The Laughing Brush of Stuart Hay

One of the most wonderful cartoonist-illustrators that you have never heard of is Stuart Hay, referred to by Ernest Watson in his 1946 book, Forty Illustrators and How They Work, as the “Artist of the laughing brush”.  By the 1930s and 40s, Hay did indeed employ a brush line filled with a great deal of joie de vivre, but it took him years, and some interesting changes of direction, to get to that brush filled with laughter. 

Stuart Hay was born in Sewickly, Pennsylvania in 1889 and studied art at the Cleveland School of Art, the Art Students League of New York, and the National Academy of Design.  Additionally, Hay studied with the painter Robert Henri, as well as the watercolorist Henry Keller.  His training also included studying architecture at both the Beaux Arts Institute and Columbia University.  Hay’s professional life began in the field of architecture, where he stayed for six years.  While Hay’s career path may seem oddly circuitous, Hay himself talked about the structure he learned in architecture, both in the creation of forms, as well as the structure of work habits that would serve him well throughout his illustration career. 

Sometime in the late 1910s, Hay decided to try his hand at illustration.  He visited numerous offices in New York City, portfolio in hand, and ran into his first sale from the Delineator magazine.  The art editor, it seems, was short one page in the make-up of the magazine and asked Hay what he had in his portfolio that might fit the proportions of the space.  Hay pulled out a drawing of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and an illustration career was born. Hay illustrated numerous books over the decades, including volumes by the humorist Don Marquis, but it was his magazine work that kept him busiest.  Hay worked for many of the national magazines, including, American Magazine, Blue Book, Country Gentleman, Liberty, Pictorial Review, The Rotarian, and This Week, which was the Sunday magazine of the New York Herald-Tribune. From the late 1920s into the early 1940s, Hay illustrated Weare Holbrook’s syndicated column, “Soundings”, in This Week. It was a magazine supplement that was seen throughout the country in different newspapers.  Hay also did some advertising work, primarily for Croft Ale and Beech Nut gum.  The pieces for Beech Nut were wonderful panorama illustrations, similar to Dudley Fisher’s birds-eye view work on his comic strip, Right Around Home with Myrtle.

Stuart Hay’s work grew by leaps and bounds from the late teens into the 1920s.  Hay’s early work, such as his illustrations done for the 1920 book, The Pocket Chesterfield, were much finer in line weight, recalling the early work of some of the late 19th century British illustrators, such as Arthur Rackham.  The knowledge of the figure is clear, as is the sense of design and space, but there is a generic decorative quality to the work, as Hay was finding his visual voice.

One of the ways you can tell an early Stuart Hay illustration from a later Stuart Hay illustration is the signature.  In the pieces above, you can see the printed name and initials, with small decorative serifs on some of the letters.  Just a few years later, such as in the piece below, the signature becomes more vertical, with harsher angles.  The slight serifs become small slashes, almost calligraphic in nature.

This lovely little illustration is from the early 1920s and appears to have been done for a book.  A man is selling bread kvass, a traditional fermented Slavic and Baltic beverage commonly made from rye bread.  The striking thing about the illustration is its structure.  When Hay referred to his architectural training as giving him structure in his work, you can see that structure in a piece like this, with its beautifully spotted black shapes, creating weight as shadows, but also helping to pull the viewer’s eye throughout the illustration.  The pen strokes on the figures are short staccato marks that add texture and weight to the forms.  It is a piece from the less-is-more school of illustration and cartooning.  The drawing is effective, but there is little that feels organic about it.  Even though the fabric of the clothing lays well, none of it drapes organically.  There is an angularity to all aspects of the piece.

By the mid-1920s, we start to see a change in Hay’s work, as the sharper angles soften and the contour lines become more calligraphic; more of that “laughing brush” line that Watson wrote about.  In fact, let’s read about it in Watson’s own words:

“Hay is a well-trained craftsman. He has mastered his craft.  He knows how to draw.  Beneath those swift brush strokes there is a consciousness of bone and muscle in correct action.  And the clothing on Hay’s figures has an unfailing way of always being expressive and right.

Then there is line: perhaps the acid test of an artist.  A great artist can say with a single line what lesser men can express only by laborious rendering of light, shade and color.  Note how Hay can sweep a line along the contour of a back or a leg, a line that is conscious of structure, action and perspective; a swiftly drawn line of course, on that does not have to think what it is doing.”

