Wilson be an his professional work in New York as a commercial illustrator. PuI Ush ers and editors quickly saw the quality of his advertisements and magazine fiction illustrations, and he received many awards. In 1921, Wilson designed a woodcut of a sailor, entitled Home for Christmas, which he sent as a personal Christmas card. Apparently, the firm of Doubleday, Page & Co. took notice, and they advanced Wilson a thousand dollars to begin work on illustrations for a book of seafaring stories. That summer, in his house in Truro, Cape Cod, surrounded by marine gear and calling upon his first-hand experience of the sea and its men, Wilson prepared the woodcuts for the book that would bring him wide commercial success and a national reputation. Iron Men and Wooden Ships was published in 1924. With-an introduction by the well-known writer of nautical books, William McFee, it was a collection of sailors chanties which, according to one observer, “had been handed down like the Apostolic succession from crew to crew.” The color woodcuts captured the romantic mood of time gone by – “When American ships were the pride of New England and put into every port of the old world, under canvas.”
Wilson’s evocative scenes have been compared to those of Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates. Perhaps he consciously sought to emulate his old teacher. In a letter to the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts in 1920, Wilson said: I have been wishing that I owned an example of Mr. Pyle’s work, and I wonder if it would be possible for me to buy some small example, possibly one of his many beautiful line drawings or decorations. The Society’s response has not survived, but the impact of Fyle’s art on Wilson had obviously not faded by 1920. Wilson’s style, however, is quite individual. The illustrations for Iron Men and Wooden Ships reminded one writer of eighteenth-century chapbook woodcuts – bold and colorful.
In 1930, George Macy commissioned Wilson to illustrate Robinson Crusoe for the first group of books distributed to the members of the Limited Editions Club. By the early 1930s, Wilson was the country’s foremost illustrator of sea stories. Wanting to broaden his range, he was glad to illustrate James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans in 1932.
A set of color plates, with the original drawings and instructions to the color printer, is now in the New York Public Library. The Last of the Mohicans was proof of Wilson’s versatility; although he remained an acknowledged master of marine illustrations, he was now sought after for other subjects as well.