James Swinnerton

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 1904 saw the debut in the Sunday comics of  Jimmy, a hugely successful strip which chronicled the mishaps and mischief of a small boy, Jimmy Thompson, and his dog, Beans.  One of the first cartoons to be printed in color, there was uncertainty among the newspaper executives as to whether the appeal would justify the expense. But the strip went on to become the personal favorite of Swinnerton as well as millions fans nationwide through distribution by King Features Syndicate. 

 The comic was later renamed Little Jimmy after a daily was added to the Sunday series in 1920. Jimmy would usually start his endeavors, typically mundane errands for his mother or father, with good intentions. But his naiveté, absent mindedness and childlike tendency to become easily distracted always resulted in action filled misadventures.   Outside of a two year hiatus during World War II (during which time Swinnerton drew a Western, Rocky Mason, Government MarshallLittle Jimmy ran continuously until 1958.


                              Click here to see a 1963 interview with James Swinnerton

 It was once claimed that Swinnerton could “throw a wedding ring on a woman’s finger at fifty paces.” By 1906, thirty year old James Swinnerton was a hugely successful cartoonist and newspaperman who had already been through two tumultuous marriages. His first had been to Thalia Treadwell, a San Francisco real estate heiress, in 1897. Swinnerton recalled the marriage ceremony “was not a long one nor was it civil”.   Two years his junior, all accounts indicate she was as strong willed and independent as her husband and within a year the marriage had shattered “on the rocks of booze and bickering”.  In 1904, after a brief courtship, he married a spirited, vivacious New Jersey woman named Harriet Hacker.  One year his senior, Hacker had a strong taste for the night life while her husband preferred to spend the evenings at home.  Although the union was not legally over until 1917, by the end of 1905 the two had permanently separated. In addition to a chaotic personal life he described his work hours during this era as “long and hard” and his diet as consisting of “liquor and coffee.” It wasn’t long before heavy drinking, exhaustion and a bout with tuberculosis led to hemorrhages and a diagnosis of one month to live.

 Hearst considered Swinnerton one of his most talented employees and he paid to have Swinnerton examined by three specialists. The consensus was that tuberculosis was doing most of the damage, so in the summer of 1906 Hearst arranged for Swinnerton to rehab in Colton, California, a small desert community west of Palm Springs that served as a resort for tuberculosis sufferers.

 Harold Davidson wrote that “Jimmy Swinnerton, more than most males, was a mixture of fact and fiction”.  He also noted that “The fiction occasionally commenced the moment he opened his mouth.”  Separating the myth from the man becomes most difficult during Swinnerton’s early years in the desert.  Swinnerton claimed he weighed ninety-eight pounds when he arrived in Colton. He immediately paid for a casket and bartered for his epitaph inscription on a tombstone by buying drinks for a local stone carver.  When he noticed another bar patron’s tendency to cry after a few rounds, Swinnerton offered to buy “drinks and grub” in exchange for the man to become his “number one mourner”.  The mourner’s response: “If you liquor me well I’ll mourn you like a lost brother”.  The pair began wandering the streets of Colton, Swinnerton in the lead, followed by his mourner crying out loud at the heartbreak that would soon be suffered by the public when it lost one of its foremost citizens. 

 Yet in between the binges, pranks and daily walks a remarkable transformation occurred. Three weeks after his arrival Swinnerton was surprised to find himself not only alive, but heavier and healthier. He noted the first improvement when he was invited to visit a local Mexican’s hacienda outside of town.  The “hacienda” turned out to greatly exaggerated and Swinnerton spent the night sleeping under a pepper tree. But the pepper tree turned out to be “good medicine”.  He began taking the advice of the local Indians who told him to sleep on the ground, believing one’s health was a direct result of how close one lives to the earth. Shortly afterwards, Swinnerton purchased a burro and began traveling deeper into the desert, spending the nights sleeping on the ground under the vast, open sky.  He continued to draw his cartoons, mailing them to New York when the opportunity presented itself, and sketching the surrounding landscape which he referred to in later years as the hardest of all subjects. “So many grays . . . And the mood and the light are always changing.” It was the beginning of a lifestyle which he continued for the next fifty years.

 By the next spring Swinnerton had wandered into Palm Springs, then a small unincorporated community surrounded by an abundance of natural oases and rugged canyons.  There he developed a friendship with another artist named Carl Eytel.  Eytel was a shy, reclusive German, also suffering from tuberculosis, who had come to Palm Springs nearly ten years earlier.  Self-taught but talented, Eytel had been exploring the area extensively, intrigued by the stark yet constantly changing beauty the desert atmosphere provided.   Together the two traveled the far corners of the Colorado and Mojave deserts. When the heat became too oppressive in the summer they would retreat to the San Gabriel Mountains or high into the slopes of Mt. San Jacinto near Palm Springs. 

 Around 1909 Swinnerton made his first trip to the Colorado Plateau.  One of the most rugged and beautiful landscapes in the world, the region encompasses portions of the four corners region including northern Arizona, southeastern Utah, western Colorado and northwestern New Mexico.  It is a land of strong contrasts. Frequently referred to as “red rock country”, it actually possesses a remarkably multihued and diverse landscape, the topography ranging from barren, flat expanses to alpine peaks over 12,000 feet.  The monolithic buttes and pinnacles of Monument Valley are one of the most filmed and photographed landscapes in the nation.  But the Plateau is perhaps best known for its winding rivers and seemingly endless mazes of sandstone canyons including Bryce, Zion and “the world’s best known chasm”, the Grand Canyon. 

 It is not known if Swinnerton made any efforts at capturing the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley on canvas during those early years.  It is known that he became enamored with the people as well as the scenery. The Hopis, who inhabited the oldest settlements in North America in terraced adobe structures perched on the edge of steep mesas, referred to themselves as the “peaceful people”.  An agrarian, deeply spiritual society, their ceremonies seemed as ancient as the land they inhabited.

 The Navajo, or Dine’ (The People), were a formerly nomadic Athabascan tribe who had entered the four corners region at least five hundred years earlier.  Over the subsequent centuries they had incorporated different aspects of the Puebloan, Spanish, and Anglo cultures they came in contact with.  The Dine had also developed a deep affinity and reverence for the region. By the early 1900’s with their vast herds of sheep and goats, they were deeply woven into the region’s fabric -as much a part of the scenery as the magnificent pinnacles and buttes of their homeland. Both tribes still lived in their traditional ways and both would later become the subject matter for one of his most popular cartoon series, The Canyon Kiddies.

 Roaming northern Arizona in the same way as he had traveled the southern California deserts, on foot with a burro frequently his only companion, his initial efforts at capturing the stunning horizons resulted in solid but unspectacular results. Although fundamentally sound, he had not yet acquired and cultivated the unique artistic voice, the depth of field and ability to combine light and shadows contrasted across vast receding spaces, that would eventually define his work.   



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We are always interested in purchasing or accepting on consignment work by James Swinnerton.  Please contact us with any inquiries.

James Swinnerton Little California Bears
Original art work for "The Little Bears"
Dated 1892
James Swinnerton at work Circa 1928
Swinnerton at work Circa 1928

James Swinnerton Canyon Kiddies

Canyon Kiddies original art work Circa 1922
James Swinnerton Monument Valley Thunderhead

Monument Valley Thunderhead


James Swinnerton Agathla Needle in Shadow
Agathla Needle in Shadow


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