Watson’s overly judgmental assessment about what makes a “great artist” or “lesser man” aside, he is not incorrect about Hay’s use of the contour line.  Charles Schulz wrote about the line in a somewhat similar fashion when he said:

“I am still searching for that wonderful pen line that comes down when you are drawing Linus standing there, and you start with the pen up near the back of his neck, and you bring it down and bring it out, and the pen point fans a little bit, and you come down here and draw the lines this way for the marks on his sweater. This is what it’s all about—to get feelings of depth and roundness, and the pen line is the best pen line you can make. That’s what it’s all about.”

Both Watson and Schulz were talking about that felt line that conveyed a depth of form and intent.  In this wonderfully active drawing of a baseball pitcher circa 1930, we can see that line define the figure beautifully, while varying width and speed to help convey a liveliness in the image.  A few quick thin lines to convey the uniform’s pinstripes, and voila, Hay has captured all that is important, down to the ink wash squiggle in the foreground.

Caption: “All good pitchers are compared to Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Walter Johnson.”

Something else that you notice in this piece: the slashing, brushy initials.  From the late 20s until the end of his illustration career, Hay’s signature became juicier, so much so that it is sometimes unreadable to those unfamiliar with his work. 

Caption on artwork: “Insisted on Brewing in Boston Harbor”

The illustration above appeared in the May 2, 1926 issue of the New York Times, one of three Hay illustrations that accompanied an article titled, “British Tea Missionaries Come to Convert Us”.  The printed caption differs slightly from what Hay wrote on the artwork: “The same tea that “Indians” brewed in Boston Harbor”, referring to the colonists who disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians when they dumped the British tea into the harbor.  The illustration has that wonderful pop and movement to it, via the lively contour line and figure movement.  The man is balanced perfectly in mid-stride, with the weight of the tea he’s carrying, perfectly balanced over his planted foot.  The subtle framing of the scene, with the floorboards of the ship and heavy turned spindles under the handrail, creates a wonderful depth of space.  Hay cleverly uses the darks of the harbor water to tie into the heavy cast shadow from the man.

Here are a couple more illustrations by Hay from 1926:

Caption: “The suggestion raises a vision of a pedagogy newer than the new.”

The illustration depicts a professorial type dressed in a clown’s outfit, while reading from a book.  The note on the blackboard: “Question: Who was Joe Miller?”, refers to the 18th century book of jests, written to honor the British actor Joseph Miller.  As with other pieces by Hay, the line works to define and contain the form, while the spotted blacks do much of the heavy lifting in creating strong contrasts and visual movement in the piece.

Caption: “Everyone thought it was a pretty good ordinance so long as it wasn’t enforced.”

This Hay illustration is stamped July 11, 1926, so it likely ran that month or in an unidentified publication.  Stylistically, the drawing has more angles than curves in it, but Hay’s handling of the anatomy in the running dog-catcher is spot-on.  He could probably have used a bit more practice in his study of canine anatomy, but the point is made clear. 

This lively ink and watercolor illustration appeared in Weare Holbrook’s column, “Swatter’s Rights”, in This Week on July 7, 1935.  The column presented a humorous look at those who were the swatters of flies.  As Holbrook wrote, “An experienced swatter has a code of sportsmanship as rigid as that of any grouse-shooting country gentleman”. This image is the “after” scene of a before-and-after sequence, causing the gentleman who was quietly reading and smoking a cigar to fly out of his chair.  The fly, you may be able to see in the upper right, beat a lazily hasty retreat.  Hay’s angles have softened in this piece from the mid-30s, resulting in that line that Watson so admired.  The elements are much more organic than the work from the 1920s, and Hay’s figures show the same sort of comedic movement seen in A.B. Frost’s narrative work.  They often seemed filled with the potential energy to move one way or another.

