Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, John R. Neill did his first illustration work for the Philadelphia's Central High School newspaper in 1894-95. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and produced advertising art for the Wanamaker department store in Philadelphia. He became a staff artist of the Philadelphia North American newspaper, for which he produced features like "Life Among the Macaronis" and the Sunday page "The Little Journeys of Nip and Tuck," which had verses by W. R. Bradford (1909–10). Neill's newspaper series "Children's Stories That Never Grow Old" was re-issued in book form by Reilly & Britton starting in 1908, and remained in print into the 1920s. In 1906 he illustrated the serialization of Baum's The Fate of a Crown.
Neill's connection with Oz began with The Marvelous Land of Oz, the second Oz book L. Frank Baum wrote; it was published in 1904. (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz had been illustrated by W. W. Denslow, with whom Baum argued and lost contact afterwards.)
Originally, Neill's illustrations were reminiscent of Denslow's, to bring continuity and familiarity to the characters. Denslow's illustrations had been quite popular. However, as the series expanded, Neill brought his own unique flair to the illustrations, showing more artistic representations of the characters as well as beautiful paintings of numerous scenes. In fact, he was later named the Royal Painter of Oz.
Dorothy drawn by Denslow appeared to be a chubby five or six year old with long brunette hair in two braids. Neill chose to illustrate a new Dorothy in 1907 when the character was reintroduced in Ozma of Oz. He illustrated the young girl in a more fashionable appearance. She is shown to be about ten years old, dressed in contemporary American fashions, with blonde hair cut in a fashionable bob. A similar modernization was given other female characters.
Neill continued to illustrate the Oz books after Baum's death, and his artwork was praised for helping give Ruth Plumly Thompson's books "legitimacy" in the eyes of Baum's fans. Neill would eventually succeed Thomspson as the designated "Royal Historian of Oz". Neill illustrated 35 Oz books in total, and each contains more than a hundred of his drawings.
The three Oz books he wrote for Reilly & Lee are considered part of the Famous Forty, and appeared one a year from 1940 to 1942. These were The Wonder City of Oz, The Scalawagons of Oz, and Lucky Bucky in Oz. He had completed a draft of The Runaway in Oz at his death but had not illustrated or edited it. Reilly & Lee decided not to publish the manuscript, and it lay incomplete until 1995, when it was published by Books of Wonder with illustrations by Eric Shanower.
Neill also did a great deal of magazine illustration work, largely forgotten today. He worked for an extremely broad range of publications, both famous and obscure; the better-known ones included The Ladies' Home Journal, The Delineator, The Saturday Evening Post, Argosy, and Boys' Life. Beginning in 1909, he produced a series of Neill Gift Books, volumes of poetry furnished with his illustrations. Neill also illustrated a range of other books; he worked on series books for boys and girls from the Altemus Publishing Company of Philadelphia — The Battleship Boys, The High School Boys, and others.
Neill was the father of three daughters, Natalie and Annrea and Joan.
- ↑ Published were John Greenleaf Whittier's Snowbound, Longfellow's Evangeline and Hiawatha, and Poe's The Raven and Other Poems. William Cullen Bryant's Thanatopsis was prepared but never released to the public.