The Golden Book of Biology

This article first appeared, with images, on Codex 99 as Part IV of A Charley Harper Retrospective.

An early newspaper profile of Charley was titled "Charles Harper Shuns Garrets, Works 12 Hours a Day But He is a Real Painter",1 and by the mid-1950s, Charley was indeed a very busy commercial artist. In addition to his continuing Ford Times work he was, among other things, doing ads for Lederle, illustrating maps for LOOK magazine, designing posters for Brazil Airlines, even painting private commissions. Edie recalled Charley being in the studio every day from 7 am to midnight. When asked about his prolific early years Charley was typically modest: I'm [just] proud that I've been able to support my family and survive being an artist.2

Around 1960 Charley began a major commission for Western Publishing - Gerald Ames and Rose Wyler's the Giant Golden Book of Biology.1

The book, published in 1961 at the dawn of the New Frontier, was a roughly middle-school level introduction to biology. The 99-page text included hundreds of individual gouache paintings and was by far Charley's largest commission to date. In addition to his signature nature scenes, Charley illustrated anatomy, cell biology, ecology, evolution, genetics, histology, the history of science, microbiology, physiology, even astrophysics.

Any illustration in the book is worth showing here - even the most diagrammatic and scientific ones.

In their review of the first edition, the Center for Children's books stated:

An oversize book, profusely and handsomely illustrated. Some of the drawings, because of a stylized technique, are impressionistic rather than realistic, but none of the illustrations give erroneous impressions. Because so much material is covered, no topic is explored deeply...The book gives, however, a broad and accurate review of biological knowledge for one unacquainted with the field.2

Indeed, Charley admitted that he had to learn the subject while he was doing the illustrations: After all, he was an artist, not a scientist. The book, however, is now regarded as a masterpiece - the quintessential mid-century children's science text. It is widely seen as his magnum illustratus and has been influential with two generations of illustrators and designers. Todd Oldham described it as ...one of my favorite things I've ever had in my life, and the illustrator Jacob Weinstein as the world's most attractive textbook.




1. Ames, Gerald and Wyler, Rose. The Giant Golden Book of Biology: An Introduction to the Science of Life. New York: Golden Press, 1961 (3.95USD trade, 3.99USD library binding). A revised edition was published in 1967 and a second edition in 1968.
The book was also published in a number of European countries, e.g: Biologie: Das Leben, seine Entstehung, Entwicklung und Funktion. Zurich: Delphin Verlag, 1961; Les Merveilles De La Vie. Paris: Editions Des Deux Coqs D’or, 1962; Biology - A Colourful Introduction to the Wonder of Life. Feltham, Middlesex: Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd, 1968; or En Gyllene Bok om Biologi. Stockholm: Folket i Bilds Forlag, 1968. Note that every version included all of Harper's illustrations.

2. From the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. 1962 Feb 15(6): 1. (PDF)

10 Sep 2009, updated 2 Jan 2013

abridged, copy-edited, and republished 31 May 2013 by Fabulous Frames & Art