This illustration above is a myskery, as Popeye might say.  Stylistically, the illustration appears to be from the early-to-mid 1930s, but it has neither publishing markings nor caption.  Still, the drawing is among the best I’ve seen by Hay.  During the heyday (pun intended) of Hay’s career, he lived in New York City, as did many of his illustration and cartooning brethren.  The beach at Coney Island was a popular topic for artists in the city, and this scene might well capture that famous location.  Hay incorporates a bouncy sort of figural approach, with lively, calligraphic contour lines setting the curves of the figures in the foreground.  He sets the lighting with that active cast shadow of his, which captures movement as well as the figures do.  The use of heavy blacks draws the viewer’s eyes from foreground, to middle ground, and back to the background.  This is all helped by the wonderful diagonal made up of the beach chairs.  The artwork shows faint traces of watercolor, but the original was matted and framed at one time, likely for years, causing only scant color to remain.  Still and all, a powerful piece of cartooning-illustration by Hay.

Caption: “Received an Indian war-bonnet from the Chief of the Ohowitchee Tribe.”

Weare Holbrook penned “Onward and Upward – and Sideways” for his column in the June 16, 1935 issue of This Week.  The humorous column, featuring a Walter Mitty-type character named Ernest Guffington, featured two wonderful cartoon-illustrations by Hay.  In this ink and watercolor piece, Guffington, now a Governor, receives a war-bonnet from the Chief of the not-so-knee-slappingly-named Ohowitchee Tribe.  The ink brush work again features the quality that Watson wrote about, delineating wonderful folds in the clothing, strong musculature, and body language.  Where once we had angular forms, curved, rounded organic forms have taken their place, adding to the visual movement in the illustration.

Caption: The cattle began bellowing for water.  That was even worse.”

From May 1, 1932, we have an illustration from Weare Holbrook’s “Shuffling the Domestic Deck”, dealing with his characters the Millfrets.  In this piece, Mrs. Millfret encounters a cow “bellowing for water”.  There are a few things to note in this cartoon-illustration.  The drawing, once again, shows that lovely, broad, curvilinear approach, which works beautifully with the angle of the composition.  You can also clearly see Hay’s architectural background at work in the drawing, as the drawing of the buildings is both careful and lovely. Lastly is that great barely-readable signature.  You might recall the early signatures, fully readable with slight serifs.  Then came an abbreviated version, a bit harsher but readable.  By the 1930s, Hay had moved to this juicy slap-dash signature.  Without context, you might not be able to read it at all.

Below are examples of two of Hay’s printed Beechnut ads.  Hay clearly enjoyed playing with space, much on the order of Dudley Fisher’s Right Around Home with Myrtle

The second Beechnut ad is wonderfully dynamic, with a strong use of both a bird’s-eye view and two-point perspective. The trapeze artists create terrific movement through the center of the image.

At some point around 1960, Hay moved back into the architectural field, working with Fletcher Thompson, Inc. of Bridgeport, Connecticut until his retirement in 1966. Hay died at his home in Redding, Connecticut on February 6, 1969.  For an illustrator who had as much national acclaim as he did in books, magazines, and newspapers, Stuart Hay is all but forgotten today.  He didn’t even make the cut in Walt and Roger Reed’s wonderful book, The Illustrator in American: 1880 – 1980, which is surprising given the depth of the content of the book.  Looking at Stuart Hay’s work with fresh eyes, while some of the subject matter is dated, the quality of the drawing remains fully engaging, still bringing a smile to the face with that laughing brush line.

Rob Stolzer

Rob Stolzer has been collecting original comic strip and cartoon artwork for over 40 years. He has written numerous articles for Hogan's Alley, the CFA-APA and other journals. Stolzer teaches art at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he teaches Drawing, Figure Drawing, Graphic Narration, Illustration, and Painting.


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    Hello Rob, just a quick note to tell you how much I enjoyed your blog (plenty more to discover yet, it seems — don’t mind a bit !) which I discovered thanks to your post in Master BD Angoulême (I am a graduate from the comics department at the art school and a practising writer, artist and lecturer on comic strips). Thank you for making me discover Mr Hay wonderful drawings. NB : I have tried to click on the lat word of your captions to enlarge your intriguing Free Association Funnies but without success : any tip, please ? With best wishes, Tanitoc

    • Rob Stolzer

      Rob Stolzer

      Thanks very much, Tanitoc. I appreciate the kind words.

      Regarding the site, if you click on “Click Here” at the end of each description, it should open up a new browser tab with a larger image. I just checked and they seem to be working There are two smaller pieces in the gallery that I show as actual size, so there is no need to enlarge them.

      Thanks again!

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