Rowland B. Wilson

'Playboy' cartoonist and Disney animator

Wednesday 05 October 2011 21:00

Rowland Bragg Wilson, cartoonist and animation artist: born Dallas, Texas 3 August 1930; married 1952 Elaine Libman (four daughters; marriage dissolved 1977), 1980 Suzanne Lemieux; died Encinitas, California 28 June 2005.

Rowland B. Wilson's work will be immediately and evocatively familiar to any young boy who has sneaked a peek in his father's copy of Playboy. Wilson, who drew cartoons for the magazine from 1967 until his death two weeks ago, was the master of subtle humour. "He was the tasteful guy at Playboy - he didn't do the really rude ones," recalls his daughter Megan. Wendy is sitting on Captain Hook's knee in a dark cave. Peter Pan runs in, arms flailing, in an effort to save her, and she says, "Aw, grow up!"

Rowland Bragg Wilson was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1930, and would remain a Texan in tastes and opinions. As a child of the Great Depression, he spent his Saturdays at the cinema, and would come home, drawing Disney characters at the kitchen table. Having gained a degree in fine arts at the University of Texas in Austin, he went on to Columbia, New York, supporting himself in the meantime by sending cartoons to such publications as The Saturday Evening Post and Collier's magazine. His budding career was put on hold when, in 1954, he was drafted into the US Army, serving in Germany, and using his artistic talents to create classified charts. He complained bitterly, "The army stole two years out of my career."

Having been demobbed, in 1957 Wilson joined a Madison Avenue advertising agency, Young and Rubicam. He spent seven years there as an art director, creating drawings for advertisements. In 1958, he became a regular contributor to Esquire - Wilson was at that time sharing an apartment on Third Avenue with the magazine's art director, Robert Benton - and throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s his work was published in The New Yorker. In 1962 a collection of his cartoons was published under the title The Whites of Their Eyes. "Ideas are easy to come by," he wrote in the blurb. "It is the drawing that takes a long time."

In 1964 Wilson left New York for Weston, Connecticut, and became a freelance advertising artist, but continued to draw cartoons. He drew a comic strip, "Noon", which was widely syndicated, and, began a lifelong relationship with Playboy. Wilson's work was highly regarded, both by his editors, and his readers: his use of colour was superb, his draughtsmanship unmatched and his knowledge of historical detail immense. Megan Wilson also observes that "movies informed his cartoons. His dramatic use of perspective was influenced by the great cinematographers of his youth."

From advertising he moved into animation. From 1973 to 1975 he worked in London for Richard Williams's animation studio, where his love of cinema blossomed as his cartoons came alive. He drew animated cartoons for Tic-Tac with a 1940s film noir look. Another television commercial for Williams, The Trans-Siberian Express, won first prize at the International Animation Festival in New York. Wilson returned to Manhattan and drew an educational animation TV series, Schoolhouse Rock, which was a landmark learning tool for children of that generation, in the late 1970s. He won an Emmy award for the series.

In the early Eighties, Wilson moved to California, where he worked for the Disney Corporation. He did pre-production design for The Little Mermaid (1989), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Tarzan (1999), Atlantis (2001) and Treasure Planet (2002). Wilson had many protégés, including the young Tim Burton, whom he dissuaded from his ambition to become a Playboy cartoonist. (Burton would go on to create The Nightmare before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands.)

Wilson painted epic watercolours, in which he would imagine what medieval Paris would look like when the Hunchback was there. Or he would recreate a Victorian picnic in the jungle. It all tied into the historical knowledge for which his Playboy and New Yorker cartoons were famous. His job at Disney was to create the look of the film; not the characters, necessarily, but the backgrounds.

His artistic talent was inherited by his four daughters, all of whom are artists: Amanda, a New York-based graphic designer, Reed, a fine artist and illustrator in London, Kendra, magazine designer for The Observer, and Megan, Associate Art Director for Random House in New York. Wilson's first wife, the interior designer Elaine Libman, divorced him in 1977. His second wife, Suzanne, is also an artist.

On the day of his death, a sketch for a new Playboy cartoon still lay on his drawing board.

Philip Hoare

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