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University of Texas at Austin

Tom Lea:

An Inventory of His Art Collection at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Lea, Tom, 1907-2001
Title: Tom Lea Art Collection
Dates: 1925-1989, undated
Extent: 583 works of art (531 objects in 15 boxes, 20 flat file folders, including 48 framed works and 12 rolled drawings)
Abstract: The Tom Lea Art Collection consists of 583 works of art, the bulk of which are drawings. Also included are paintings, prints, letter press, photographs, and collages. The works include sketches, dummies, designs, and completed works by Lea for publications, murals, portraits, and paintings dating from 1925 to 1989.
Call Number: Art Collection
Language: English and Spanish
Access: Open for research. Please note that a minimum of 24 hours advance notice is required to page Art Collection materials to the Ransom Center's Reading and Viewing Room. An appointment is required to view oversized and/or fragile works, and some materials may be restricted from viewing. To make an appointment or to reserve materials, please contact the Center's staff at

Administrative Information

Acquisition: Gifts, 1976-2011 (G1374, G2308, G9211, G11094, 11-11-004-G); purchase, 1981 (R9334)
Processed by: Helen Young, 2013

Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Biographical Sketch

Tom Calloway Lea III was a painter, muralist, illustrator, and author best known for his depictions of the El Paso, Texas, region and his World War II illustrations which appeared in Life magazine.
Lea was born July 11, 1907, in El Paso to Tom Lea Jr., and Zola May Utt Lea. Tom Lea Jr., was a renowned criminal lawyer and the mayor of El Paso from 1915 to 1917. As mayor, he had Pancho Villa’s wife and brother jailed for gunrunning, which prompted Villa to threaten to kill the mayor and kidnap his sons. As a result, Tom and his brother Joe had a police bodyguard assigned to them for several months.
After graduating from high school in 1924, Lea attended the Art Institute of Chicago from 1924 to 1926, studying under muralist John Warner Norton. Lea left the Institute to apprentice with Norton and work as a commercial artist in Chicago. In 1927, he married fellow art student Nancy Jane Taylor. The couple traveled to Europe in 1930, studying masters like Eugene Delacroix in Paris and Piero della Francesca and Luca Signorelli in Italy. Upon returning to Chicago, Lea continued work as an assistant to Norton until 1933, when he and Nancy moved to just south of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Lea worked on WPA mural commissions for the New Mexico State University Branson Library and the Las Cruces Branigan Cultural Center. He also had a part time job at New Mexico’s Laboratory of Anthropology and did occasional work for New Mexico Magazine.
After Nancy’s death in 1936, due to complications from an appendectomy, Lea returned to El Paso where he continued his work as a muralist. In 1937, he became acquainted with El Paso printer Carl Hertzog. Their meeting renewed Hertzog’s interest in fine book design, and the two men began a twenty-five year collaboration that would produce several books. That same year, Lea also met J. Frank Dobie, a friend of his father, who had just completed his manuscript for Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver. Dobie was so impressed with Lea’s work, he persuaded his publisher, Little, Brown & Company, to engage Lea as the illustrator--starting Lea’s career as an illustrator. After completing the illustrations for Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver in 1938, Lea began work on his mural Pass of the North for the El Paso Federal Courthouse. During this time he met and married Sarah Catherine Dighton Beane from Illinois.
In the summer of 1940, Lea accompanied Dobie on a trip through the south Texas brush country as part of the preparation for Dobie’s book The Longhorns for which Lea provided the illustrations. That fall, Life magazine editor Dan Longwell invited Lea to take an assignment as an accredited war artist-correspondent documenting troop training at military bases across the country. He accepted the position and was subsequently assigned to cover the naval patrols in the North Atlantic. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lea became one of eight artists selected by the U.S. Navy to document the war in paintings, which were then published in Life. As a war artist, Lea spent part of each year making sketches on the battlefields before returning to the U.S. to produce the oil paintings. He was present at most of the areas in the South Pacific where major conflict occurred. Lea spent 64 days on the USS Hornet and left three days before the ship was sunk by Japanese bombers. He accompanied the men of the 1st Marine Division onto the beach at Peleliu Island, where he witnessed the first 32 hours of the assault. Lea’s narrative and sketches of this event were published by Hertzog in 1945 as Peleliu Landing.
After his return from the war, Lea began painting a portrait of his wife, Sarah in the Summertime. He spent the next two years recreating on canvas the image of her from a snapshot that he had carried in his wallet during the war. He considered this painting to be his masterpiece.
Life magazine offered Lea an assignment to research and illustrate the history of the beef cattle industry in the Western Hemisphere. While working on this assignment in Mexico, Lea became interested in the breeding of fighting bulls. As a result, he wrote and illustrated his first novel, The Brave Bulls (1949), which made the New York Times Best Seller list and was made into a movie starring Mel Ferrer. Lea’s second novel, The Wonderful Country (1952), also made the Best Seller list and was turned into a movie starring Robert Mitchum. Lea made a cameo appearance in The Wonderful Country as a barber giving Mitchum a shave.
In the early 1950s, Lea was asked by the Klebergs of the King Ranch to write a history of the Ranch. He spent five years working on a two-volume history, The King Ranch, which was published in 1957.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Lea shifted away from mural work and graphic illustration to easel painting. He produced several paintings interpreting the history of the far West Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico region until he stopped painting in 1998 due to his deteriorating vision. His landscape painting Rio Grande hung in President George W. Bush’s Oval Office.
Tom Lea died January 29, 2001, in El Paso.


Lea, Tom. A Picture Gallery; Paintings and Drawings. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968.
---. Tom Lea: An Oral History. El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1995.
Lowman, Al. “Remembering Tom Lea, Fellow, Texas State Historical Association.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 105.1 (2001): 1-13. Accessed 26 July 2011.

