ST. JOHN: DEAN of FANTASY ILLUSTRATORS
by Darrell C. Richardson
For a number of years I have had a great admiration for the art work of
J. Allen St. John. I was introduced to his work thru his magnificent illustrations
in the "Tarzan" and "Martian" books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Later I began
to collect books and magazines that contained his illustrations. More recently,
I have been collecting original paintings and illustrations of his.
Last summer I had the privilege of meeting Mr. St. John and having a
long visit with him in his own studio in Chicago. My younger brother is
a student at the American Academy of Art where St. John is a professor.
I decided to drive up to Chicago for a week of book and magazine searching
combined with a visit to my brother. Plans had already been made for me
to meet St. John.
My first visit to the Field Museum, the Railroad Fair, Shasta Publishers,
Ziff-Davis (the home of AMAZING STORIES and FANTASTIC ADVENTURES) and many
other points of interest made my trip worthwhile. In addition, my search
among the book stores and back-issue magazine stores proved highly rewarding.
However, all of this is another story. The real highlight of my trip was
my visit with St. John.
Arrangements were made to meet Mr. St. John at the Art Academy. Entering
the main office of the school, the first object of my attention was a huge
painting of Tarzan and Jad-Bal-Ja hanging above the door. It was immediately
recognized as St. John's original for the book jacket of "Tarzan and the
Frank H. Young, President and founder of the famous American Academy
of Art was introduced to me by my brother Haskell. He, in turn, took us
back to St. John's room where he was teaching one of his classes in "life"
figure drawing. Mr. Young introduced me to Mr. St. John, a very tall and
elderly gentleman, with a quiet and friendly voice. He immediately suggested
that we walk into the next room for a chat. I noticed a familiar drawing
on the wall of his classroom. It was one of the original illustrations
for the book, "Tarzan the Terrible", showing Mo-Sar, the tailed man of
Pal-ul-don, carrying Jane (Tarzan's mate) away as she struggled and fought
fiercely. Mr. St. John explained that he kept it framed in his classroom
because it was one of the finest examples of a "wash-drawing" that he had
Mr. Young, before he left us, commented briefly on the worth of Mr.
St. John as an instructor and how much he meant to the Academy. He also
praised his illustrating skill and stated that he was a very fine artist.
Anyone in the field of Commercial Art will realize that this praise meant
something coming from a man like Frank H. Young. Mr. Young is author of
three of the best-known textbooks in advertising art --- namely, "Advertising
Layout", "Modern Advertising Art" and "Technique of Advertising Layout"
and has achieved international recognition as an authority in the field
of commercial art.
I mentioned many specific St. John illustrations that appealed to me
and also mentioned by date various cover illustrations from BLUE BOOK,
WEIRD TALES, AMAZING STORIES and other publications that were special favorites
of mine. Mr. St. John not only seemed amazed at our knowledge of his work
but was sincerely astounded that anyone had such an interest in his art.
I assured him that he has hundreds of fans who admired his work immensely.
Especially is this true of Burroughs' fans who consider that Burroughs'
tales and St. John's pictures go together like ham and eggs. Mr. St. John
seemed totally unaware of organized fandom, closely knit together by their
interest in fantasy. In parting, Mr. St. John expressed much "appreciation
of our appreciation" and invited us to visit him in his studio the next
The following afternoon we arrived at Mr. St. John's address on Ontario
Street and were shown into his studio, where he also lives. The atmosphere
of the studio, the massive easel, railed balcony, the heterogeneous mixture
of drawings, paintings and objects of art here and there, seemed in every
way to be appropriate to our expectations. Indeed, the furnishings, the
huge sky-light, the paintings of European and African scenes on the walls
provided an ideal setting for the famed artist.
Knowing of our interest in Burroughs, Mr. St. John had set out a stack
of his own personal collection of Burroughs illustrations to show us. They
were stacked one against the other faced against the wall and we could
only see one at a time. The very first one happened to be the frontispiece
for "At the Earth's Core" -- the one which is titled: "The awful thing
behind me was gaining rapidly." Then one by one St. John would take a picture
from the stack and place it on the easel where we could view it in comfort.
Once or twice he seemed to forget just what story a particular painting
illustrated -- but old Burroughs fan that I am, I was able to identify
each one on the instant! You can imagine the thrill of expectancy with
which we awaited the removal, one by one, of the various paintings. My
breath was almost taken away by the enormous size of the drawings and by
the flawless technique and vivid imagination they demonstrated. I could
write pages just describing these various paintings and the many little
human interest stories connected with several of them.
For example, soon after he had shown us the cover painting in color
for the book jacket of "Pellucidar", he pulled out what I took to be the
same painting, done not in colors, but in black and white. He placed them
side by side and then small differences were noted. It seems that when
the Editor at McClurg's saw the interior illustration of Dian the Cave
Girl facing the Saber-tooth tiger, he was so impressed that he asked St.
John to paint the same scene in colors for the book jacket.
It was interesting to observe that St. John himself owned the first
illustration he had ever done of John Carter of Mars, namely -- the painting
on the jacket of "The Warlord of Mars" (another artist, Frank E. Schoonover,
had illustrated the first two Martian titles). Painted in oils on canvas,
still on its original stretchers, it was nearly four feet high. He remarked
that many years ago it had been exhibited in a public display, and for
this event he had painted out the lettering. It might be mentioned at this
point that St. John invariably did his own lettering and furthermore, painted
the lettering right on the painting. The A. C. McClurg Publishing Company
liked his lettering so much that they insisted that he do his own lettering.
