Will H. Bradley: Early Master of Graphic Design

At the peak of Will H. Bradley's career in the late 19th and early 20th century he was acknowledged as one of the premier American graphic artists of his time and had made a marked impact on fine and commercial graphic arts. He contributed to the growth of various artistic movements within the United States and influenced developments in illustration and layout practices in the book and periodical arts. He did not restrict himself to a narrow range of styles, and his body of work, including his publishers’ bindings, shows him to be one of the more diverse artists of his generation.

Wild Fruit
(J. Lane, 1911)

Bradley was born July 10, 1868 in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, who encouraged him towards an artistic career, died when he was only eleven, forcing his family to relocate to northern Michigan. He dropped out of school at the age of 14 and began to learn the printing trade at the local newspaper, the Iron Ore. At 17 he moved to Chicago with the hopes of gaining experience and saving for art school. Unsuccessful in this first attempt, he returned to Michigan, but with the encouragement of his employer George Newett he went back to Chicago a year later and eventually found a steady position as a compositor and illustrator for the printing company Knight and Leonard. In 1889, he left the company to become a freelance artist.

In his early freelance period Bradley worked on commissions in a number of periodicals, advertisements and books. His earliest work reflected his strength in architectural draftsmanship, and he also employed traditional classical and rococo ornamentation. Some of his early commissions were for The Inland Printer, a magazine that hired him frequently over the next ten years. He also created various publications for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

The Romance of Zion Chapel
(John Lane, 1898)

It was the rise of the poster movement that established his reputation (see Poster Style). His poster The Twins (1894), created for the periodical The Chap-Book, was considered to be the first American Art Nouveau poster, and it and others for this magazine increased his fame. Also in 1894, following the trend of Edward Penfield's posters for Harper's Magazine, Bradley convinced The Inland Printer to commission a monthly cover from him for twelve months, and these covers also firmly established his reputation as an illustrator.

The Twins and other work of this period showed the influence of the British illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. Beardsley's art first came to America in late 1893 with reproductions of his famous Salome drawings. Bradley took Beardsley's use of curve, flatness and broad stretches of light and dark and integrated them in with his own style. His works, however, usually did not employ the morbidity and dark sensuality that pervaded much of Beardsley's art.

Despite his thriving commissions in Chicago, in late 1894 Bradley decided to move East with his wife and three children, and settled in Springfield, Massachusetts, near business opportunities in Boston and New York. There, in addition to his regular commercial commissions, he established a private press, which he named the Wayside Press. He intended for it to primarily focus on the publication of his own periodical, Bradley: His Book, but he also produced pamphlets, brochures and books.

Walks in New England
(J. Lane, 1903)

Bradley: His Book, which began in May of 1896, followed in the tradition of such art and literary periodicals as the Yellow Book and contained poems, short stories, illustrations, art reproductions and advertisements designed by Bradley himself. It was enormously popular, with most issues selling out before they left the press. It seemed that he was finding success in his conscious goal of making "better and more refined that art which walks hand in hand with business" (quoted in Koch 125). Unfortunately, Bradley was not as gifted a businessman as artist, and his desires for the success of the press and insistence on overseeing every aspect of Wayside’s production contributed to his downfall. In January 1897 he suffered a nervous collapse from overwork and had to leave the press for a period of recuperation. Lacking backup management he was force to end Bradley: His Book. When he returned to Wayside he focused mainly on book and pamphlet work.

During this period, Bradley's style showed a number of influences. In addition to Beardsley, he admired the work of Charles Ricketts and a number of his works confirm this, particularly his design for Stephen Crane's book War is Kind. From 1995 on, there was more evidence of the influence of Arts and Crafts artists such as Walter Crane and William Morris. Bradley also drew from the poster work of designers Louis Rhead and Eugène Grasset. A contemporary described him as "a sort of Beardsley and Grasset and Crane rolled into one." (quoted in Koch, 109). Bradley was also a particular admirer of Colonial style printing. Colonial or Mission Revival was popular in American architecture during this time, and he was instrumental in its revival in printing and illustration; he used the Caslon typeface, historical layouts and woodblock print style illustrations to mimic what he described as a "typography that literally sparkles with spontaneity and joyousness" (quoted in Hornung, xx)(see pbw01218 back cover for a partial example, or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, not in database).

pbw01218 (detail)
Euphrosyne and Her "Golden Book"
(H. S. Stone and Company, 1901)

Bradley continued to suffer from the strain of his work, lacking strong financial skills and the ability to delegate. He eventually sold the entirety of Wayside Press to the University Press of Cambridge in 1898. Though he regretted the decision, which placed the previously freelance artist under a two-year commitment to Cambridge, it did take pressure off of him and allowed for much-needed holidays and more time with his family.

When his two years were complete, he happily returned to freelance work. The year 1900 marked another turning point in his style, particularly through his regular commission work for Collier's magazine. Collier's decided to improve its visual appeal by hiring artists to design its covers, and in 1900 alone, Bradley designed five covers for them. He created these covers in a cartoonish, playful, highly stylized manner. He continued to employ and develop this style for much of the remainder of his career (see pbw01219 and pbw01209 for examples).

The American Stage of To-day
(P. F. Collier and Son, 1910)

In the early 20th century, he also applied his talents to another area: architecture and interior design. The Ladies' Home Journal asked him to produce house designs, including exteriors, floor plans and interior designs (see Will H. Bradley for examples). The Bradley house series reflected trends in the Arts and Crafts movement, particularly of artists in Great Britain and Austria such as M.H. Baillie Scott, Josef Hoffmann and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

In 1904 he had the opportunity to produce another art magazine when he created The American Chap-Book for the American Type Founders. Over the next several years he moved into work as an art editor and oversaw layout and design for a number of major periodicals, though in keeping with his restless spirit, Bradley did not remain permanently with anyone for long. In 1916 he settled into a somewhat more regular commitment with the Hearst Organization, the largest publishing group of the period, and he remained in professional relationship with them for the rest of his working life. Under Hearst he did work in publicity, formats, typographical and art design, and even a short stint in film work. He retired in 1931 but continued to do some printing, design and typography until his death in 1962.

Uncle Walt
(G. M. Adams, 1910)

Throughout his life, Will Bradley was active in book design as a part of the wide range of graphical arts to which he was devoted. For books alone he designed well over fifty covers, and many of these were reused or copied for other titles. They ranged from plain cloth covers with simple paper labels to lavish designs with gold stamping or several colors. As evident in the examples in the PBO database, he employed all of his various styles for these covers: Art Nouveau, poster style, Colonial, and his playful late style, proving himself to be one of the most diverse cover designers in the discipline.

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Will Bradley



Koch, Robert. Will H. Bradley: American Artist in Print. A Collector's Guide. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2002.

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