Edward Windsor Kemble, original illustrator of Huck Finn

Edward Windsor Kemble (1861–1933) was a self-taught artist who is most known by illustrations of original Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He was personally chosen by Mark Twain (1835-1910) who noticed Kemble’s cartoons in Life Magazine. It all supposedly started with a picture of little boy being stung by a bee. The rest is history…


With only two years of professional experience Edward Kemble was still a beginner in illustrating business. He was 23 years old at the time.

Edward W. Kemble loved to draw from early age. His favorite pastime was observing different characters, drawing them down with a pencil and arranging the drawings along the house walls.


His first serious job was in accounting department of Western Union Telegraph Company. He still spent the evenings with drawings until his father suggested to show them to someone.

He made four cartoons and took them to Charles Parsons, art director at Harper & Brothers. Parsons said him to call in few days. Kemble didn’t call. He visited Harper & Brothers personally just to find out they bought all his cartoons.

He earned 70 dollars with these cartoons. His full time job at Western Union was paid ten bucks a week.


Only a week later Edward W. Kemble resigned from his accounting job and started career as illustrator at Daily Graphic as a cartoonist and character artist.

When Kemble got the manuscript of Huck Finn, he was asked for how much he would illustrate it. He proposed two thousand dollars. Twain and Webster agreed without complaint.


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was Kemble’s first book. It was his most successful too.


Story has a lot of different characters of both genders and very different ages, but Kimble used only one model for all the drawings. He preferred to use imaginary models anyway.

The model’s name was Courtland (Curt) Morris. He was white and he was still going to school. He was dressing different dresses and using towels to resemble the specific character as best as possible. He posed for every single portrayed character in the book.

Twain was not satisfied with first illustrations of Huck Finn. When he saw them he said the characters were not cute enough. By the way, his all time favorite illustrators were Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) and Arthur Burdett Frost (1851-1928).


After a while Twain became accustomed with Kemble’s illustrations of Huck and in the end he refused to use only one of 175 illustrations. It was a scene with a kiss and he thought it was too explicit.


Being an owner of Webster and Company (with Charles Webster being his nephew) Twain got complete control on Huckleberry Finn. Publishing house achieved great success with its first two books (Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant being the other). Next years were not so good. New titles (Twain’s or not) didn’t help much. They even reprinted Huck Finn in so called cheap edition with only 44 illustrations by Kemble in 1891, but it didn’t help much. After less then a decade Webster and Company ran out of business.


Mark Twain had to make a long lecture tour to pay all the debts of his bankrupted publishing house. But let’s return to the illustrations of his Huck.

It is pretty clear Kemble’s images of characters were important part of book’s success. Today we know the reason was not their realism. It was more portraying the stereotyped images which were already in minds of the readers.


The portrait of Negro Jim (Curt Morris posed for him with black wool cap and with pouted lips) marked the rest of Kemble’s career. The art director W. Lewis Frazer gave him several so called plantation stories to illustrate and Kemble became some kind of official Negro characters illustrator.

After few years he decided to finally travel to the South to see how it really looks. He noticed his colors of the landscape were all wrong.


E. W. Kemble made several new illustrations for new owners of copyrights in 1898 and 1899.


The look and the poses of characters in movie of Huck Finn version from 1920 (it is silent film) is closely based on original drawings from the novel. The infamous director William Desmond Taylor was mysteriously killed  soon after the movie was released. His murder is still unsolved.

Edward Windsor Kemble on the other hand made solid career and lived for 72 years.


Shall we look at other illustrations by Mr. Kemble?


These two illustrations in color are from the book Folks from Dixie, written by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906). The book was published in 1898.


The Strength of Gideon from 1900 was another Dunbar’s work illustrated by Kemble.


The Heart of Happy Holllow (illustration above) is work of the same author who died from tuberculosis only couple of years later. His doctors advised him to drink a lot of whiskey to alleviate the symptoms of the illness. This book was published in 1904.


Here we have a nice, warm scene from Mirandy, written by Dorothy Dix and published in 1914 in New York.


Characters from Plantation songs by Ruth McEnery Stuart from 1916 are not so good looking…

Let’s conclude the presentation of E. W. Kemble’s illustrations with two more classics. First is the series about Uncle Remus. Kemble’s works were only additions to already existing illustrations by A. B. Frost.


First two illustrations are from The Tar-Baby and Other Rhymes (1904) and the last (which is the same as the first) from special gift edition of Uncle Remus (1920). Stories about Uncle Remus are of course work of Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908).


You probably recognized illustrations from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) edition from 1897, another compliment to E. W. Kemble’s portraying skills. Thanks to him we have a very special view on times and places which are not too far from here and now. It’s up to us how we will look at these illustrations and what we will learn from them.


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