Scope and Contents

The Tom Lea Art Collection consists of 531 objects bearing 583 works of art. Drawings (431) make up the bulk of the collection, but also included are paintings (90), prints (51), pages of lettering (4), photographs (4), and collages (3). The works include sketches, layouts and dummies, designs, and completed works created by Lea for illustrations, murals, portraits, and paintings dating from 1925 to 1989. The collection is organized into six series: I. Book and Magazine Illustrations, 1937-1972; II. Mural Designs, 1934-1938, undated; III. Paintings, 1936-1975; IV. Portraits, 1934-1989, undated; V. Unpublished Drawings, Prints, and Stained Glass Designs, 1929-1965, undated; and VI. Early Works, 1925-1935, undated.
Series I. is the largest of the six with 305 works of art, three quarters of which are pencil and/or pen and ink drawings. Also included are 39 paintings (38 watercolor, 1 oil), sixteen stats, two proof prints, and several pages of letter press with and without accompanying graphics. The series is divided between book and magazine illustrations. The books section is arranged first by author and then by title; the magazine section is divided first by publication title and then by date. Works listed under each book title are arranged in page number order. The book illustrations include complete sets of designs for three of Lea’s novels, The Brave Bulls (70 drawings, 16 prints, 9 paintings, 1 collage), The Primal Yoke (70 drawings, 10 paintings, 5 prints, 1 collage), and The Wonderful Country (36 ink drawings). There are an additional 28 drawings and two watercolor paintings for eleven other books including George Catlin's Westward Bound, a Hundred Years Ago (12 drawings in an unbound dummy). The magazine illustrations consist almost entirely of works produced for Life magazine, but also include an ink drawing done for The Western Horseman. Fifteen of the works for Life (six individual paintings and a three-page layout containing nine paintings) were produced specifically for the July 10, 1944, issue and feature scenes of China as well as portraits of General and Madam Chiang Kai-shek.
The second series includes drawings and photographs for seven murals, five of which were executed, dating between 1934 and 1938. The works in the series are grouped by project, and the projects are arranged chronologically. Notable are the eleven large drawings for the El Paso Federal Courthouse mural, Pass of the North, which feature historical figures from the Texas-Mexican border including Conquistadors, cowboys, American Indians, prospectors, and frontiersmen. There are also designs for the Texas Hall of State in Fairpark, Dallas; the Branigan Memorial Library in Las Cruces, New Mexico; the Ben Franklin Post Office in Washington, D.C.; and the First Baptist Church in El Paso. The two murals which were never for realized were for the San Antonio Post Office and the Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Series III. consists of nine studio paintings of horses, longhorns, an American Indian, and landscapes. Also included are two maritime paintings produced in 1960 during a six-week voyage as a guest on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga as it cruised along the western coast of Europe. All works are arranged chronologically.
Portrait drawings and paintings of friends and famous personalities make up Series IV. Subjects include J. Frank Dobie, Benito Juárez, Sitting Bull, and Pancho Villa. Dated works are arranged chronologically.
Series V. Unpublished Drawings, Prints, and Stained Glass Designs contains seven drawings, an etching, a watercolor sketch, and two photographs. Four of the drawings are of dancers Martha Esquivel Hahn and Joseph Hahn. The two photographs, which are mounted on one board, show the interior of and the stained glass designed for the First Presbyterian Church of El Paso. Dated works are arranged chronologically.
The final series, Early Works, consists of 217 works acquired from El Paso architect Charles Ewing Waterhouse Jr., an early friend of Lea’s. Included are drawings, prints, and a few paintings from Lea’s high school years, his time in Chicago, and his 1930 European trip. Also present are figure studies, drawings of Hopi objects, linocuts, studies of ballerina Martha Esquivel Hahn made at a dancing studio in El Paso, a drawing of fellow high school student Samuel Martinez playing a violin, portraits of Chicago muralists John Warner Norton and June Knabel, drawings for two mural triptychs, and landscapes with adobe buildings. In addition to works by Lea, the series includes a lithograph by John Warner Norton and a figure study by the sculptor Freeman Schoolcraft, who also took classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. This series is arranged according to Waterhouse’s inventory list.

Related Material

The Art Collection at the Harry Ransom Center contains other works by and related to Lea.
The Portrait Bust Collection contains a bronze of Lea by Urbici Soler.
Tom Lea donated to the Center a collection of Eleodoro Ergasto Marenco’s unpublished drawings for José Hernández’s Martin Fierro.
The J. Frank Dobie Art Collection possesses several of Lea’s works, including his original illustrations for Dobie’s Apache Gold & Yaqui Silver (1939) and The Longhorns (1941).
The Rex Smith Bullfighting Collection includes Lea’s watercolor painting of Luis Bello, the main character in The Brave Bulls, and an ink drawing of the bullfighter Gregorio Garcia.
The Edward Larocque Tinker Collection includes a drawing for The Brave Bulls.
The Alfred A. Knopf Collection contains two reproduction prints.
Tom Lea materials are also held in the Ransom Center’s Manuscripts Collection, Photography Collection, Library, Personal Effects Collection, and the Vertical File Collection.

Index Terms


Chiang, Kai-shek, 1887-1975.
Esquivel, Martha.


Bullfighters in art.
Bullfights in art.
Christian art and symbolism--20th century.
Horses in art--20th century.
Indians of North America--Pictorial works.
Landscapes (Representations).
West (U.S.)--History--Pictorial works.
West (U.S.) in art.


China--Pictorial works.
Texas--Pictorial works.
West (U.S.).

Document Types

Collages--20th century.
Drawings--20th century.
Female figure drawings--20th century.
Genre works--20th century.
Illustrations--20th century.
Paintings--20th century.
Prints--20th century.
Sketches--20th century.

Item List