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Bid, Dick, bid: 'Dick and Jane' artwork for sale

Monday, April 21, 2014 | 7:41 p.m. CDT; updated 5:48 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 22, 2014
This photo provided by Brookline Auction Gallery of Brookline, N.H., on Friday shows a watercolor by Robert Childress and photos of the model used to paint it. The portrait is of Dick of the Dick and Jane series of books that helped teach generations of children to read. The portrait along with other artwork by Childress is being auctioned off this month.

BROOKLINE, N.H. — In the portrait, the little boy's blue eyes twinkle as he looks straight ahead. His apple cheeks shine. There's a gap in his teeth, and his reddish-brown hair is just slightly tousled. He's an All-American boy.

He's Dick, of the illustrated "Dick and Jane" series that helped teach generations to read from the 1930s to the 1970s.

He's also Nancy Childress' childhood neighbor and the model for the drawing by her father, Robert Childress, that along with Jane, Sally, Spot and others brought the pages of the reader to life.

Nancy Childress is selling her father's artwork at an auction in New Hampshire at the end of April. Along with Dick, there are other portraits, black-and-white drawings of John F. and Jackie Kennedy and offerings from his collection of pastel paintings of college buildings around the country.

"As an artist, there were many illustrators during the time my father was working," said Nancy Childress, who lives in Gilmanton. "This was the day of the illustrator. What's different about my father's illustrations is that most could either do landscape or people, and he had the uncanny ability to do both equally well."

Childress' realism will remind the viewer immediately of Norman Rockwell's illustrations, and that's not a complete coincidence: The two were friends.

Nancy Childress said her father, who retired to Warner and died in 1983, never took an art class, learning to paint with a set given to him as a gift from an aunt and uncle before he was 10.

And he didn't just use the neighbor boy as a model for the series that he illustrated during the 1950s and '60s: Nancy was Sally, her sister Susan became Jane, and their mother was also one of Robert Childress' inspirations.

"We loved it," she said. "My sister and I loved getting into costumes. And he would always include us. He would ask us, 'What do you think of this? Is it too green? Is it too blue?' But the opinion that mattered was my mother's."

Born in South Carolina, Childress was living in Ithaca, N.Y., when he was commissioned to paint a portrait of H.E. Babcock, a former chairman of the board for Cornell University. Through his connection with Babcock, he met Duncan Hines, the home food entrepreneur whose cakes and other products still stock grocery shelves. Childress painted the portrait of Hines that would adorn his product packaging, and Childress launched a career in advertising.

He moved the family to Old Saybrook, Conn., where Childress painted ads for Coca-Cola, Mobil, Wonder Bread and the Campbell Soup Co., among others. Some of the ads are included in the auction.

Auctioneer Ronald Pelletier of Brookline Auction Gallery said estimates for the roughly 50 lots of Childress art run from $100 to $2,000 and because it is an "absolute auction" there is no reserve bid, meaning the highest bid wins. He said there is a market for original art, but he couldn't predict how the Childress collections would fare.

He is most struck by how multidisciplined Childress was.

"I mean, the man could work in any medium," he said.

The live online auction will be held April 30.


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