Graphic Artist Lynd Ward and His “Wordless Novels” at the Grolier Club

Lynd Ward Reduced.jpeg

The visionary artistry of Lynd Ward, one of America’s foremost book illustrators during the first half of the twentieth century, is on view at the Grolier Club from November 19, 2015 through January 16, 2016.  This is the first one-person exhibition in New York City to present an overview of his remarkable achievements.  The exhibition Illustrated by Lynd Ward, From the collection of Robert Dance includes more than 60 artworks that reveal the range of Ward’s graphic accomplishments.  Ward is primarily known for his woodcut “wordless novels,” precursors to today’s graphic novel.  However, also significant, and relatively under-appreciated, are his illustrations in other media: lithography and mezzotint, brush drawings, line drawings, watercolors and paintings for more than 200 books. 

Ward’s “wordless novels”, with their bold, dramatically drawn wood engraved images, introduced American readers to a new literary structure in which pictures supplanted words as the narrative device.  These pictorial essays reflect the artist’s social conscience and address his view of American life in the years immediately preceding and during the Depression.  They remain exemplars of twentieth-century American illustrated books.

Lynd Ward (1905-1985) was born in Chicago and educated at Teachers College, Columbia University.  His interest in illustration began while a student, and he worked on the staff of the school’s humor magazine, Jester, eventually serving his last year as editor.  Immediately upon graduation, Ward married May McNeer, later a notable children’s book author, and left for Europe where he continued his graphic training in wood engraving in Leipzig.  It was in Germany that Ward discovered the work of Frans Masereel, whose wordless books inspired him to attempt his own novel in woodcuts.  While abroad, Ward discovered German Expressionist printmaking and appreciated the power of a strong black printed image fused with an often biting narrative.  He subsequently infused his graphic images with an American brand of social realism and the unique problems facing American society.

Gods’ Man was published in 1929 and signaled a bright new talent in American books. It was the first of Ward’s six “wordless novels” and tells the story of a young artist who makes a pact with the devil to trade his soul for success.  Ward addressed time and again the exploitation of the artist or laborer, and the struggle of the individual to find his or her place in society. He described the genesis of the story as “a bundle of ideas about the place of the artist in the modern world.”  The narrative was in 144 blocks divided into five sections.  To aid the reader in navigating this new graphic narrative form, Ward inserted a title for each: i - The Brush, ii - The Mistress, iii - The Brand, iv - The Wife, v - The Portrait.  Otherwise, pictures alone tell the story.  The carved wood blocks and the sharp bite of the engraver’s tool created contrasts that added urgency and drama to his subjects.

The trade edition of Gods’ Man, like most of the other books Ward illustrated with wood engravings, was printed from electrotypes.  Ward, when interviewed many years later, described the process: “This is not a camera form of reproduction but a form that employs a mold into which first copper and then lead are poured. Thus, instead of approximating on film what has been put on paper, the block itself is reproduced by a casting process.”  Ward designed all aspects of the book, including the decorated boards.  Gods’ Man was a huge success for both its author and publisher and was reprinted four times in 1930, including a British edition.

Song Without Words, Ward’s fifth novel in woodcuts, was published in 1936.  Breaking the tradition of his earlier books, the central figure of Song Without Words is a woman.  Made up of just twenty-one plates, it is Ward’s shortest novel in woodcuts, and has perhaps the most abstract narrative.  There is no discernible story; rather Song Without Words is a series of pictorial vignettes connected by the presence of Ward’s heroine.  The last novel in woodcuts was Vertigo, his epic tale of the toils of the American Depression.  Vertigo included 230 plates and was the most ambitious project of Ward’s career.

The exhibition highlights four main categories of Ward’s artistic production:  novels in woodcuts, other books illustrated with wood engravings; dust jackets and other book illustrations; children's books; and fine press books including those from his short-lived publishing house, Equinox Cooperative Press, and the Limited Editions Club.  Among the special works on view are all six editions of Ward’s “wordless novels,” including a possibly unique publisher's proof of the limited edition of Gods' Man; early dust jackets of Fox Fire and Victim and Victor; a paperback edition of Crime and Punishment, for which he illustrated the front cover; Ching-Li and the Dragons, with 10 full-page watercolor drawings printed in black and blue; a deluxe edition of Frankenstein, with 15 full-page wood engravings; and the Limited Editions Club’s Les Miserables, with ink drawings printed in turquoise.

After about 1940, Ward’s style changed noticeably, and he largely gave up wood engraving, working more often with brush or crayon. His touch became lighter and more lyrical, consistent with the projects, largely children’s literature, that occupied his attention until the end of his activity as an illustrator in the mid-1970s.

An elegant postscript to Ward’s career appeared in 2001, sixteen years after his death, when Rutgers University Libraries published Lynd Ward’s Last Unfinished Wordless Novel.  The blocks were intended to be part of a novel in woodcuts, the first since Vertigo, but Ward did not live to complete the project.  Master printer and book designer Barbara Henry collated and printed the twenty-six finished blocks out of the forty-four originally planned for the still unnamed narrative.  Although this book does not have the emotional power or the political edge encountered in the novels from the 1920s and 1930s, there is optimism in this last book that sets it apart from Ward’s early work.  “With images showing the effects of war and even nuclear destruction, Ward seemed to create a new Adam, who perhaps now, in the wake of the century’s ravages, would be the harbinger of the ideal world imagined in his youth,” notes Robert Dance.

CATALOGUE: The exhibition is accompanied by a 155-page full-color catalogue by Robert Dance, including an introduction to the life and artistry of Lynd Ward and a bibliography of the more than 200 books illustrated by Ward.


47 East 60th Street  

New York, NY 10022  


Hours: Monday - Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm

Admission: Exhibitions are open to the public free of charge 


The Grolier Club Collects II,  December 9, 2015 - February 6, 2016

Image: Lynd Ward, frontispiece illustration for Thirteen Such Years by Alec Waugh, wood engraving illustration, NY: Farrar & Rinehart, 1932. Collection of Robert Dance.