Rackham and Ekstrom Incorporated
by George T. McWhorter,
Curator, Burroughs Memorial Collection

Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) is a name to remember in the art world. He’s the superstar of kiddie lit illustrators. Bill Ekstrom’s name needs no introduction except to tell you that his middle name is Ferdinand (he hates it). When I composed the wording for his bronze plaque which hangs in the library foyer, his only correction was to change “Ferdinand” to “F.” So how did Rackham and Ekstrom come together? Mea culpa. I arrived on the scene in 1972 as a rare book curator and compulsive collector of Arthur Rackham. My only claim to fame at that time was an article on Rackham I had just published in Horn Book Magazine. The Dean of Libraries, John T. Demos, thought we could use a book collector on the faculty and introduced me to the acting President of the University of Louisville, who happened to be William F. Ekstrom. They hired me on the spot. Six months later, I donated my Rackham collection to the library as an initial step in expanding our holdings. It turned out to be one of the top three collections in the United States with many limited, signed editions in vellum bindings and several fugitive pieces which collectors 26 years later would kill for.

A colleague named Mary Harbage appeared at Ekstrom one day to see the Rackham Collection and was totally overwhelmed by it. She returned to her home base, Wright State University, with a mission: to collect as many Rackhams as she could for Wright State. When she died a few years later a Rackham Room was set up there in her honor, and a Rackham Society was formed by one of her cronies who invited me to give the keynote address at their first meeting in Dayton, Ohio. A current artist, Charles Vess, was there selling his latest book. This kick-off meeting was so successful that the members made arrangements for the following year to meet in London at the home of Rackham’s daughter, Mrs. Barbara Edwards. The members arrived at her door only to learn that she had died before they could ring the doorbell. Bad timing. As with most things in life, timing is important. Her death put a damper on future plans for the Rackham Society, and they slipped into low gear, although the Society’s newsletter continued to be published for several years. Another instance of bad timing occurred when Walt Disney invited Rackham to come to Hollywood to collaborate with him on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Rackham declined because of ill health and died shortly thereafter. Disney, as we know, went ahead with the project and made cinematic history. Rackham’s dwarfs, elves, gnomes, giants and fairies have become graphic prototypes in the genre. As Hallowe’en approaches, you’ll see his master touch in many of our traditional holiday designs.

After I sent some of our original Rackham watercolors and drawings to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for an exhibition (which got rave reviews), the curator, James Hamilton, announced triumphantly that he had decided to write Rackham’s biography, so he flew to Louisville to see our collection. I wined and dined him at the Seelbach Hotel’s Oak Room (we had wild boar and Marsala) and put him up in my guest room for three days while he wrote two chapters and outlined three more. The result was a crackerjack biography (Arthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration) which found its way into libraries all over the world, notably in Japan which had a savvy reading public just discovering Rackham for the first time. We have contributed to their coffee table books ever since. (Should I have said “sake table?”) Easton Press has just advertised a reprint edition of Rackham in fine leather bindings at fancy prices. I heaved a sigh of relief, knowing these ads were aimed at those who could not find or afford the originals. We have them all.

I often think of the Rackham Room at Wright State which was inspired by our collection but contains only a fraction of our holdings. Ours are stuffed in map cases and compact shelving. Am I jealous? You bet, but I know our day will come. The timing needs to be right. Towards this end I published a pictorial checklist of the Rackham Collection at Ekstrom. Someday, somebody will see it and donate a Rackham room. Meanwhile, the Medical School and other branches of our university family enjoy higher funding priorities. C’est la vie.