Joseph Clement Coll
"One of the last men to stick exclusively to pen-and-ink as an art medium," according to his obituary in the New York Times, and now generally considered one of the greatest virtuosos in the use of pen-and-ink, Coll was an artist who "brought art to a rare degree into the field of illustration," according to a review of an exhibition of his work sponsored by the American Institute of Graphic Arts, after his death. Many of his finest illustrations were done for science fiction and fantasy stories, by Sax Rohmer and Arthur Conan Doyle, among many others.
Coll was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Irish immigrant parents. His father was a book binder, so Coll was exposed to books and illustrations all of his life. Born during a period when pen-and-ink illustration was at one of its highest points, Coll was most strongly influenced by the Spanish artist Daniel Vierge. He also thought highly of American illustrators Edwin Austin Abbey, Howard Pyle, and A. B. Frost. These artist worked for the leading magazines of the day, such as Harpers, McClure's, and The Century Magazine. Coll studied their examples closely and worked in a similar fashion. As Bob Weinberg noted, "Vierge used strong contrasts with the white of the paper to offset strong, bold, black line, and this technique was to highlight much of Coll's work as well."
Coll graduated from Boys Central High School with no formal art training, but nevertheless managed to obtain a job as an apprentice newspaper artist for the New York American. Before the advent of inexpensive newspaper photo techniques, newspaper artists had to work quickly to capture events as they were happening. Coll covered all sorts of stories and learned fast, and was sent to the Chicago paper owned by the American to further his training. He returned to Philadelphia is 1091 and joined the staff of the North American. His editor there, J. Thompson Willing, recognized his talents and gave him special assignments. He and Coll remained friends long after the artist left the paper. From newspaper work, in 1905 Coll moved on to magazines, where for twenty years his drawings would define the look of adventure illustration. He had an exceptional imagination, and although he later would use models, much of this work was based on his own ideas and feelings. His drawings were "crisp and brilliant, full of the freshness and spontaneity that ones asks for and seldom finds in a drawing made with pen and ink. His studies of character are done with an athletic sense of humor, an honest, buoyant zest that went out of fashion with Dickens, and with Dickens is today longingly appreciated by a generation that has lost the knack of it." ("The World of Art", Review, 1922).
Coll's innovative drawings for Conan Doyle's novel Sir Nigel for Associated Sunday Magazines immediately received attention in the illustration field and it wasn't long before he was drawing for Collier's, which became the primary market for his work. At that time, Collier's was a weekly magazine, and was publishing stories by the most popular authors of the day-- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Wallace, Sax Rohmer -- many in serialized form. Coll was prolific, and advertisers, seeing the effect of his work, also used him to illustrate important magazine ad campaigns. Most of Coll's work in the small number of books published were excerpted from the large number of drawings that appeared in serialized versions.
Coll died suddenly at the age of 41 in 1921. Since most of his work was done for magazines that have long been forgotten, his work had drifted into obscurity-- remembered only by succeeding generations of illustrators who had been influenced by his work, and those few collectors who prized it-- until the publication of some reference books which recognized his importance. The pulp magazines in the 1920s and 1930s were full of artwork that owed its debt to his designs; nearly all the art in Bluebook magazine, for example, one of many during that time period, resembled Coll's work. Coll was a member of the Society of Illustrators (NY) and was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 1995, seventy-five years after his death.
Frank, Jane. A Biographical Dictionary: Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists of the Twentieth Century. Published by McFarland & Company, Inc.,
Jefferson, North Carolina, and London, 2009. p. 153.