More than 60 years after Eloise debuted in her first picture book, the precocious city girl remains a beloved icon of children’s literature and of New York itself. In honor of the irrepressible heroine, the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan has curated an immersive exhibit of original artwork by Eloise illustrator Hilary Knight. The exhibit showcases the legendary collaboration between Knight and the late performer and author Kay Thompson, featuring more than 75 objects, including original manuscripts, sketchbooks, photographs, and vintage dolls. “Eloise at the Museum” will run through October 9.
The exhibit is the result of the latest partnership between NYHS and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., where it debuted earlier this year. One of the highlights of the collection is Knight’s original Eloise portrait from 1956. The piece hung at the Plaza Hotel, where Thompson lived, before it mysteriously vanished in 1960. Two years later, it was recovered after Knight received an anonymous tip that it had been sighted in a dumpster. Stored for more than 50 years in Knight’s closet, the portrait has been restored in consultation with the illustrator, and now returns to public view. The museum will host special programming tied to the exhibit throughout the summer, including a book signing afternoon with Knight.
Knight, whose work is also being showcased this summer at Lincoln Center in “Hilary Knight’s Stage Struck World,” spoke with PW about his collaboration with Thompson. “With Kay, it was absolutely a two-person endeavor. We lived at the Plaza, in Paris, and in Moscow. It was a fascinating period and fairly unusual in a collaboration.” He described their work together as “immensely rewarding. [Kay] was an incredible, funny, clever woman in every department.”
While Knight is proud of both retrospectives, he looks forward to future projects. “The chance to have a double exploration of your work at 90 is pretty good. I haven’t slowed down. I’ve got a lot more to do.” The artist is currently at work on two books, including what he described as a visual autobiography, due out in 2018 from St. Martin’s Press, titled Hilary Knight: Drawn from Life. The title pays tribute to Winnie-the-Pooh illustrator E.H. Shepard’s autobiography.
Alice Stevenson, director of the DiMenna Children’s History Museum at the NYHS, said of the exhibit, “I hope visitors walk away inspired by Eloise’s exuberance and confidence—she is a child in a world of adults, and she more than holds her own. We also want people to gain a greater understanding and appreciation for the talent of Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight. Their creation still leaps off the page 60-plus years later, and that is a testament to their collaboration.”
Knight believes the enduring appeal of the Eloise series lies in the heroine’s independent spirit: “I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that she’s a rich girl living in an extraordinary situation. I think it’s the rhythm of the book and the fact that this is a really independent child who’s inventive. She can invent all kinds of very interesting things to do with life.”