James Cook McKell was born October 29, 1884 in Burlington, Iowa. His father, a fire insurance salesman also named James C. McKell, was born 1838 in Ohio. His mother, Emily D. Thorpe, was born 1848 in Ohio. His parents married in 1870 and moved to Burlington Iowa. They had seven children, of which he was the sixth born. They lived at 103 Augusta Road in Burlington.
In 1890 the family moved to Des Moines, Iowa, where they lived at 906 Third Street.
He had a natural talent for drawing and developed an interest in becoming an artist while still in primary school. He sent several drawings to the nationwide children's magazine, St. Nicholas, and in the May 1900 issue was awarded a prize.
In 1902 he attended the Cumming School of Art in Des Moines, where he studied with the school's founder and namesake, Charles Atherton Cumming(1858-1932). The pulp artist P. J. Monahan attended this same school two years earlier. He had since graduated and become a locally renowned newspaper cartoonist.
In 1905 after completing course work at the Cumming School of Art, James C. McKell moved to Philadelphia for advanced training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He lived and worked one block away from school in rented rooms of a watchmaker's house at 115 North 15th Street.
By 1909 he had opened an art studio in downtown Philadelphia at 524 Walnut Street. He joined the Philadelphia Sketch Club, which is the oldest continuously-operated club for professional artists in America.
In 1912 he married Kate Agnew Chapman. She was born August 4, 1888 in Hastings, Nebraska. Her father was Frank H. Chapman and her mother was Ardell Agnew. They moved to 223 Essex Avenue in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, where they raised two children. Their daughter Emily was born in 1915 and son James C. McKell, Jr. was born in 1920. This son grew up to become an accomplished artist as well, and was awarded a scholarship to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
On September 12, 1918 he reported for draft registration during the Great War, at which time he was recorded to be thirty-three years old, tall, medium build, with brown eyes and brown hair. He did not serve in the military.
By 1918 his illustrations appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, which was produced in Philadelphia by the Curtis Publishing Company. McKell developed a long term business relationship with Curtis, which continued to publish his illustrations in The Saturday Evening Post as well as Country Gentleman and Ladies Home Journal.
In 1921 he worked for Charles K. Stokes & Co. in Philadelphia to create posters for the Bermuda Steamship Line.
During the 1920s his cover illustrations began to appear on pulp magazines, such as Short Stories, The Frontier, Everybody's Magazine, Short Stories, Adventure, Argosy, and West.
In 1928 the McKell family moved to 605 Penfield Avenue in Haverford (Upper Darby), PA.
The March 30, 1929 issue of The Saturday Evening Post included his illustrations for a story written by Maristan Chapman, "Treat You Clever." Mary "Maristan" Chapman, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, wrote charming and sensitive fiction about the Cumberland Mountain folk. She was also a cousin of Kate Chapman, the wife of James McKell. He went on to illustrate several of Maristan Chapman's subsequent novels over the next decade, such as Timber Trail (1933), Glen Hazard Cowboys (1940), Mystery on the Mississippi (1942), Gold Coast Treasure (1941), and Secrets of Wild Cat Cave (1944).
In 1941 he was employed as a staff artist at General Electric Company, which was located at 67th Street and Elmwood Avenue in Philadelphia.
On April 27, 1942 he reported for draft registration, as required by law during WWII. He was recorded at the time to be fifty-seven year old and to have a "birthmark on right arm below the elbow."
James McKell died at the age of seventy-one on April 2, 1956.
© David Saunders 2011