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Eustace Tilley Inspired By Famous Male Impersonator?

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Read this fascinating post, with photos, by Debi Bender of Monkey Sox, who, if I’m not mistaken, entered at least one drawing into the Eustace Tilley contest. Bender’s discovered a monocle-wearing, dandy-channeling performer named Vesta Tilley from early in the last century (but when, precisely? This obviously calls for further Eustace Googling, perhaps a little later since I’m going outside). Rea Irvin was an actor, so he may have run across V.T. in his theatrical circles, or perhaps he happened on one of the terrific photos that Bender shares in this entry. She writes:
Coincidental surname? Vesta Tilley, a famous and very popular (and happily married) English male impersonator, often played a dandy, singing and acting in theaters in New York.

Chorus on the playbill in which Vesta Tilley sang this ‘dandy’ number:

“He has the latest thing in collars, the latest thing in ties,
The latest specimen of girly girls with the latest blue blue eyes,
He knows the latest bit of scandal, in fact he gave it birth,
But when it comes to getting up of mornings, he’s the latest chap on earth.”
Think it’s all a saucy hoax? No indeed—she’s real (I couldn’t help it). Thanks to Bender for bringing it to light! And V.T., née Matilda Powles (1864-1952)—who reportedly began performing at age 4 as “The Great Little Tilley”—gives a whole new twist to gender-bending contest entries like this one (“Eustace Revealed”).

Meanwhile, happy Tilley winner Peter Emmerich (who, says his bio, “worked as a Character Artist for the Walt Disney Co. for a little over six years”) writes:
My Frankenstein Eustace Tilley was selected as one of the winners of The New Yorker contest. The image will appear on The New Yorker website for a year and (supposedly) will be printed in their 83rd anniversary issue. From what I understand they will not be able to print them all. Either way I was glad I did it and it was a lot of fun whether I was a winner or not. I am grateful to have been selected.
I’ve been enjoying seeing how each artist takes on Irvin’s typeface on the cover, and in some cases, how they rearrange, deconstruct, or replace it altogether. Here’s a Tilley made entirely of Edwardian script. Clever!


here’s the female tilley I did for the contest
(after sargent’s “madame x”).


Gorgeous! I saw this when I was looking through the entries and took note of the elegant simplicity of your Eustace X. I especially like how plausible the monocle is as an extension of her dress, so much so that I had to take another look at the original, familiar though it is, to make absolutely sure Ms. Tilley’s center brooch wasn’t there before. Nicely done!

her profile really is so patrician, and tilley-like, she’s his female counterpart (ergo eustace, “chromosome x”).
I just gave her that long long neck, the down-ward gaze, a be-gloved arm and voila!
It was really fun to do.
If you scroll down on the flickr page, I included
some really interesting links, including a long-lost photo taken of the painting as it was originally, with her shoulder strap dangling suggestively down.

links here (in the comment section).

Of the bunch at Flickr, the Lady Tilleys were my favorites.

As much as I’d love to imagine a direct connection between the talented Vesta and Mr. Eustace (the given names, so to speak, are similar too, especially if said aloud) I am not sure. I feel like this (like that cover design Martin was so struck by) is not a case of direct, linear antecedents. Like, maybe Tilley was a kind of shorthand for dandy, back in the day?

More Vesta Tilley, from the BBC. Whatever the relationship between V.T. and R.I., even if it’s nonexistent or unprovable, I’m delighted to know about her! I just emailed Michael Cumella at the Antique Phonograph Music Program (the best show on WFMU, not to be confused with “The Best Show on WFMU,” which follows it and whose host likes to poke fun at the sound of wax 78s spinning on the vintage players), to see if he’s got any of V.T.’s recordings in his collection.

Yes, I entered the Eustace Tilley Contest — while researching Eustace Tilley, I found Vesta Tilley as well, and was fascinated by the surnames being the same, and by the famous English male impersonator, Vesta Tilley having performed often in NYC. There were 3 people to be credited with Eustace Tilley’s fame: Corey Ford (Eustace Tilley’s actual creator - a comic created for The NYer) , Rea Irvin (who painted Eustace Tilley as the iconic NYer profile portrait), and Johann Bull (who illustrated Eustace Tilley in The NYer’s ‘Making of a Magazine’ strip which appeared on the inside front cover starting in the August 8 summer issue.

