In tribute to James Gordon Irving

photo by Leslie Fandrich

If you were a kid sometime between 1955 and 1975, you likely remember the Golden Nature Guides. They were pocket-sized books filled with incredible drawings of animals, plants, rocks and minerals. The first one, Birds, was printed in 1949 and was illustrated by James Gordon Irving.

The opening spread of Leslie Fandrich's article about Golden Guides illustrator James Gordon Irving.

The opening spread of Leslie Fandrich's article about Golden Guides illustrator James Gordon Irving.

So begins Leslie Fandrich's excellent article in issue #15 about illustrator James Gordon Irving. Personally, the Golden Nature Guides had a big impact on me. I used to check them out of the school library religiously... I loved how the small-size guide fit in my hand and that you could collect multiple topics. When I was little, I dreamed of being a botanist or geologist and used to copy drawings and diagrams out of these guides into my own notebooks. As I grew older, I realized that I liked making the drawings and the experience of the books themselves more than the scientific topics.

When Leslie presented the idea of profiling one of the illustrators of the Golden Nature Guides, I was very excited. She describes her personal connection to the books and how the article came to be:

My husband found his old copies of these beautiful books in his parents’ basement and my two young sons immediately loved them. It sparked a desire in me to find out what had become of Mr. Irving. I wondered if he was still alive and what other work he may have done. Searching online yielded limited information, but I found an article that said he lived nearby in the town of Haworth, New Jersey. We contacted a librarian there, who said she knew of him and thought he had died recently, but, after making a few phone calls, she learned that he was still alive at the royal age of 98 and he would love to hear from us. 

It took at least nine months to arrange a meeting. Mr. Irving was hospitalized with pneumonia for a few months, and when he returned home, communication over the phone was difficult. We finally called the librarian and asked if there was anyone who could help us set up a meeting. She got us in touch with his son Bruce, who had been spending every day taking care of his father since he had come home from the hospital. He felt that it would be a real pleasure for his dad to bask in some attention for a few hours.

Finally, the day had come to interview Mr. Irving, and I was excited about the conversation. Arriving at the modest white split-level house on a warm, sunny morning, we were let in by Bruce, who answered the door. Hung throughout the main floor of the house were at least 13 paintings of Mr. Irving’s signature flowers and birds, along with a few portraits. An amazing oil painting of chrysanthemums hung over the mantle.

We are grateful that Leslie had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Irving and to write such an informative and interesting article about this important artist. Sadly, Gordon passed away in August and the article is now a printed tribute and celebration of his talent and impact.

A self-portrait of James Gordon Irving from his days in the Navy.