Tag Archives: Austin Briggs

Ed Vebell, Austin Briggs, And A Wonderful Studio With Northern Light

In 1953, Ed Vebell was starting to make a name as an artist. He’d spent World War II as an illustrator/reporter for Stars and Stripes. He stayed in Europe a while, covering the Nuremberg trials and drawing 18-year-old Grace Kelly.

Now he, his wife Elsa Cerra and their 3-year-old daughter Vicki lived in New York. He hung out at the Society of Illustrators, eating and schmoozing with well-known artists.

One day, he spotted a bulletin board notice of a house for sale. He knew nothing about the town — Westport, Connecticut — but it had an artist’s studio with a large north light window.

That was huge: No shadows or highlights on the canvas or drawing board.

The artist’s studio.

The seller was Austin Briggs. A renowned illustrator — he drew “Flash Gordon,” worked for Reader’s Digest and the Saturday Evening Post, and was later elected to the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame — that was enough to assure Ed that he was making the right move for himself and his family.

He bought the house, for $29,000 — sight unseen.

When Ed arrived for the first time, he looked down the end of Roosevelt Road. Something blue caught his eye. What was it?

“That’s Long Island Sound, sir,” the broker replied.

Okay, he thought. That’s nice.

Ed Vebell wrote his memoirs — and illustrated the cover.

The house served Ed and his growing family well. Working in that wonderful studio — enjoying the large north light window — he contributed to Time, Reader’s Digest and other publications. Specializing in military art, he drew uniforms from around the world for encyclopedias and paperback publishers. He worked for MBI too, illustrating the history of America from Leif Erikson through the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, and every war up to Vietnam.

Ed designed US stamps too — some with military themes. The studio was strewn with uniforms, helmets and boots. There was not even enough space for Wild Bill Hickok’s hat. So Ed stashed it in the bathtub.

Last February — less than 2 weeks after appearing at a Westport Historical Society show honoring his long career — Ed Vebell died peacefully, at home. He was 96.

It’s taken his daughters a year to clear out the house, and auction his collections.

But now the home — 9 Quentin Road — is on the market.

Ed Vebell’s home, 9 Quentin Road,

Audra Vebell says she and her sisters hope to find someone with “an appreciation of the history and special nature of this house.”

It really is special. For nearly a century, not one but two of America’s most famed illustrators lived and worked there.

In fact, just before he sold it to Ed, Austin signed his name in the garage concrete. It’s still there.

So history — and the spirit of 2 of Westport’s most prominent citizens — still remain.

When it comes to Ed Vebell and Austin Briggs, there must be something in the water.

(Click here for the real estate listing.)

From Polo Grounds To Cooperstown — Via Westport

Westporters flocking to “42” are inspired by the story of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier.

But 3 years after Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the sport still grappled with integration — not on the field, but in the stands. An intriguing incident involved 1 Westporter — and 2 others, 60 years later.

The  Saturday Evening Post cover of April 22, 1950 shows fans in the Polo Grounds — the New York Giants’ fabled home. Their hands stretch skyward, reaching for a foul ball.

It’s an iconic scene — a classic, feel-good, All-American illustration.

Saturday Evening Post better

But — according to a letter written in 2000 by illustrator Austin Briggs’ son — there’s a bit of back story.

The son — who shares his father’s name — says that his father’s painting showed Fannie Drain, a black woman who worked for his family and was loved by all.

“When the Giants were playing, she and my father — whose studio was at home –would follow the radio broadcasts avidly and vocally; her pride and pleasure in being included in the cover painting were deep,” Briggs wrote.

The Post editors told Briggs he would have to paint her out of the picture.

“He broke the painting, on a gesso panel, over his knee and walked out,” the son said. “The financial sacrifice was great, but he never regretted his act or repented his fury.”

Stevan Dohanos

Stevan Dohanos

The illustration was redone by Stevan Dohanos, a noted Westport illustrator and frequent Saturday Evening Post contributor. He used many of the same models, but replaced Fannie Drain (near the bottom left) with a large white man wearing a handkerchief.

Dohanos’ original hung in the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York. And that was that — until last year.

Sarah Wunsch — a 1965 Staples High School grad, now a staff attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts — chatted about the story with classmate Tom Allen, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame President’s Advisory Board.

She wrote the Hall, in Cooperstown. She soon received a reply from Erik Strohl, director of exhibitions and collections in Cooperstown.

“I was unaware of the details behind this painting and I find the story very fascinating,” he said.

The details truly provide a picture of life in the 1950s, which may seem foreign to us now. I tell our visitors all the time that we can learn much about ourselves as Americans through the lens of baseball, and this painting surely fits that bill.

He promised to find a way to add the information to the exhibit. He said it would “provide a much wider context on the full story of the painting, including what it teaches us about race relations, both in baseball and in popular magazines.”