According to an article in Wikipedia, “Ford borrowed Eustace Tilley’s last name from an aunt—he had always found it vaguely humorous. “Eustace” was selected for euphony, although Ford may have borrowed the name from Eustace Taylor, his fraternity brother from Delta Kappa Epsilon at Columbia College of Columbia University.”

Yet, I couldn’t help noticing the same surnames of the two dandies - one being the fictional Eustace Tilley, and the other, Vesta Tilley, who portrayed at least one fictional dandy character, celebrated in song, “Burlington Bertie” of Bow.

It’s almost certain all 3 men who created/illustrated the original Eustace Tilley would have been familiar with and must have seen Vesta Tilley perform in NYC. It was the same era. VT quit the stage in her 50’s when her husband ran for politics.

There’s a little more info on Vesta on my Flickr Eustace Tilley set, although you can find much more by researching the internet. I did the ‘Eustace Tilley Impersonating Vesta Tilley’ NYer spoof cover image after the contest, just for fun — don’t know why I didn’t do it as a contest entry.

BTW, Claire’s Madame X ‘Sergeant Tilley’ is one of my most favs.

All this (plus the suggestive power of Google Ads) makes me curious to know whether the name of the oft-advertised Tilley Hats was an intentional connection!

According to Wikipedia, Tilley Hats and Tilley Endurables are named after the company founder, Alex Tilley. Tilley is a surname, and it’s also a diminutive nickname for Matilda (as in ‘Vesta Tilley’s’ case). Corey Ford’s Aunt Tilley may have been a Matilda as well. Methinks “Tilley” sounds “silly” and becomes “thilly” with a lisp, which can be an affectation of effeminacy in the male gender, or perhaps in others who, not having a causative dental condition, assume it coyly for attention. Which, in turn, might be thought of as “foppish” — and could possibly have been what made it sound, euphonically and humorously like a very good surname for a the dandy-character, Eustace Tilley. I can’t help but suspect since the originators of E. Tilley would surely have been aware of the immensely popular monocled female dandy impersonation of V. Tilley in the day, it would have been an extremely easy ‘osmosis’/ transference from one character to the other, consciously or subconsciously.

I’ve read that the overly-fashionable dandy, by the 1920’s was considered “old school,” a male stereotype that was lampooned quite often. On the other hand, some in the lesbian fringe adopted monocle and dandy duds as a gender symbol. There was a nightclub for the bohemian ladies in Paris named “The Monocle,” owned by Lulu de Montparnasse. There’s some more interesting information on dandies and VT, etc., in Laurence Senelick’s book, The Changing Room, which can be Googled. Googlebooks offers selected pages for a read.

All this trivia I never knew before I entered the New Yorker’s Eustace Tilley Contest. I’m a sucker for research…and such an art contest.

Best. Comments. Ever.

I like Eustace X a great deal too.

Interestingly, on a little further research tonight, I found what I think is the original picture of, or by, artist and ‘dandy of dandies,’ Alfred Count D’Orsay, whose 1834 Victorian costume image Irvan reportedly copied from the costume section of an Encyclopædia Britannica. See “Mystery Man: The Many Faces of Eustace Tilley” by Louis Menand. It’s a pretty straightforward costume-copy on ET from D’Orsay.

Image by the Count: uploaded as a thumbnail—which is all I could garner from the Web in an unlikely spot—and added as an edit to the Monkey Sox post (D’Orsay’s Charles Dickens profile looks quite a bit like ET, too, but the thumbnail is the spitting image of ET).

Menand’s article.

It’s been fun y’all :^D

Lee Lorenz has a whole page on this very subject—no Vesta, though!—in his wonderful book The Art of The New Yorker. Maybe I should scan it and add it to this discussion!

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