Nora S. Unwin papers , 1926-1973

Overview of the Collection

Unwin, Nora S. (Nora Spicer), 1907-1982
Nora S. Unwin papers
1926-1973 (inclusive)
12.5 linear feet, (32 containers)
Collection Number
Ax 358
Collection comprises correspondence, sketchbooks, literary manuscripts, illustrations and other material by children's book author and illustrator Nora S. Unwin (1907-1982). Correspondence is primarily incoming letters. Illustrations include ink and watercolor illustrations for children's books by Unwin and others, notably Elizabeth Yates. Collection also includes several sound recordings and photographs of Unwin.
University of Oregon Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives
UO Libraries--SCUA
1299 University of Oregon
Eugene OR
Telephone: 5413463068
Access Restrictions

Collection is open to the public. Collection must be used in Special Collections and University Archives Reading Room. Collection or parts of collection may be stored offsite. Please contact Special Collections and University Archives in advance of your visit to allow for transportation time. Collection includes sound recordings, moving images, and digital files to which access is restricted. Access to these materials is governed by repository policy and may require the production of listening or viewing copies. Researchers requiring access must notify Special Collections and University Archives in advance and pay fees for reproduction services as necessary.

Additional Reference Guides

See the Current Collection Guide for detailed description and requesting options.

Funding for encoding this finding aid was provided through a grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Historical NoteReturn to Top

Born in a London suburb in 1907, Nora Spicer Unwin grew up in a family, as she put it, "closely connected with books." Since the early nineteenth century the Unwins had been involved in publishing and printing, founding three different firms and becoming one of the preeminent names in the book world by the 1950s. Referring to this rich family tradition, Unwin once quipped, "I've always suspected some printing ink in my blood." Watching the whole book production process in her father's printing works, Unwin determined early on that her passion was art, "there was never any doubt that I wanted to be an artist," she said. Recognizing this passion, Unwin's parents allowed her to convert an upstairs nursery of their Surrey, England home into her first studio. Shortly thereafter she enrolled in Leon Underwood's prestigious London art school and then continued her training at the Kingston School of Art and the Royal College of Art where she received her diploma in design in 1932. In eight years of specialized training Unwin explored pottery, wood carving, embroidery, bookbinding, mural decoration, engraving, etching, and architecture, but book illustration and wood engraving where her greatest loves.

It is in these latter media that Unwin's work is best known. Public recognition of her talent came relatively early: her first illustrating commission came at age eighteen and while at the Royal Academy two of her wood engravings were selected for display in the British Museum. Teaching part-time and illustrating children's books, Unwin remained in England after receiving her diploma. Unwin credits a wartime job working with children and living in a rural setting as influential in her illustrations. Her interest in children's literature was also facilitated by her friendship with renowned children's book author Elizabeth Yates, whom she met in London in 1937 and collaborated with on many book projects.

A one-year visit to Yates and her husband William McGreal's (also a children's book author) New Hampshire farmstead home in 1946 turned into a permanent relocation when Unwin fell in love with America. The natural world provided inspiration for many of her illustrations and woodcuts and the New England flora and fauna provided many new sources. Carrying a sketchbook everywhere she went, Unwin captured the local details of her new surroundings in their immediacy. Referring to New England, Unwin wrote, "The rough texture and color of the granite rocks, the swirling flight of swallows, the twinkling light on lakes and rocky streams, the wild color vibrations of fall, the silent beauty of snow and the blueness of shadows over it, the drama of a blizzard; all these found their way into my work." The exacting detail of her woodcuts for John Kieran's 1947 Footnotes on Nature are testament to these influences and browsing through her sketchbooks in the collection one immediately gets the sense that Unwin was indeed a close observer of the natural world.

