The world’s biggest collection of memorabilia relating to iconic American artist Norman Rockwell is set for auction thanks to one man’s unrelenting passion for his work.
The late Peter Schonthal, from Hertfordshire, ‘bought everything Rockwell’ during hundreds of trips to the United States over the course of nearly 40 years.
He scoured the length and breadth of the country for anything relating to the celebrated illustrator who is said to have captured the essence of American culture. On one occasion he even talked a postal shop owner into selling him a revolving stand of Rockwell fridge magnets.
Peter accumulated thousands of eclectic items and stored them with care in a special air-conditioned 40ft summer house in his garden. Such is its size, his unique collection could create a Rockwell Museum in its own right, according to Hansons Auctioneers which will offer the items for auction on October 19.
Charles Hanson, owner of Hansons Auctioneers, said: “We believe this is the first time a Rockwell collection of this magnitude has ever come to auction. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to purchase a vast array of artwork relating to this legendary American artist.
“Peter truly appreciated Rockwell’s talent and, as a collector, displayed admirable dedication. He had cabinets specially made for his finds including one with 16 drawers full of newspapers featuring Rockwell’s work. Magazines featuring Rockwell art were protected with acid-proof paper.
“Over time Peter became a renowned Rockwell expert, loaned pieces to museums and collaborated with curators from America’s Rockwell Museum. They got to know him because he visited the museum so much. He was an Englishman in love with Americana and his devotion has left an important historical legacy, one Rockwell himself would have been proud of.”
Peter’s wife, 74, said: “My husband’s fascination with Americana began when he was a boy of eight or nine in the early 1950s. He had an aunt in New York who used to send him comics and sweets, things you couldn’t get in England. He had a thing about America from then on.
“Nearly 40 years ago, while visiting friends in Massachusetts, we went to the Rockwell Museum and I bought him a book about his art work. That really started things off. Peter began collecting everything from prints, jigsaws, figures, ties and tins to magazines and dolls that were used as props in Rockwell paintings.
“We visited America hundreds of times to trawl markets, garage sales and particularly the Brimfield Antiques Flea Market in Massachusetts, the largest antique and collectors fair in the USA. We went all over the States, from Vermont to Long Island. It was crazy but I have wonderful memories.
“At Brimfield one day, Peter spotted a closed box underneath a seller’s table. It turned out to be full of original Saturday Evening Post newspapers featuring Rockwell’s work. That started something else. He started collecting Saturday Evening Posts dating back to the 1800s.
“He loved the thrill of the find. He had no end of stuff shipped back to England. His passion intensified over the years, especially after he was diagnosed with cancer and then multiple sclerosis. He emersed himself in his Rockwell collection. It helped to get him through tough times.
“His favourite piece of Rockwell art was The Tattooist, a painting of a beefy chap having a tattoo of a lady’s name put on his arm – with other names others crossed out. He just loved that picture, so much so we had a stained-glass window made of The Tattooist. I can’t let that go.”
London-born Peter, who owned a security business, passed away in 2014 at the age of 71. His wife has finally decided it’s time to let collectors bid on Peter’s treasures: “I kept going into his garden shed to dust everything. It was a baby I had to look after. It was wonderful for him. Now it’s time to let go.”
The works of Rockwell (1894-1978) have a broad popular appeal in the United States for their reflection of American culture. He is most famous for his cover illustrations of everyday life which he created for The Saturday Evening Post magazine over nearly five decades.
Among his best-known works are the Willie Gillis series, Rosie the Riveter, The Problem We All Live With, Saying Grace, and the Four Freedoms series. He is also noted for his 64-year relationship with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), during which he produced covers for their publication Boys’ Life, calendars and other illustrations.
These works include images that reflect the Scout Oath and Scout Law such as The Scoutmaster, A Scout Is Reverent and A Guiding Hand, among many others. Rockwell was a 1939 recipient of the Silver Buffalo Award, the highest adult award given by the Boy Scouts of America.
He was a prolific artist, producing more than 4,000 original works in his lifetime. Most are in public collections. He was also commissioned to illustrate more than 40 books, including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as well as painting the portraits for Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, as well as foreign figures including Gamal Abdel Nasser and Jawaharlal Nehru.
But his portraiture wasn’t just for politicians. He captured actress Judy Garland and one of his last portraits was of Colonel Sanders in 1973.
He also created artwork for advertisements for Coca-Cola, Jell-O, General Motors, Scott Tissue, and other companies. His talent enhanced booklets, catalogues, posters, movie promotions, sheet music, stamps, playing cards and murals, including ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ and ‘God Bless the Hills’, which was completed in 1936 for the Nassau Inn in Princeton, New Jersey.
Sadly, Rockwell’s work was dismissed by serious art critics in his lifetime. Many of his works appeared overly sweet to modern critics, especially the Saturday Evening Post covers which tended toward sentimentalised portrayals of American life. This led to the adjective ‘Rockwellesque’.
Consequently, Rockwell is not considered a serious painter by some who regard his work as bourgeois and kitsch. He was described as an illustrator rather than an artist – but illustrator was his preferred term anyway.
However, in later years, he began receiving more attention when he chose more serious subjects such as a series on racism for Look magazine – which features in the collection set for auction. One example of this more serious work is The Problem We All Live With, which dealt with the issue of school racial integration. The painting depicts a young black girl, Ruby Bridges, flanked by white federal marshals, walking to school past a wall defaced by racist graffiti. This 1964 painting was displayed in the White House. A Ruby Bridges doll is in the collection.
Even though Rockwell passed away 44 years ago, his artistic take on the issue of racism and social integration in troubled times is as relevant today as it ever was.