Friday, February 24, 2017

Fun with James Stevenson

A cartoon for the New Yorker's January 5, 1987 issue exemplifies the best qualities that the late James Stevenson (1929-2017) brought to the art form. Here there are exquisite subtleties in tone and substance conveyed through solid draughtsmanship and caption-writing. Somehow his quick, sketchy ink-and-wash rendering conveys the architectural grandeur of the throne room, the formal intimacy of the royal couple, and the self-absorption of the king. The caption, neatly divided into two parts, goes suddenly from the formal to the informal, from the serious to the frivolous. The two halves are separated by an ellipsis in the original art and by an em dash in the published version. The overall effect appears effortless.

The original art was in the collection of publisher James H. Heineman (1917-1994) who evidently kept collecting into his seventies. In 2010 it was offered for sale at $1300 by James Cummins Bookseller. The artwork measures 13 1/2 x 15 1/2 inches. According to Mr. Heineman's notations on the verso, the original was exhibited at the Art Institute in Houston in 1990, at  the International Cartoon Festival in Knokke-Heist, Belgium from June 6 to September 27, 1991; and finally at the American Cultural Center in Brussels from November to December 1991. The cartoon dates from the Reagan years and the mention of greed may have had ongoing resonance as the S&L crisis unfolded.

"Pomp, greed, conquest, intrigue ... it's been a fun year, hasn't it?"
James Stevenson, original art
The New Yorker, January 5, 1987, page 23

Detail of the queen and king

Detail of background

The caption

James Stevenson's signature

"Pomp, greed, conquest, intrigue—it's been a fun year, hasn't it?"
James Stevenson, The New Yorker, January 5, 1987, page 23

Thirty years after this drawing's publication, I am still not prepared to accept the word fun as an adjective in my own writing. Still, it's hard to fault Mr. Stevenson or the New Yorker's editors for publishing a caption that reflects the way people actually talk. Ultimately fun will succeed as an adjective if it hasn't already because it meets an expressive need and there isn't an easy substitute. I resolve to continue to tilt at grammatical windmills because that's what curmudgeons do.

Note:  Thanks to David from Manhattan for providing these photos of the original Stevenson artwork as well as the information about it. Other readers are invited to contribute scans or photos of original artwork by James Stevenson,

Quick Links to Attempted Bloggery's Archives
James Stevenson (1929-2017)
Original New Yorker Cartoon Art
The Collection of James H. Heineman
We are not amused.


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