For the past few days I’ve had the 1953 re-issue of the very first issue of The New Yorker
sitting on my work table. I never tire of the perfection of that first cover (yes, perfection). Rea Irvin, who drew it, truly pulled a rabbit out of a top hat, but the rabbit wasn’t a rabbit — it was a top-hatted Victorian gent, soon to be dubbed Eustace Tilley. And then there are Irvin’s additional cover elements: those drifty pink clouds, and the green what-evers over Tilley’s left shoulder.
And the butterfly: so much a butterfly, but not exactly one you’ll find in a textbook. The cartoonish elements of Tilley are fabulous: the simple profile, the few lines indicating facial features; the hair shown as a series of semi-circles; the lovely simple sweeping curving lines of the coat, and monocle cord. The only part of the piece that’s complicated is Tilley’s hand.
Irvin shows us all five fingers. Most cartoonist-artists are happy to show four. Irvin wisely decided we needed to see all five on this inaugural issue. There’s mystery in Rea Irvin’s creation. Why a Victorian gent on the cover of a brand new magazine published in the (mid) Roaring 20s? No one knows! (and as Lee Lorenz wrote in his text for the pamphlet accompanying an exhibit of art celebrating the magazine’s 60th anniversary: what’s even more fascinating is why The New Yorker
‘s founder and first editor, Harold Ross, chose to use the Tilley cover).