 1961) and Jessie Willcox Smith (1863 - 1935). Violet Oakley is most well known for her mural works, and is responsible for a series of 43 murals that decorate the walls of the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg. Jessie Willcox Smith is most well-known for her work illustrating poetry, novels, and for publications such as Harper's, Scribners,, Ladies' Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping. Another of Pyle's students was Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871 - 1954). Green, like Smith, was a prolific illustrator of books and publications, and worked as an illustrator for Harper's Monthy for over 20 years. These names will likely be familiar to any student of illustration, as all three women would go on to be known by the name that Pyle himself gave them: The Red Rose Girls, after the Red Rose Inn that became their home. They later lived together in Cogslea, in Mount Airy in Philadelphia. In addition, all three are among the only women inducted into the Society of Illustration's Hall of Fame.

Did you know, however, that the three formed their close friendship while at Drexel? While all three women attended classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, they were also among the first of Howard Pyle's students when he formed the School of Illustration at the Drexel Institute. During the first classes, Pyle selected Violet Oakley and Jessie Willcox Smith to collaborate on a major project, which was later featured at the First Exhibition of the School of Illustration, held from May 29 to June 5, 1897. The drawings, titled Evangeline, Father Felician, The Departure of the Acadians, and The Spirit of the Wind, were intended to illustrate a new edition of the epic poem Evangeline, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

On the subject of their project, Pyle wrote a special introduction in the First Exhibition's catalogue; 'It may be interesting to mention that Miss Longfellow, the poet's daughter, was so pleased with these illustrations that she purposes writing an especial preface for this edition of the poem.' The poet's daughter was more than simply pleased, and commissioned Smith and Oakley to illustrate the whole publication. That edition of Evangeline would become Smith and Oakley's first book commission. While not involved in the same project, Elizabeth Shippen Green was featured prominently in this same exhibition. Her work for the Class in Illustration, The Same (unfinished), also received a special notation from Howard Pyle: 'This drawing, made in the Night Class, has been selected for exhibition as illustrating the method of the class work. The above subject has been accepted by Messrs. Harper & Bros. as available for an illustration for Harper's Weekly.' Pyle was undoubtedly pleased and impressed with the success of all three women, and it no surprise that the three became fast friends. For the next 14 years, the three artists would live together, each becoming individually successful in their chosen areas of specialty.

In 1911, Elizabeth Shippen Green wed Huger Ellliot and moved away from their communal home of Cogslea. This event marked an amiable end to what some consider to be the finest concentration of female illustrative talent to ever live beneath a single roof - a gathering that began right here, at the Drexel Institute.       This story is just one of the many tales of interest to be found among the historical materials in the Drexel University Archives! Experience or discover them for yourselves by investigating our collections, which cover 120 years of fascinating Drexel history!    

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