With its first publication in 1863, The Water-Babies by Reverend Charles Kingsley (1819–1875) became a best seller in England and, soon after, in America. A Victorian fairy tale of epic proportions and strong moral overtones, The Water-Babies tells the story of Tom, a young chimney sweep, who escapes the toil and drudgery of his miserable apprenticeship through his magical transformation by fairies from a dirty little boy into a clean "water-baby," or sprite, replete with lacy collar-like gills with which he breathes underwater.Cleansed of soot and sin, Tom ultimately finds happiness and spiritual redemption among his fellow aquatic fairies and the natural and supernatural creatures he befriends in his watery world. Recognized today as an international classic among children's books, the work has been published in numerous languages and illustrated by various artists. However, no edition is more beautiful or imaginative than the one issued in 1916 by the New York publishing house of Dodd, Mead & Company, with illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith.
Jessie Willcox Smith (1863–1935) was born the year The Water-Babies was first published and in many ways seems to have been destined to create the most memorable rendition of this remarkable book. Born in Philadelphia, she was preparing for a career as a kindergarten teacher when she first recognized her talent and began to study art. Beginning in 1885 she studied under the celebrated artist Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and by 1888 had her first drawing published in a national magazine, St. Nicholas, an illustrated journal devoted to children. She soon found her commercial niche creating images of children and their world for literary publications and advertising campaigns. In 1894 she enrolled in drawing classes taught by Howard Pyle, perhaps the greatest teacher in the history of American illustration. Under his tutelage Smith's talents and commissions grew quickly and by 1900 she was one of the most popular and successful graphic artists in America. Over the course of her long, productive career she created hundreds of covers and illustrations for numerous books and such magazines as Harper's, Collier's, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and Women's Home Companion. In addition, her original paintings and watercolors were widely exhibited.
The large, lavish drawings she produced as color plates for The Water-Babies in 1916 are among her most loved and admired works. She apparently thought highly of them as well because upon her death in 1935 she bequeathed all twelve to the Cabinet of American Illustration, a special collection of almost four thousand original drawings by the nation's most influential illustrators, preserved within the Prints and Photographs Division. Her works evoking the innocence of youth and demonstrating the artistry of illustrated books are among the Library's great graphic treasures.