Onetime Mainer Ed Shenton illustrated the works of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and other giants of 20th-century lit. Now, his son wants to make sure you know his name.
By Mira Ptacin
Few days go by without Ned Shenton seeing his deceased father: on Ned’s walls, spread across his coffee table, in his library, on his bookshelves. Today, in his cottage on Peaks Island, Ned is standing next to a framed illustration sketched by his late dad, Edward Shenton. In the picture, a young, thin, barefoot boy holds a small baby deer in his arms. Behind him are rustic cabins and the backdrop of a pine forest. It’s just one of the hundreds of illustrations that Ned’s father left behind. This one happens to be the cover art from a classic 1938 novel, a book that spent 23 weeks on the bestseller list and won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s the original sketch that became the cover of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling.
“Somewhere in this pile might be letters from Hemingway,” Ned says, ruffling through a huge pile of prints in a Tupperware bin. We’re in his home, a cottage he and his late wife named “Safe Harbor.” Inside, it’s a bibliophile’s delight: beautiful brown bookshelves stocked with first editions of the classics, recent New Yorker issues piled up on the coffee table, the morning’s Bangor Daily News folded up on the couch. Ned has just brewed us some coffee. At 84, he has the zest and swagger of someone 40 years younger. He still sails, camps, explores the state, sleeps in lighthouses, and walks rather than drives to catch the Peaks ferry, with a backpack slung over his shoulder and an air of cool and calm. He’s an itinerant oceanographer who once worked alongside Jacques Cousteau, surveying the depths in a tiny diving saucer — the first research submersible — on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. He’s visited more countries than I have fingers and toes. But lately, Ned’s mission is (seemingly) a bit less adventurous: he’s exploring and preserving his father’s legacy.
In 1973, Edward Shenton Sr. and his wife, Barbara, moved to Boothbay Harbor to live by the water, garden, and enjoy a quiet retirement. Ed was 77. The maintenance of the couple’s house and barn in Massachusetts had become too demanding, and it made sense to live closer to Ned, who’d already settled in Maine. By then, Ed had enjoyed a long career as one of the foremost illustrators during the golden days of book publishing: he illustrated 152 books and their jackets for Scribner’s and worked with famed editor Maxwell Perkins, along with Thomas Wolf, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other literary luminaries. On Ned’s dining room table is a 1996 article from Architectural Digest, praising Ed’s “striking illustrations” on “coveted volumes one cannot afford, like the Scribner’s first editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (1934) and Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa (1935).” With dust jacket, the latter might sell for $1,500, and a prime copy of the former has sold for $26,000 at auction. Fitzgerald wrote that Ed’s woodcuts of settings along the moonlit, romantic French Riviera gave his book “a certain distinction.” Hemingway admired Shenton’s fierce safari sketches of hunters and the hunted. For reference, Papa supplied Shenton with rolls of movie film shot in Africa, which Ned says are now possibly located somewhere in his vast collection of mementos from his dad.
We’re trending toward the goofy phrase ‘content provider’ these days to describe what writers and illustrators do. But Edward Shenton was an artist.
An only child, Ned doesn’t have many memories of time spent with his father, who he remembers was “always drawing, always working.” When he wasn’t illustrating books or magazine articles, Ed taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and was an editor at the publishing firm Macrae-Smith, for which he also wrote several books, most about early aviation heroes.
“He had at least three jobs at once,” Ned says. “He was writing at home and doing illustrations, drawings, and sketches for Scribner’s — he was enormously busy. And he drew everything: pen and ink, black and white. He hand-lettered everything.” And yet, despite his industriousness and renown, Ed’s work wasn’t always lucrative. “My father was an artist-for-hire, or a freelancer. He only got paid once — no reuse fee. They didn’t have a union representative.”
As a child, Ned didn’t realize how well respected his father was as an artist. These days, he often discovers new details of his father’s legacy — even whole new illustrations — while poring through old books and articles. But the cover of The Yearling, Ned supposes, remains his father’s most recognizable work. “Everybody remembers him for that,” he says, “and after that, most people don’t know much.”
Ned continues rummaging around the room, showing off another pile of illustrations, then pulling out several drawings of planes and men in uniform. Ed served with the 103rd Engineer Battalion in the trenches of France during World War I, and Ned has saved his gritty scenes of men in battle, detailed and shadow-heavy sketches evoking Rockwell Kent and Maxfield Parrish.
“Father was quiet, private, very gloomy,” Ned explains. “Had a gloomy sense about death.” He walks to his bookshelf, pulls out a blue hardcover, and hands it to me. The book is This Mortal Moment, a collection of poems written by Edward Shenton in 1961, when the artist was 65 years old. The cover, which Ed illustrated, has a picture of a skull with tree roots underneath it, sprigs sprouting from its sides, and doves flying above it. I open to a poem titled “Fulfillment,” from which the book takes its title.
This mortal moment is the
length of life,
Between the waiting grave
and waking birth;
Why should we waste it in
such senseless strife,
When lips and hearts were
made for love and mirth?
The blood has but a short
time to run warm
And clay grows cold before
the hand can tell
The shape of sword from
plowshare’s humble form,
Or know a king’s crown from
a jester’s bell.
This is the only hour in which
The earth’s estate, and its vast
Let us, before we join the
Demand the full, round
measure of a man.
Later in life, as the publishing industry evolved, Ed Shenton found himself with fewer and fewer book illustration assignments.
“I think once the publishers began to realize their whole field was shrinking, they didn’t put any money into promoting,” Ned says, “and I think my father just fell into a crack in a way. I think it’s unfortunate — you have your moment, and then it’s gone.”
In 1977, Ed passed away at Maine’s Togus VA hospital. Ned’s mother died within two weeks, and Ned inherited all of his dad’s art and books.
“I regret that I didn’t spend more time with my parents when they were living in Maine,” he says, “and I think my father died believing he wasn’t very successful. He didn’t seem to think of himself as being one of the outstanding illustrators of the early and mid-20th century. But he was.”
Six years ago, Ned was having lunch in New York at The Explorers Club, a private social club founded by two Arctic explorers to promote expeditions. There, he met a fellow retired globetrotter named Rex Passion; the two became chums, and Rex encouraged Ned to breathe life back into his father’s work. They made a website together, collaborated on a self-published book, and started organizing and cataloging Ed’s collection. These days, the endeavor is Ned’s passion.
Last summer, he set up his first exhibit of his dad’s work, at the Peaks Island Community Center. Admiring the drawings there, I ran into Ivan Held, a summer resident of Peaks and president of the book imprint Putnam, Dutton, and Berkley. The show, he said, was “a vivid reminder of the effort and artistry that went into so many celebrated publications in the century.”
“We’re trending toward the goofy phrase ‘content provider’ these days to describe what writers and illustrators do,” Held told me. “But Edward Shenton was an artist.”
Ned’s cautious about parting with or otherwise exploiting his father’s work. He’s had acquaintances offer to take the collection off his hands for small sums of cash, and it’s made him wary of undervaluing his dad’s legacy. In recent months, he’s entertained both a rep for the Portland Museum of Art and a New York art consultant who specializes in acquiring important archives for museums. Ultimately, he just wants to get the work in front of a larger audience than at a community center on Peaks, to give it its proper place in the world.
“There’s a possibility I might financially benefit from it,” Ned acknowledges, “but that’s not the purpose. The purpose is that he’s too obscure, and I want to make him better known. . . . I don’t want to see his work buried. It’s too good.”
Prints of Edward Shenton’s work are available at foliounion.com