John Gannam was an illustrator and painter who worked almost exclusively in watercolor.
Gannam was born in the country of Lebanon and grew up in Chicago. He was forced to leave school and work at age 14 due to his father’s death. He went through a succession of menial jobs until he eventually became a messenger boy in an engraving house. Here, he first found a purpose for himself to become an artist like the men who did the layouts, lettering, and drawings from engravings. Within a few years, through observation and a stiff schedule of self-education, he reached his goal—working for studios in Chicago and Detroit.
The next step was New York and, eventually, magazine illustration. He received his first manuscript from Henry Quinan of Woman’s Home Companion, followed soon thereafter by work from most of the other magazines. Gannam always sought fresh, non-stereotyped viewpoints, and he was in steady demand by advertisers as well as publishers. His illustrations for campaigns of Pacific Mills, Ipana, and St. Mary Blankets are particularly memorable.
He was a lifelong student of the effects of light and color. Oftentimes, a particular problem would preoccupy him for months as he tried out innumerable variations. He persevered until he was satisfied with such effects as sunlight and under-water rocks on the surface of a mountain stream, or the glow of a fire and its reflection on wet pavement, as firemen fought a blaze.
Gannam worked at his paintings almost vertically, very freely, his brush loaded with water. He was after the broad, but exact, effect. He was little concerned with details or with corrections that could be made later, if needed, with opaque.
Gannam also exhibited his watercolors and was an associate of the National Academy of Design, a member of the American Artists’ Professional League, the American Watercolor Society, the Society of Illustrators, and was appointed to the faculty and board of directors of the Danbury Academy of Arts.
Source: Walt and Roger Reed, The Illustrator in America, 1880-1980, A Century of Illustrators
The most difficult detective work connected with this essay was to pin down the late elusive and elfin John Gannam. Many knew a bit about him; mostly the same bits. The one fact that everyone agreed upon was what a superb illustrator he was. Leafing through dozens of his old tear sheets for was a jolting experience. His pictures would have been splendid in any medium—the fact that they were done in watercolor with its attendant traps and difficulties make them even more amazing.
Below are three affectionate excerpts by contemporaries who shake their heads and smile at the recollection of his name, talent and spooky ways.
John Gannam was the ultimate illustrator’s artist. A funny looking, baldheaded little guy, he painted beautiful women with a love and flow of sensitivity. There was never anything tricked up, smart-alecky or hokey about John’s work. One could easily think of Gannam and Sargent at the same time.
He was also an editor’s and art director’s nightmare, for he was never quite satisfied with his work. Deadlines always came second to perfection. A story set for a winter issue might be ready for a summer one. This never ruffled him and nobody ever saw anything less than what he considered his best. There are always apocryphal stories about characters like John, and some said he seldom changed his socks. If this were true maybe the rest of us change ours too often.
When I knew him he was a third of a not-very-holy trinity composed of Dean Cornwell, Harry Beckhoff and himself, quietly brilliant, waiting in the corner with the short verbal capper. A latter-day Zorn disguised as an Armenian rug peddler. I was always pleased to be asked in as a fourth and was honored to play dummy.
My favorite story about John concerned a dinner President John Holmgren organized at the Society for Bill Chessman when he left Collier’s. All of us who drew pictures for “Chess” were there. Gannam, noted for his beautiful women, was invariably hired by Chessman to paint horses in Westerns. After all the tearful-and-otherwise speeches had been made, our hero rose to his full five-foot-four stature and made the keynote speech of the evening: “I always thought Chessman was a sonofabitch, and I still think so!” The Illustrators will not see the likes of John Gannam again.
Few people knew that Gannam had literally hundreds of small pastels (7 x 10) landscapes scattered around the many rooms of his messy studio. There were exquisite. But he rarely used pastel for assignments.
One year he did a theatrical drop for a Society Girlie Show. It was a sylvan pool rendered in pastel. It was spontaneously applauded when the curtain rose.
John was evasive about how he achieved his results in any medium. I was always curious to know how he knew so much about cowboys, luxurious interiors and the variety of subjects he illustrated. His answer was, “Oh, I have friends.”
Some years ago I chaired the Society’s lecture series. I had Johnny scheduled one evening and he hated it. He claimed he had nothing to say. His only courage was a tumbler of straight whiskey kept just out of sight in the wings offstage. Frequently he politely excused himself, to supposedly clear his throat. His naturally quiet voice was difficult to hear in the rear; it became totally inaudible when he strayed. I finally forced him to hold onto the stand of the microphone even when he walked around. He began to lean on it, and since it was telescopic, it slowly began to get shorter with Johnny following it down, still talking. He ended up bent way down whith his head about on the level with his knees and the student audience howling with glee. What his pearly words were at that time remain known only to his knees.
—Kenneth W. Thompson © 2011 Society of Illustrators