The New York Public Library for The Performing Arts is currently host to a small, gem of an exhibition featuring the art/design of nonagenarian artist, Hilary Knight. Those of you aware only of Knight’s most iconic creation, the irrepressible Eloise (authored by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Knight) should treat yourselves to this glimpse into his utterly stylish and inventive world. Meticulously designed and constructed by the honoree himself, the show unfortunately lacks documentation. I recommend the two recordings offered through earphones for illumination.
“What’s amazing to me is that I still do it. Most people my age are playing golf or under ground.”
Hilary Knight photographed in his home by Jonathan Becker
Hilary Knight’s parents, Clayton Knight and Katharine Sturges, were successful illustrators/ designers across diverse fields. Surrounded by taste, talent, and pleasure in craft, he never thought of doing anything else. A sampling of the couple’s work includes Sturge’s charming circus murals painted in the boy’s childhood room. “At four or five,” Knight drew over his mother’s own circus drawings in one of her sketchbooks. A lifelong enchantment with the big top ensued. Pristine, accomplished silhouettes in his oeuvre are inspired by her work for Oneida Silver.
The Circus is Coming by Hilary Knight
Movies – especially musicals and theater – enthralled him. “I never paid attention to the plots, just the sets and costumes.” The elaborate production of Billy Rose’s Jumbo at The Hippodrome, Adrian’s costumes for The Great Ziegfeld, Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark – “The dream sequence was so beautiful I can see it now” – and Sabu films were particular favorites. “…This kid my age who was riding almost naked on an elephant – I thought, that’s a good idea…” (A fantasy achieved later in life.)
The young man studied with Reginald Marsh at The Art Students League then enlisted in the navy, preferring its uniform to that of the army. Irreverence showed itself with his painted mural of naked Geishas in an officer’s Okinowa Quonset hut.
Prestigious theater designer Jo Mielziner facilitated a season as assistant at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine. Knight found scenic design “too big.” He’s always striven for control. “With books I could do exactly what I wanted.” The New York School of Interior Design added to multifaceted awareness and skill. He painted murals, built packaging maquettes and illustrated. No aptitude went to waste.
Two Vitrines – Vanity Fair Drawings; Portraits – Note Julie Wilson, upper right
Knight credits watercolor drawings of misbehaving children in Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel’s 1887 book of children’s manners La Civilité as very early inspiration. (He pored over it as a child.) Later, he was taken with Ronald Searle’s St. Trinian’s girls in British satirical magazines. (St. Trinian’s was a popular series featuring uncontrollable boarding school inhabitants.) Other influences include Lautrec, Mucha, Erte, Rockwell, and Hirschfeld.
In 1952, inspired by Searle’s pen and ink art, Knight drew “a strange little girl” with her mother for an article on bad little children in Mademoiselle Magazine. Its caption was “I think I’ll throw a tantrum.” Eloise by any other name.
The artist lived in a bohemian brownstone filled with people “on their way to becoming important in their fields.” DD Dixon, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar under Diana Vreeland occupied the top floor. While doing a photo shoot with MGM vocal coach and nightclub performer Kay Thompson, Dixon overheard and was addressed in what Knight calls Thompson’s “funny little girl voice,” conjuring a character in the third person. This, the editor thought, should be a book…and I know just the right illustrator. Kismet. “DD is completely responsible for Eloise.”
The original Eloise book
Eloise’s appearance was based, in part, on Knight family friend, Eloise Davison, food writer for the Herald Tribune. “…a funny, pudgy little woman with messy hair I pictured as a child.” Thompson had definite ideas about her charge’s life. Like the author, she would live at The Plaza Hotel. There would be no interfering father (she had hated her own) or even a male dog (Weenie has no weenie). “With all her brilliance and sophistication, Kay was curiously prudish…”
Thompson also insisted the girl’s mother should be perpetually absent, therefore never aging. The only drawing of mother and child and Knight’s favorite Eloise art is an unpublished depiction of our favorite mischievous girl choosing her puppy at “an elegant pugery.” Her elegant mother sits, legs crossed, wearing an enormous Audrey Hepburn chapeau and classic sheath. She watches the proceedings with, of course, her back to us. Knight says her body represents that of Uma Thurman.