After residing in the country with Yates and McGreal for ten years, Unwin sought a change of scenery. In 1955 she traveled and studied in Mexico, documenting the poverty she witnessed there in her woodcuts and finding inspiration for her children's book Poquito: The Little Mexican Duck. Upon her return from Mexico, Unwin moved to Wellesley, Massachusetts to be closer to Boston's cosmopolitan amenities. Visiting museums, attending drawing seminars, and exhibiting her work in her new setting, Unwin continued to illustrate children's books and she also began teaching art. Tiring of the pace of the city, Unwin moved back to the New Hampshire countryside in 1962. Back in Peterborough, New Hampshire, Unwin continued teaching and working closely with Yates. Unwin remained in New Hampshire teaching, exhibiting her art, and illustrating books until her death in 1982.

In her lifetime, Unwin contributed to more than 100 books by other authors (including twenty-six with Yates), most of them aimed at young audiences, and wrote and illustrated twelve of her own. Unwin is also celebrated as one of the key figures in the twentieth-century renaissance of wood engraving—her engravings continue to be represented in major museum collections and Linda Clark McGoldrick's recent folio, Nora S. Unwin: Artist and Wood Engraver, celebrates this aspect of Unwin's opus and includes several fine reproductions. Awards include election to the prestigious National Academy of Design in New York and, with Elizabeth Yates, Unwin earned Newbery mention for Mountain Born and a Newbery Medal for Amos Fortune, Free Man.

Content DescriptionReturn to Top

The Nora Unwin Papers will be particularly useful for researchers interested in Unwin's career as a children's book illustrator. Wherever possible the current arrangement of the collection has maintained the previous levels of organization, for instance, the illustrations and oversize illustration series are each organized by book title. Further, the language and descriptions have been preserved from previous finding aids whenever possible.

The single box of Series I, Correspondence primarily consists of incoming letters to Unwin. The first three folders contain letters from several different individuals and organizations, they are arranged alphabetically.

Series II, Sketchbooks contains forty-three of Unwin's sketchbooks, they are arranged by date when possible, but many are undated and are therefore roughly organized by size. Perusal will reward the researcher with a document of the development of Unwin's ideas. Subseries A: Notebooks contains five notebooks that Unwin used as travel journals and storehouses for ideas on potential works and works in progress but few actual sketches.

Series III, Illustrations (standard size) contains the heart of the collection. In six manuscript boxes the researcher will find not only original illustrations but mock-ups, paste-ups, overlays detailing the color separations, and various other documents related to book publishing. The series is arranged by book title, alphabetical by author last name.

The half-manuscript box that contains Series IV: Manuscript books written, illustrated, and bound houses three books that Unwin produced, not for publication, about her travels.

Series V, Manuscripts contains manuscripts in various stages of development for books Unwin wrote, including two that were never published. Galleys and printer's proofs for Two Too Many, The Midsummer Witch, and Carolina's Courage are housed in Series XI, Oversize Illustrations.

Series VI, Publicity and Reviews contains published reviews and materials promoting Unwin's books and exhibitions. One might also examine Series VIII, Scrapbooks for similar items.

Series VII, Audiotapes contains four reel-to-reel tapes.

The two boxes in Series VIII, Scrapbooks contain large scrapbooks with newspaper clippings that Unwin compiled. Photocopies of the loose clippings are also included. Also see Series VI: Publicity and Reviews for similar items.

Series IX, Awards, personal records, and biographical information contains articles that Unwin wrote, articles about Unwin, autobiographical manuscripts, documentation of awards received, and other items related to Unwin's personal life.

Series X, Photographs contains portraits of Unwin, a few group portraits, and several photographic reproductions of Unwin's work.

Like Series III, Series XI, Oversize Illustrations contains illustrations, mock-ups, overlays, and other documents related to book publishing, all alphabetized by book author and title.

Administrative InformationReturn to Top

Detailed Description of the CollectionReturn to Top

Names and SubjectsReturn to Top

Subject Terms

  • Children's literature, American--Authorship
  • Children's literature, American--Illustrations
  • Children's literature, English--Illustrations
  • Illustration of books--United States--20th century
  • Women authors, American--20th century
  • Women illustrators--United States

Personal Names

  • Unwin, Nora S. (Nora Spicer), 1907-1982
  • Unwin, Nora S. (Nora Spicer), 1907-1982
  • Unwin, Nora S. (Nora Spicer), 1907-1982

Form or Genre Terms

  • Book illustrations
  • Correspondence