February 8th, 2010
Ware's writes in appreciation of former New Yorker art director Rea Irvin, and recounts the process of representing him in the context of the 85th anniversary New Yorker cover.
"Cartoonists are a notoriously invisible lot. Like writers and cave salamanders, we choose a life of privacy, away from natural light and other human beings. So it was no surprise that I ran into trouble finding a simple head shot of Rea Irvin, The New Yorker’s original art director, for my contribution to this week’s set of anniversary covers. Eustace Tilley, Irvin’s classic image of classist snobbery (and, ironically, now a de-facto seal of literary merit) is as recognizable as Ronald McDonald. However, in this age of find-everything-now, Rea Irvin is nowhere to be found. Do a Google image search and you just get twenty-eight thousand Eustace Tilleys."
"While still alive, Irvin was just as inconspicuous: Brendan Gill recalls in his memoir “Here at The New Yorker” that for years he thought Al Frueh, another artist whom he regularly passed in the hallways, was Irvin. (As it turns out, Gill never ended up meeting him.) Worse, another New Yorker cartoonist, Gardner Rea, sort of drew like Irvin, and the editors sometimes credited one for the other’s work. Even the New Yorker doesn’t have a file photo in the office."
"Fortunately, a couple of other memoirs by New Yorker staffers saw fit to include a picture of the man, who turned out to be an affable, rotund chap, with an unruly swoop of hair. Add in a little artistic license, and I was able to craft a credible likeness of Irvin for the farcical, though respectful, creation myth of Eustace Tilley which appears on this week’s four covers."
"The real story of Tilley’s intelligent design, a lift from a nineteenth-century image of the gadfly Comte D’Orsay, must be much grimmer and more prosaic; after only five months of publication, Harold Ross’s 1925 magazine shrank to a flimsy black-and-white pamphlet, only to be resurrected in a last-ditch burst of optimism. Described as “invaluable” by James Thurber, Irvin attended Ross’s weekly editorial meetings, “the main and shining reason that the magazine’s comic art in the first two years was far superior to its humorous prose.” (In sifting through this history, I noted that Irvin redrew the actual first cover, a green, pink, and black hand-separated image, for the magazine’s 1926 birthday, possibly to accommodate full color, probably because no one could find the original.) Irvin, an admirer of the fine-lined proto-cartooning of Japanese ukiyo-e, eventually went on to draw a hundred and fifty different covers, and in retirement slipped off to, of all places, the Virgin Islands. Meanwhile, The New Yorker has been running his 1926 color drawing almost every February since, only sometimes its editors ask clods like myself, Adrian Tomine, Daniel Clowes, and Ivan Brunetti to interpret it."
"It occurred to me only afterward that my efforts at portraiture were essentially ridiculous, since no one today, not even the magazine’s current staff, would know what Irvin looked like. I could have drawn anyone. But Irvin didn’t cut corners with Tilley, one of the most enduring and recognizable anti-images of America’s evolving anti-aristocracy. Clearly he was a cartooning genius, and his was a line I wanted to honor."
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