Three sequels followed before Kay Thompson lost interest and pulled everything but the original book from print. “She wanted to do it all herself and couldn’t.” The incalculable loss to Knight is compounded by ours.
Hilary Knight’s silhouette self portrait with theater posters
“I was going to the theater a great deal.” Knight started designing theater posters with Harry Rigby’s production of Half a Sixpence in 1965. Some of those that followed were No, No Nanette, Good News, I Love My Wife, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Makin’ Whoopee, Mame and Sugar Babies. These and more are on display. Many were tailored to a particular, always identifiable star. Julie Wilson looks as if she might step out of the page, Ray Bolger as if he’ll dance off it.
Some of Knight’s theater poster designs
The artist apparently created endless designs for Timbuktu and La Cage aux Folles securing neither commission. His interpretation of La Cage, however, was rejected by Alan Carr “for showing drag queens instead of a relationship.” (Ironically the final choice, by another illustrator, emulated Knight’s viewpoint.) Knight also enjoyed working with dance companies. The array of styles, each befitting its vehicle is marvelous.
Portraits: Kaye Ballard, Liliane Montevecchi, Martha Raye
Portraits are showcased in carefully arranged vitrines: Lena Horne and Billy Strayhorn as Dr. Ferway de la Fer and Her Assistant Sweepa Truehorn stand in frame. (Horne played de la Fer in the film Broadway Rhythm.) Knight purchased some beaded French Victorian leaves at a Doyle auction of the vocalist’s possessions. The two figures are bead leaf hunters. She holds a tiny trowel. Like many of the portraits, the piece is a contained diorama, part photography, part collage, part assemblage.
Billy Strayhorn and Lena Horne
We see Sabu; Martha Raye (on an ersatz bootleg album cover); Kaye Ballard;, a 5’ Kay Thompson; full page appreciation of Liliane Montevecchi; Isabella Blow; Barry Humphries, with whom Knight collaborated on years of priceless Etiquette Pages in Vanity Fair Magazine; and Ann Miller with Stephen Sondheim. “Ann was doing Follies and couldn’t get the lyric …An imitation Hitler/But with littler charm… so Stephen was in the booth helping her.” (“Can That Boy Foxtrot!”) Knight can’t wait to start a portrait of his friend, Gloria Vanderbilt.
Feathers, Fur Fins and Fans: Isabella Blow “Birds” portrait under glass – wearing Philip Treacy’s Andy Warhol feather hat; above her, the original drawing for a MAC LIPSTICK carton; top right- 1946 oil painting ”the SEA NYMPH”;
Right-hand photo includes a costume for the film Frog and Nymph worn by Knight’s assistant Wilson Lopez. Performance artist Phoebe Legere played the sprite. (A frog falls in love with a water nymph).
Upstairs, there are costume sketches for one of the artist’s significant dreams Tail’s : An “Exotic, Erotic Revue” inspired by The Crazy Horse and Sugar Babies. He’s even designed a theater for it. (Music, he tells me, would be that of Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim.)
Hilary Knight has illustrated more than 50 books and authored nine. He’s designed theater posters, costumes and sets, makes props, furniture and décor, illustrates for magazines and special projects, and is a collage/assemblage portrait artist. I’m sure I’ve left something out. He rises between four and five a.m., feeds his guppies (no kidding), and works almost every day. Energy, enthusiasm, and warmth are palpable.
Barry Humphries ‘A Moon Bed for Dame Edna’
“To me the most interesting thing is what I’m working on now.”
All exhibition photos and those of Hilary Knight courtesy of Hilary Knight
All quotes are Hilary Knight
Hilary Knight’s Stage Struck World
The New York Public Library for The Performing Arts – First and Second Floor
40 Lincoln Plaza (between 64 and 65 Streets)
Through September 1. 2017
WATCH FOR: Eloise at The Museum at The New York Historical Society
June 30-October 9, 2017
Hilary Knight with his niece, Lily Knight
Publishers are slated for: Hilary Knight: Drawn from Life, a Memoir and Olive and Olivier, a graphic novel about eccentric twins separated at birth – Olive will be written by Hilary Knight’s twin nieces, Olivier by Knight.
Lena Dunham’s appreciative 2015 documentary It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise is available online at HBO Documentaries.