James R. Bingham (1917-1971)| The man twisted Eileen’s arm again and threw her against the counter, n.d. | Illustration for a Perry Mason story printed in The Saturday Evening Post

In his blog Today’s Inspiration, illustrator and teacher Leif Peng shared some wonderful illustrations by James R. Bingham this past spring.* Of all the work there was one illustration for a Perry Mason story that stuck with me. For The man twisted . . .  Bingham marvelously relayed a visual experience I remember from my youth—being in a low-ceilinged dark interior and seeing at the far edge of that space through the room’s windows the bright light-filled openness of the street.

The real action of the illustration focuses on a thug physically accosting a pretty lady working behind the pool hall counter while a second thug sitting in front of the counter keeps watch so they are not seen. Interestingly, there is so much stuff to be seen in this illustration, that it is possible that the viewer might not initially realize that such a dastardly action is taking place. Even though Bingham carefully lights the aggressive action, it is in fact only one of a few highlighted areas of the scene. The victim’s face while grimacing is clearly visible. Her attacker’s face is heavily shadowed making it appear more like a grotesque caricature. His compatriot’s face is turned away from the action, so only the victim’s face is easily read. The unsavory aspect of a pool hall (a place where men gamble in the company of other men) is hinted at via the nude girly calendar hanging on the wall behind the seated man’s head. In the 1957 Broadway musical The Music Man by Meredith Wilson, fly-by-night salesman Harold Hill uses the delivery of a pool table to the local billiard hall to convince local parents that it will only cause “trouble.” As Harold Hill says at the beginning the song, Ya Got Trouble, “. . . either you’re closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge, or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community.”

The clock on the wall to the right of the exit sign reveals that it is five minutes past five o’clock. Since most of the electric lights are still turned off, the interior space is predominantly illuminated from the light coming in through the windows. While the hall’s furnishings and floor look clean, notice the standing ashtray full of cigarette butts in front of the foreground pillar and under the sign that reads “Do Not Sit On Tables.” Pool and billiards have long been considered “thriftless games” like dice and cards** which gives pool halls their disreputable aura.

Bingham unites this visually over-laden scene through the repetitive use of the color green. From the green woven billiard cloth (baize not felt) covered pool table to the lower front of a dispensing machine in the middle ground, to the interior green walls and through the windows to the green cars, truck, and roofing out on the street in the background. Over-arching it all and tying the scene together is the reflective yellow-green tone of the pool hall’s tin ceiling.

In addition to the delicious tin ceiling, there are lots of clues that this illustration represents a time past. From the signage for the telephone booth to the left of the front door to the bright blue of the box cooler where either soft drinks or beer is kept chilled. And to keep the image active rather than static, Bingham visually pushed against the many lines and edges receding perfectly into the distant space by positioning the wooden park bench just slightly askew so that its parallel wood slats defy the visually perfect recession within the space. Terrific!

*Leif Peng’s blog, Today’s Inspiration (Wednesday, May 25, 2011) “The Impactful Art of James R. Bingham;” (Thursday, May 26, 2011) “James R. Bingham: War & Peace;” (Wednesday, June 1, 2011) “The Noir Stylings of James R. Bingham;” and (Tuesday, June 14, 2011) “James R. Bingham: ‘Art was his life and the rest of it was sometimes a strain.’” See, http://todaysinspiration.blogspot.com/

** Edmund Spenser, “Mother Hubbard’s Tale” (1591), quoted in Joseph Bennett, Billiards (London: Thomas De La Rue and Co., 1894): ii-iii. Online at http://books.google.com/books?id=aMkLAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR2&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false

August 11, 2011

By Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, Norman Rockwell Museum

By |2016-11-14T10:19:41-04:00August 10th, 2011|Essays on Illustration|0 Comments

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