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Art Bio of William Teason

The first freelance job Bill received in 1951 was from Sudler and Hennessey for Lederle Laboratories. He was paid $475 for doing three comps and the finished art work. His relationship with Sudler and Hennessey continued even after he started doing covers for mystery paperbacks, the last job done for them in 1982. In those initial years as an illustrator on his own, Bill painted “whiskey bottles, loaves of bread, anything they wanted”. Ann Cantor at J. Walter Thompson gave Bill a steady stream of work, ranging from Hellman’s Mayonnaise, Tip Top Bread, Fleishman’s Yeast, Seagram’s Whiskey to Dupont, Shell, Air France, Lederle and many others. Ken Abby was another art director who hired Bill to illustrate advertisements, mostly from Swank Jewelry. If Bill was dissatisfied with his career, it was not apparent. He did some fine art on his own, first oil painting and later egg tempura. As he said, “I dabbled. I tried to find a style and subject matter. Illustrators are good at technique, but have trouble finding what they want to paint.”

In 1958 Bill got the break that would change his career. Dell Publishing Company had just acquired the rights to handle the Agatha Christie line. It should be noted that Dame Agatha did not want depictions of Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot on the covers of her books. When Dell gave Bill the assignment, he read the story and looked for clues to put on the cover, which became the beginning of a new format. Dell brought Bill’s work to the attention of Walter Brooks and Bill was hired to paint the cover art of “The Man In The Brown Suit.” Bill was paid $243.75 for doing two comps and the cover. He ended up doing well over one hundred fifty covers for Dell’s Agatha Christie series.

Agatha Christie wrote about eighty mysteries (Christie also wrote Gothic novels under the name Mary Westcott, some of which Bill illustrated). The publishing rights to Christie’s mysteries had been divided among three publishers, Dell being one of them. How did Bill end up painting over one hundred fifty Christie covers if Dell only had the rights to publish less than thirty of her books? Because new covers were done for each mystery roughly every two years. Bill ended up painting “The Man In The Brown Suit” at least five times, for example, the fifth cover done in 1974.

Agatha Christie mysteries were not the only paperback mystery covers that Bill painted. In 1960 he did his first cover for Ed Rofheart, an art director at Popular Library. That relationship continued for most of his career. Bill turned out many covers for Popular Library, Dell, Avon Bantam, Fawcett and Zebra as well as many other publishing houses. He painted covers for Mary Roberts Rinehart, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, Leslie Ford, Mignon Eberhart, Shirley Jackson and many other authors. In 1970 Bill won the Raven Award (which he promptly gave away to Ed) from the Mystery Writers of America, for “The Best Mystery Jacket of the Year”. The cover art for “Picture Miss Seeton,” written by Heron Carvic, was displayed at The Society of Illustrators in New York City.

Bill also painted twelve movie posters, beginning in 1966 when Bill Gold at Bill Gold Advertising hired him to do a poster for $3,000. That professional relationship continued through 1980 with Bill doing movie posters for Deliverance, Dog Day Afternoon, Escape From Alcatraz, Papillon, Agatha, and The Naked Runner among others. The poster Bill did for “Night Visitor “ was first runner-up in the 1st Annual Key Art Awards in 1972 and was exhibited at The Society.

The covers Bill did for Dell’s Agatha Christie mystery series were still life renderings executed in gauche. Each cover took him about one to two weeks to paint, but the preparation that led up to that was much longer. Bill began by reading each mystery himself, something that many illustrators did not do. He would look for clues or the mood of the story as he read and would record these in a notebook. Even for the Christie covers he painted for the second or fifth time, he would re-read the book and look for some new way of conveying the story. Then he would paint one or two comps, rough sketches the actual size of the paperback, depicting what the cover would look like to the art director. “Color is very important in a mystery,” Bill said. “Greens and blues and blacks lend themselves to mystery. They’re sinister. If somebody’s in a drugstore and they want to read a mystery, you have to have something in there that very quickly says, ’Mystery.’”