St. John has a most unique style of lettering which is all his own.
The largest of all the paintings I saw was the one for the book jacket
of "At the Earth's Core". This one was a beauty. St. John said, "This represents
my very best work." He counts it the most valuable of his Burroughs illustrations.
A number of the interior illustrations from "Tarzan the Terrible" and
"The Chessmen of Mars" have been retained by the artist. It might be mentioned
here that many of the original McClurg editions of Burroughs' books contain
several St. John pictures that were never reprinted in subsequent editions.
Having a complete set of Burroughs first editions, I was able to recognize
many of these illustrations that never reappeared in the reprints. Thus
some of St. John's finest work has been seen by comparatively few people.
For example, the first editions of several titles such as "Thuvia, Maid
of Mars", "The Chessmen of Mars", "Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar", "Tarzan
the Untamed", "Tarzan the Terrible", "Tarzan and the Golden Lion", "At
the Earth's Core" and others contain as many as ten full page St. John
illustrations. Usually only three or four of these appeared in the reprint
My brother Haskell admired greatly an original from "Tarzan the Terrible"
showing Korak, the son of Tarzan battling the huge prehistoric reptile
in the waters of the swamp which bordered the land of Pal-ul-don. St. John
replied, "That was one of the more difficult illustrations....showing the
figure under water with a portion of the reptile above and a part below
the water-line, and without the use of color, presented difficulties. I
like this picture about as well as any I ever did."
Many of St. John's illustrations for the Tarzan and Martian stories
were painted in heavy oils on board, without the use of colors other than
whites, blacks and shades of gray.
In reply to the question, "What is in your opinion the best illustration
for a Burroughs tale?" St. John pointed out the one in "Tarzan the Untamed"
where Tarzan, after nearly dying of hunger and thirst on the desert, feigns
death and when Ska the Vulture swoops down, he quickly comes to life and
stretches forth his mighty arm to grasp the great bird. I asked Mr. St.
John just how he went about illustrating a story. He replied, "Well, I
first read the story for enjoyment just as you would. Then I read it a
second time and jot down ideas about various scenes that appeal to me for
illustrating purposes. I then try to illustrate the story accurately according
to the author's description." Would that more artists today would follow
this simple but wise plan!
Mr. St. John considers Edgar Rice Burroughs a good friend -- but related
that since Burroughs moved to California their paths had not crossed frequently.
Burroughs always felt that St. John was a very happy choice to be the illustrator
of his stories. He once told St. John that he felt his illustrations were
responsible for half the sale of his books. Mr. Burroughs once said, "I
consider J. Allen St. John one of the greatest illustrators in the United
After we had viewed the Burroughs illustrations, Mr. St. John spent
nearly two hours showing us many other paintings which included scenes
painted while in Holland, Belgium, North Africa, and other foreign places.
He remarked that he had been "over the waters" six times. Much of his work
was stored away and he had not seen some of it for years. He thought he
had "some more Burroughs illustrations around but wasn't sure". While rummaging
thru a closet he turned up quite a pile of cover paintings from western
books by George W. Ogden, W. R. Raine, Charles A. Seltzer and others. Just
before we left he showed us a portfolio of his work which included sample
illustrations from many books and magazines.
As Haskell and I turned to go out the door, he called us back to show
us a painting he had just completed. It was a woodland scene, showing a
shaggy satyr kneeling before an ancient stone statue of Pan with a beautiful
nude maiden astride his shoulders. The delicate coloring, the almost eerie
beauty of the sylvan glade, along with the mythological subject itself,
make the painting one of the finest pieces of fantasy art that I have ever
seen. He had titled it "Ave Pan", and had done it in casein rather than
oils, a medium that has intrigued him in recent years.
I shall always look back to my visit with this great fantasy artist
with a great deal of genuine pleasure. Cultured and reserved, with a thoughtful
and modest manner, Mr. St. John impressed me as a friendly and courteous
gentleman of the old school.
J. ALLEN ST. JOHN is at the present time Professor of Life Drawing
and Illustration at the American Academy of Art. For nearly twenty years
he was an instructor at the Chicago Art Institute. In his younger days
he studied at Art Students' League in New York under William M. Chase,
Carol Beckwith, Kenyon Cox and others. In Paris he studied with Jean Paul
Laurens and in Belgium and Holland with Henri Vierin. He has served as
illustrator and designer for the NEW YORK HERALD, CHICAGO RECORD-HERALD,
CHICAGO TRIBUNE, American Colortype Co., A. C. McClurg Publishing Co.,
Metropolitan Books, Inc., and the Edgar Rice Burroughs Publishing Co. He
has also illustrated for such publications as HARPER'S BAZAAR, DELINEATOR,
RED BOOK, BLUE BOOK, GREEN BOOK, YOUTH'S COMPANION, BOY'S WORLD, WEIRD
TALES, ORIENTAL STORIES, MAGIC CARPET, AMAZING STORIES, FANTASTIC ADVENTURES
and others. He has illustrated many books, the most recent being "The Life
of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle" by John Dickinson Carr.
His paintings have been exhibited in the Paris Salon, National Academy
in New York, Pennsylvania Academy, Chicago Art Institute and other places.
He is represented in many private and public collections. He has always
maintained his private studio and during most of his lifetime has been
located on Ontario Street in Chicago.