For half a century, William Hamilton’s cartoons in The New Yorker magazine skewered that city’s upper crust with such precision you would have assumed he lived in an Upper East Side apartment and had X-ray vision.
Few readers could have imagined that Hamilton spent most of his last 13 years living on a Lexington horse farm.
Hamilton moved here after marrying Lucy Young, daughter of the legendary Lexington businessman W.T. Young, in 2003. They divided their time between the Young family’s Overbrook Farm and St. Helena, Calif.
Hamilton, 76, died April 8 in a car crash on Old Richmond Road. As a tribute, the Headley-Whitney Museum is showing 133 of his cartoons — including some rejected by The New Yorker — along with some personal memorabilia. The exhibit runs through Nov. 6. More information is at Headley-Whitney.org.
Hamilton, who also was a novelist and a playwright, was one of The New Yorker’s most accomplished cartoonists. With a biting wit and a distinctive visual style, he poked at the foibles and absurdities of high society. But his humor was playful, never mean.
“He had a particular beat, as it were — the preppy world, the world of Ralph Lauren, the Protestant WASP establishment that was on their way out, holding on to their diminishing privileges,” legendary writer and editor Lewis Lapham, a longtime friend, told The New York Times after Hamilton’s death.
Hamilton’s New York experience gave him a good perspective on Lexington. In one cartoon in the exhibit, a couple is sitting in a racetrack box and the wife tells her husband: “Oh, come on Tom, wave to them. You’re only new money once.”
Another cartoon shows a party scene with one woman telling another, “This has to be the only place in the world where farm managers are celebrities.”
In another, a man confronts a woman in riding habit walking a horse, apparently about another man: “Is it someone from our demographic?”
Since the exhibit opened Oct. 6, the Headley-Whitney staff has become accustomed to hearing laughter from the gallery where Hamilton’s work is displayed. “They can’t help it,” curator Amy Gundrum Greene said.
Lucy Young Hamilton curated the exhibit, which includes Hamilton’s last cartoon, which was initially rejected by The New Yorker then was published after his death. It’s about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
The Headley-Whitney Museum’s other exhibit is an abrupt departure from Hamilton’s urbane world. Called “The Spirit of the American West,” it’s a fine collection of paintings, sculpture and photographs depicting cowboys, Indians and rugged landscape. Featured artists include Polish-born Lexington painter Andre Pater and Lexington-born California photographer R. Michael Walker.