Original drawing by artist Thornton Oakley, a student of master illustrator Howard Pyle, depicts a stark scene of modern times
On a large sheet of paper, a small drawing focuses the eye and draws in the viewer. Sketched in charcoal, and with added highlights in red and white, the drawing is captioned in plain block letters “Transformers”.
Signed at the lower right “TO” by listed American artist Thornton Oakley, the drawing hums with activity. Smoke rises above a brick industrial building. Steam billows from an electrical transformer and surrounds a nearby bank of insulators, their familiar shapes silhouetted against the vapor. No people appear in the landscape, yet their presence is obvious.
Here is a story told with a single word. “Transformers.” The drawing depicts a hidden urban world created by man — largely unseen, though nonetheless vital to modern life.
American artist Thornton Oakley (1881–1953) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was familiar with its railroad factories and steel mills. After studying in Wilmington, Delaware with illustrator and painter Howard Pyle, Oakley began his own career as an illustrator. He re-visited Pittsburgh in 1913 and produced a series of 30 drawings focused on the city’s industry and busy river fronts.
The present drawing does not appear to be from that Pittsburgh series. Possibly dating from the 1910s to the 1940s, Oakley’s drawing was made in the same spirit. The charcoal was rendered within a rectangular outline suggesting that it was made as an illustration, possibly for a book.
Industrial scenes were a staple of Oakley’s long career. In the 1910s, in addition to the Pittsburgh series, the artist made drawings of the WWI shipyard at Hog Island, Philadelphia. On and off, from 1914 to 1936, Oakley was Head of the Department of Illustration at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art.
Later in his career, the artist painted industrial scenes for the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Philadelphia Electric Company. It seems reasonable to speculate this drawing was possibly executed for the latter titan of East Coast energy.
Thornton Oakley’s skillful and vital rendering of electrical transformers transform them from mere industrial objects into an emblem of industrial America. This is an America whose energy sources seem unlimited; one of raw unbridled power.
[America. c. 1910s-1940s], Drawing with ink caption. 3¾ x 5¾ inches. Mixed media on wove paper. Overall 20 x 14 inches. Pencil annotation on verso: “TO 223”. Signed lower right by the artist.
Refs. Drawings by Thornton Oakley show Pittsburgh’s grit in 1913 | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and FLP — Thornton Oakley collection of Howard Pyle and his students accessed online.