A “rawther” glorious exhibit: “It’s Me, Eloise,” opens at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

Unpublished drawing by Hilary Knight for Eloise [Simon & Schuster, 1955]. Collection of Hilary Knight. Copyright © by Kay Thompson. Used by permission of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

Eloise may have taken up permanent residence at the Plaza Hotel in New York City but soon she’ll be checking in at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA. The new exhibit, “It’s Me, Eloise: The Voice of Kay Thompson and the Art of Hilary Knight” opens February 12, 2017 and will run until June 4, 2017. “We’re knee-deep in pink paint!” says Eric Carle Museum Chief Curator, Ellen Keiter, of the gallery’s current transformation into the vibrant pink color scheme of the popular children’s picture books.


Illustration by Hilary Knight for The Plaza Hotel’s children’s menu (1956-1957). Collection of Hilary Knight. Copyright © by Kay Thompson. Used by permission of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

The exhibit celebrates the spunky character alongside her two creators, author Kay Thompson and illustrator, Hilary Knight. Exhibit curator, Jane Bayard Curley, knows Knight personally and spent much time carefully going through his archives with him to choose works for the exhibit. “[Their] personal relationship is special and [Knight] has been very forthcoming and open with lending everything to us,” says Keiter. “It’s been a really lovely collaboration.”

While Eloise stands as a renown children’s book, it was originally intended for adults with the full title, Eloise: a book for precocious grownups. It seems that no matter the age, all readers identify with the forever six-year-old’s classic hijinks and spirited mishaps in the hotel. “Her popularity really resonates with children and adults as much now as it did in 1955,” says Keiter. “[Guests] will have a better [and] larger appreciation of Eloise the character and perhaps understand that this was really a collaboration between two artistic geniuses, [Thompson and Knight],” she adds.

In the exhibit, guests will learn about the storied career of Kay Thompson. She was very successful in show business. Visitors can hear audio of her singing the Eloise song and see a video clip of her performance of “Think Pink!” from the movie, Funny Face. Thompson was a talented cabaret singer and vocal coach, having worked with Judy Garland, Lena Horne, and Frank Sinatra. “I think it was important to [Bayard Curley] to really pay tribute to both of them as the creators, because Kay Thompson’s voice is very strong in the book—no punctuation. It’s sort of this run on stream of consciousness and her humor certainly comes across wonderfully,” says Keiter. Thompson lived at the Plaza Hotel herself and Eloise was like her literary alter-ego.

Unpublished drawing by Hilary Knight for Eloise [Simon & Schuster, 1955]. Collection of Hilary Knight. Copyright © by Kay Thompson. Used by permission of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
More than 90 pieces of art from the Eloise series will be featured, as well as works from Knight’s artistic career. Additional pieces showcase Knight as an artist, painter, magazine illustrator, and poster artist. Guests will also delight in highlights from Knight’s archive, including dummy pages from Eloise at Christmastime, a 1955 preliminary cover sketch for Eloise, unused sketches for Eloise in Paris, as well as works from Eloise in Moscow and New York is Book Country. “[Knight] really brought the character to life in his drawings. They are so beautiful but they are also really humorous as well. He puts in a lot of details that weren’t necessarily in the text. He really brings the character of Nanny to life and all the different people in Eloise’s orbit at the Plaza Hotel,” says Keiter.

Portrait of Eloise (1956) by Hilary Knight. Collection of Hilary Knight. Copyright © by Kay Thompson. Used by permission of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

Of all the pieces in the exhibit, there is one particular piece that guests will happily skitter along to see: Knight’s original 1956 portrait of Eloise that was stolen from the Plaza hotel in 1960. “Apparently two years after it was stolen from the Plaza, [Knight] received an anonymous phone call telling him that it was in a trash can somewhere on the Upper East Side,” says Keiter. When he retrieved the painting, he saw that it was cut out of its frame and ripped in pieces. Bayard Curley discovered the painting, which was buried deep in the back of a closet when she met with Knight to plan the exhibit. “We had it very faithfully restored,” says Keiter. “It took months of restoration to get it looking good again. It’s framed and it will make its first public debut since 1960. So it’s traveled a very mysterious journey to get here, but we’re super excited to have it!”

Going through the pink-striped gallery, guests will be able to feel a bit like Eloise in all parts of experiencing the exhibit. “We’re looking at the career of Kay Thompson and the career of Hilary Knight as well, but Eloise is certainly our star attraction,” says Keiter. “We will have lots of little design elements throughout the exhibit.” Guests can have photo-ops with standing cut-out figures of Eloise or sit for a photo at teatime with Nanny. Much like how Eloise picks up the house phones in the Plaza Hotel lobby to “make several calls,” visitors will be able pick up the receiver of several vintage hotel lobby phones to hear recordings of Bernadette Peters read the Eloise books.

If Eloise herself could speak to visitors, she certainly might say:

“Sklathe yourself out of bed

and skibble along to the Eric Carle Museum

You simply cawn’t cawn’t cawn’t miss this exhibit

for it is about Me ELOISE!”

Unpublished drawing by Hilary Knight for Eloise [Simon & Schuster, 1955]. Collection of Hilary Knight. Copyright © by Kay Thompson.
Used by permission of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
 For more information, visit the Eric Carle Museum website here.

“This exhibition has been generously supported by Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, the Walton Family Foundation, Brenda Bowen and Michael Smith, and an anonymous donor.” – Eric Carle Museum website

 

© Chelsea E. Dill 2017