Once the art director picked one of the comps, the process of researching all the objects that had to be painted began. As Bill said about Agatha Christie, ”she’s an extremely bright, sophisticated woman…a person who’s fluent in the language of poisons, the law, names of silk, fur and fabrics.” For each item, Bill found either the object itself or a photograph. He kept files of clippings torn from magazines. Often he would go into New York City to the public library and borrow pictures from its pictures collection. Sometimes the object, such as an old brooch, a hat pin or a vase could be found at home or borrowed from a friend. Items were also rented from stores in New York that were in the business of supplying props for plays. Guns were a more difficult item to procure. Bill said there used to be a place on 46th Street between 5th and 6th where a real gun, the opening plugged, could be rented. When the paperwork necessary for renting a gun became more extensive, Bill had to be more ingenious. On one occasion Bill borrowed a gun from a local police officer after showing him his studio and the work he did. When all else failed, Bill would enlist his wife, Erma, to make the object or costume, everything from a bundle of old letters tied with ribbon, an old fashioned bonnet, to a voodoo doll stuck full of pins.

Mystery covers other than the Agatha Christie series might have people in them and Bill would have to find subjects and take photographs. As part of his job Bill learned a bit about photography, enough to light a shoot, pose the model, take the photograph, develop and print the film. When Polaroid Cameras came on the market, they proved to be an invaluable aid. As for the models, a steady stream of neighbors and friends came through Bill’s studio where, with the help of his wife, they were dressed appropriately, posed and photographed. All of them were volunteers, rewarded for their efforts by a chance to “be famous” and just for the novelty of the situation. For the most difficult shoots or glamorous models, Bill would go into New York and rent a model, taking the photographs himself.

In 1974 there was a show at The Society of Illustrators in New York entitled “Themes and Variations - A Retrospect of William Teason Paintings for the Dell Books of Agatha Christie” in which one hundred of his covers were exhibited. He was given a key by the art director and told to go downstairs to the gallery on the first floor and to hang one hundred Agatha Christie covers over the weekend. So he did. On Monday morning, he received a call from the gallery curator asking him why his paintings were hanging in his gallery and is he a member of The Society. Bill explained who told him to display his work and no he was not a member of the Society. The curator asked if he would be willing to join and Bill said absolutely. So the show went on.

All the while Bill was painting paperback mystery covers he was also painting fine art. His goal had never been to be a fine artist and he enjoyed illustrating covers, but in the 1970’s he started to find a style and subject matter that suited him. “I’ve always had to please a client,” he said. “When I have to please myself as an artist, then it’s really tough.” He began painting in gauche, just as he did for his mystery covers. Rather than painting still lifes as he had in the past, he was doing studies of people. “The mystery of my covers and Christie have slipped into my paintings. I can’t help being fascinated and seeing mystery in everything.” Bill did bring some of his fine artwork to New York galleries where he received positive interest and a number of awards. He also was reluctant to let his fine artwork go. Once at the annual show of The American Watercolor Society, he put a high price on a painting, thinking that would preclude its sale. The painting sold anyway and Bill always regretted it; from then on he put “Not For Sale” on his paintings. Throughout the 1970’s he had artwork displayed in six American Watercolor Society shows, winning “The High Winds Award” in 1971, The Mario Cooper Award” in 1975, “The Lily Saportas Memorial Award” in 1978, and “The Hardie Gramatky Memorial Award” in 1984. In 1979 Bill won the Society of Illustrators’ “Hamilton King Award” for the best illustration of the year by a member for his painting “The Young Juggler.” The selection is made by former recipients and may be won only once.

In 1990, Bill and his wife retired to Cape Cod. Their son and family lived there and Bill had always enjoyed the seascapes of the Cape. He had developed Parkinson’s disease by then but still went into his studio every day to paint. In 1991 he did his final paperback mystery cover, “The Last Camel Died @Noon,” written by Elizabeth Peters. Bill painted fine art during his years on Cape Cod, the tremor in his hand stilled when he painted. He continued to work in great detail with small sized brushes.

He died on February 25,2003 at the age of eighty one in a nursing home where he had gone for a week of respite care. On the pad of lined yellow notebook paper he used to write messages to the staff because his speech was no longer intelligible, was found a page filled with sketches of the faces of the residents. “I find the faces of old people endlessly fascinating,” he had written.

Entire website content and images copyright ©1956-2016 The William Teason Estate.