Wright Enright Barney is seldom remembered as a children’s book illustrator
today except by discerning book collectors. Her work is charming with lovely
colors that exhibits the decorative sensibility typical of the early 20th
Born on June 19, 1881 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, Barney was the third child of William and Anna (Lloyd-Jones) Wright. She was the sister of the famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, and mother of author/illustrator Elizabeth Enright (Gillham)
In 1883, her family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where her parents soon separated. She was surrounded by her mother’s family and spent her summers on the farm. Early on, she was educated at home by her mother.
When big brother Frank was starting his career as an architect, Barney and her mother moved to Chicago in order to be closer to him. She enrolled in school there when she was twelve. Frank always encouraged her in her artistic endeavors. It was his inspiration and instruction that taught her to draw. Later, she attended the Chicago Art Institute but because of financial concerns she could attend for only one year.
Her first job was as a commercial artist at Barnes, Crosby Co., an engraving company in Chicago, earning fifty dollars a week working mostly on catalogs. It was her job to illustrate the figures on which the clothes would be shown. She has credited this job with teaching her to draw for reproduction. After working and saving for three years, she quit her job to take a trip to Europe with her mother. Upon her return, she married a young illustrator and cartoonist named Walter J. Enright.
The young couple lived in Chicago until the birth of their child Elizabeth, after which they moved to New York in order to pursue their careers as artists. They had a very social life in New York and counted among their friends the illustrator Maud Tousey Fangel. Eventually Maginel and Walter divorced and she married Hiram Barney, a lawyer who died in 1925.
Maginel illustrated many children’s books including some written by L. Frank Baum under his pseudonym, Laura Bancroft. During her career, she also illustrated for many periodicals including, Woman’s Home Companion, Ladies; Home Journal, Everybody’s, McClure’s and Woman’s World. She was also largely responsible for enlivening children’s textbooks and bringing them to a higher level with her imaginative illustrations.
Children’s books were scarce during the depression so Barney turned her talents to tapestries, creating what she called ‘long point’, a type of needlepoint using colored wool and long stitches of varying length. During the 1940’s, she became a shoe designer of high fashion women’s shoes.
In 1965, she published her autobiography, The Valley of the God-Almighty Joneses. The title referred to her mother’s family that settled in Wisconsin. She died April 18, 1966 in East Hampton, NY at the age of eighty-four..
Her daughter, Elizabeth Enright (Gillham) grew to be an author and illustrator of children’s books as well. She won the Newbery Medal in 1939 for Thimble Summer. In this excerpt from the November-December 1954 issue of Craft Horizons, Elizabeth gives us a visual glimpse into her mother’s studio.
“I watched her through the glass doors of the little room she used as a studio, my nose snubbed resentfully against the pane, for I was forbidden to enter while she was at work. I can see her now as I saw her then, her drawing board tilted against the worktable before her. In her dark curly hair two or three pencils were stabbed like geisha ornaments, and a water color brush was often gripped between her teeth. Another, the one she was using at the moment, was in her fingers. Almost always there would be an aboriginal stripe of paint or ink across her cheek, and her whole attitude as she applied the brush—then leaned away from the picture and bent her head from side to side, narrowing her eyes at it, then leaned forward again—was the attitude on an artist at work; alone, concentrated, for the moment wholly self-sufficient. To a child this attitude is sometimes disconcerting, and I did my share of whining and snuffling at the door, trying to force her attention to myself. Sometimes, though not often, I was allowed to come in and watch for a while. I liked to see the picture growing on the board; I liked the little round porcelain dishes in which fat worms of color had been squeezed; crimson lake and cobalt blue and emerald green. I liked the lions on the Winsor & Newton paint tubes, and the tiny chime of the brush as it knocked against the rim of the glass when she dipped it in the water.”
The 1890’s into the early 1900’s was a time of great innovation and experimentation in the art world. The opening of trade with Japan exposed the world to a new aesthetic. Art Nouveau was breaking all boundaries of traditional thought on everything from illustration to architecture. Conventional design had turned organic and decorative. Between the two world wars, design took on a geometric twist called Art Deco.
A visit to an exhibit of the French illustrator Boutet de Monvel had a great influence on Barney ’s style of working. His illustrations used simple flat shapes that reminded her of the Japanese prints that she had seen in Frank’s studio. She adopted these simple flat shapes in her watercolors with little or no shading. Though her work did not exhibit the whiplash flowing lines of Art Nouveau, it was still decorative and stylized.
Barney has not left us any information on the reason why she chose a career in illustration. It is probably safe to assume, knowing that her brother is Frank Lloyd Wright, that the arts were appreciated and encouraged in her family. After her divorce, illustration provided a means of support for her and her young daughter. From Craft Horizons, November-December 1954 by Elizabeth Enright:
“I took my mother’s work for granted. It was just something that some parents did; not till much later did I realize the importance of it in my own life. For she took the responsibility of my upbringing nearly single-handed; and in her case the phrase is particularly apt, because she did this by means of her skillful right hand guided by her imagination.”
L. Frank Baum), Prince
Mud-Turtle, Reilly & Britton,
card for UNICEF.
Also used as the cover for
the December, 1928 issue
of Woman's Home
for the War Effort
American Treasures of the
Library of Congress
|Dodge, Mary Mapes,
Brinker or the Silver
Skates (with Edna Cooke),
|Dodge, Mary Mapes,
Brinker or the Silver
Skates (with Edna Cooke),
|Woman's World, January, 1940||Woman's World, November, 1938||Woman's World, May, 1939|
|Mahoney, Bertha E. And Whitney, Elinor, Contemporary Illustrators of Children's Books. Boston: The Book Shop for Boys and Girls, 1930.|
|Mahony, Bertha E., Illustrators of Children's Books 1744-1945. Boston: The Horn Book, 1947.|
|Reed, Walt, The Illustrator in America 1900-1960's. New York: Reinhold, 1966.|
|Commire, Anne, editor, Something About the Author, volume 39. Detroit: Gale, 1985.|
|© 19992002 Denise Ortakales
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This page last updated on 24 August 2002.
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