Elizabeth Orton Jones
Elizabeth Orton Jones was born June 25, 1910, in Highland Park, Ill. Her great-grandfather, Joseph Russell Jones, was a friend of Abraham Lincoln and minister to Belgium under President Grant. Her grandmother, Annette L.R. Jones was a professional pianist; her father, George Roberts, a violinist; and her mother, Jessie Mae Orton Jones, “a fine pianist” and writer. (Elizabeth would eventually collaborate with her mother on four books). Elizabeth, the eldest of three, grew up in a household she describes as a place where people from various walks of life and people of various nationalities and races liked to visit. There was always music, reading aloud, laughter, and much to talk about and share with others. In addition, her parents carefully structured time for silence in which to read, write, look at pictures, draw, think and imagine.
After graduating from the House in the Pines in Norton, Mass., and winning the Silver Cup for English Composition, Jones entered the University of Chicago. There, she majored in art and also took a full course at the Art Institute of Chicago from which she graduated in her junior year. She received her Ph.B. on March 15, 1932, and later that same year acquired a Diplôme in painting at the École des Beaux Arts in Fontainebleau, France. Jones then studied with artist Camille Liausu (1894 -1975) in Paris. One day, while working in Liausu's studio, Jones was feeling “fearfully tense and serious.” Liausu instructed her to go out into the park, observe children playing there and then return to the studio and try to get some movement into her drawing. She spent more and more time watching children and drawing them. When Jones returned to the United States, she had a one-person exhibit of color etchings of children at the Smithsonian Institution. Finding that she missed the children of Paris more than the city itself, Jones created two French boys named Mich and Tobie. Each picture she drew was accompanied with text of their adventures. This became her first book for children: Ragman of Paris and His Ragamuffins, published by Oxford University Press in 1937. Jones claims that even before this book was finished she knew that making books for children was what she wanted to do above all else. She stated, “A very strong sense of responsibility to what children are as individuals in their own right became firmly established as an imperative in my life.”
In the spring of 1940, after Jones had already established herself as a successful writer and illustrator of children's books, she left her studio, which was situated in the family house in Highland Park, to work on the illustrations for her new book Maminka's Children (published by the Macmillan Company in 1940) with Lillian and William Glaser in Long Island City, NY. The Glasers, printers who were considered the best in their field and in high demand particularly for children's books, used a special process of drawing on grained plate glass with a very hard pencil, which produced results comparable to printing from lithographic stones in the European tradition. This long and exacting process required Jones to draw on a large rectangle of glass fitted to a specially built table. After she finished, the glass was taken up, laid upon a sensitized aluminum plate and exposed like film. The drawing was transferred onto the metal plate by light passing through the transparent areas of the glass. The final result offered a direct feel of the artist's own hand. In a letter to her parents in the spring of 1940, Jones wrote, “I'm learning such a lot that I couldn't begin to tell you about, not even if I kept writing for a month, all about printing processes and the making of books. Oh, it's wonderful! I'm learning things that I've been longing to know for years . . . I'm really going to know how to make books after this!” Jones and the Glazers were perfectionists, which resulted in brilliantly illustrated books characterized by a vividness, delicacy and rich detail.
Jones illustrated a number of books by other people and in 1945, won the Caldecott Medal for her artwork in Rachel Field's Prayer for a Child. Upon winning this prestigious award given annually by the American Library Association for the best-illustrated children's book, Jones commented, “Drawing is very like a prayer. Drawing is a reaching for something away beyond you. As you sit down to work in the morning, you feel as if you were on top of a hill. And it is as if you were seeing for the first time. You take your pencil in hand. You'd like to draw what you see. And so you begin. You try ... . Every child in the world has a hill, with a top to it. Every child-black, white, rich, poor, handicapped, unhandicapped. And singing is what the top of each hill is for. Singing-drawing-thinking-dreaming-sitting in silence . . . saying a prayer. I should like every child in the world to know that he has a hill, that that hill is his no matter what happens, his and his only, forever.”
An artist of many years standing in etching, printing, pastel, water color, gouache, graphite, ink and oil, Jones has won numerous awards and has had many distinguished exhibits. She is well known in New Hampshire for her murals at the Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center in Greenfield as well as for her panel in the children's room of the University of New Hampshire library at Durham.
Edith Ballinger Price Elizabeth
Orton Jones Virginia
Kurt Werth Children's Literature Page Special Collections