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Australian political cartooning – a rich tradition

Australia has a strong and vibrant history of political cartooning. Since the 1830s, when political cartoons were first featured in Australian newspapers, they have provided satirical, witty or humorous comment on political and public affairs, social customs, fashions, sports events and personalities.

Stan Cross cartoon.

Stan Cross, 'For gorsake, stop laughing: this is serious!', Smiths Weekly, 1933.

What is a cartoon?

In its original meaning, in the fine arts, a cartoon (from the Italian cartone, meaning 'paper') was a preliminary sketch for a large canvas or fresco painting, for an architectural drawing, for a tapestry design, or for pictures in mosaic or glass. The word acquired its present meaning in 1843, when English illustrator John Leech, in the satirical magazine Punch, drew a series of imitations of the overblown cartoons displayed in an exhibition of cartoon designs for frescoes for the walls of the new Houses of Parliament.

Cartoon of a man sleeping on a park bench covered in newspapers

Tohby Riddle, 'Good Living', Good Weekend, 23 August 1997. Image courtesy of the Bringing the House Down exhibition.

'Cartoons are now one of the most important weapons in a newspaper's armoury of political analysis', says Guy Hansen, the curator of the Bringing the House Down exhibition. 'Unlike a news article or column, the cartoon has the capacity to almost instantaneously dissect a political issue. It [a cartoon] can often have more veracity and insight than hundreds of words of text-based analysis.'

And that's the way it's been down through history. A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words, and political cartoons and caricatures have traditionally been a devastating method of cutting the powerful and the proud down to size.

A short history of political cartooning

The invention of the printing press in the late fifteenth century enabled the circulation of satirical illustrations to a large public. This in turn made caricature a viable weapon against the ruling classes and the Church, and laid the foundations of the modern political cartoon.

At first, these illustrations were the work of the untutored. Artistry and imagination were gained with the rise of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525–1569), the Flemish painter-satirist. When Bruegel's grotesqueries collided with Italian graphic moralities, the political cartoon was on its way. In Italy in the seventeenth century, it was unsafe to be too openly critical of authority; therefore, to survive, political satire had to be ambiguous or disguised. In France also, Cardinal Richelieu, who dominated the government, severely discouraged comment in caricature. His successor, Cardinal Mazarin, was less sensitive and under his regime the social and political prints multiplied, though their quality remained dull and mediocre.

Monstrous Craws, at a New Coalition Feast

James Gillray (England), Monstrous Craws, at a New Coalition Feast, etching with watercolour, 1787.

The Netherlands, with its free republican spirit and its wealth of talented artists, was, at the end of the seventeenth century, a flourishing centre of political caricature. Cartoonists such as Romeyn de Hooghe (1645–1708) were in great demand, and were often employed by rulers to circulate propaganda against their enemies.

In England, William Hogarth (1697–1764) began to create an indigenous English school, which produced James Gillray (1757–1815) and Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827). Gillray took the caricatural art of Bruegel, the form and moral purpose of Hogarth, added his genius as a caricaturist of personality, and fashioned them into something recognisably akin to the modern political cartoon. Rowlandson was in some ways his superior as an artist, but preferred to satirise morals and manners, whereas Gillray was a born politician.

In France, political caricature, which had been weak under Louis XVI, flourished vigorously just before and during the 1789 Revolution. Great numbers of prints – the 'flying leaves' of the Revolution – passed from hand to hand. Bitter and forceful, they were mostly anonymous and of little artistry.

In Britain, after the fall of Napoleon, passions slowly cooled and the temper of caricature changed. George Cruikshank (1792–1878) became the leading member of a new and more polite school. Cruikshank had been conspicuous earlier among the fiercer imitators of Gillray, but he abandoned political caricature for pictures of generalised social comedy and book illustration. In the days when Gillray and Rowlandson flourished, England had been known as the 'Home of Caricature'. Caricature now quietly moved its home to France.

In France, Charles Philipon (1800–1862) founded the first modern satirical weekly – La Caricature – in November 1830. Philipon's greatest find was Honor Daumier (1808–1879) – an artist, a man of feeling rather than a politician, not lively in ideas, but masterly in depiction. His vivacity and strength as a political cartoonist did not mature until after he served a prison sentence for offending the king by presenting him as Gargantua. Philpon's influence spread rapidly throughout Europe and the United States, with satirical magazines springing up in many countries.

Political cartooning in Australia

Patrick Cook cartoon

Patrick Cook, 'Scare Campaign', The Bulletin, 1998. Image courtesy of the Bringing the House Down exhibition.

In Australia in the nineteenth century, a rich political cartooning tradition was beginning to flower. The first Australian newspaper to feature political cartoons was the Cornwall Chronicle, in Launceston, Tasmania, first published in 1835. Then came the Adelaide Month Almanac in 1850 and the Melbourne Punch in 1855, which both ran anti-government political cartoons. Soon most state capitals had their own versions of Punch.

In 1880 The Bulletin was founded, and a revolution of sorts began in political journalism in Australia. Sylvia Lawson said in her book, The Archibald Paradox, that 'from 1880 to the years after Federation and the Boer War this journal penetrated its society and gripped attention in ways for which it is hard to find any parallel, even in the highest times of national radio and television'. It was the first news magazine (as opposed to satirical magazine) to use political cartoons, and it did so from its very first issue.

In 1883, with the arrival on The Bulletin's staff of Livingston Hopkins, an American cartoonist, things really began to change. Hopkins brought with him Australia's first photo-engraving equipment, which made it far quicker and easier to reproduce cartoons for printing. Daily cartoons were now a technical possibility. One of Hopkins' images – The Little Boy from Manly, created in April 1885 – came to symbolise Australia. In his words, the Little Boy 'typified the well-meant impetuosity of a young colony'.

Livingston Hopkins cartoon

Livingston Hopkins, 'The Secret of England's Greatness: 5 pence per hour', The Bulletin, August, 1889.

Yorkshire born Phil May worked at The Bulletin in Sydney for five years in the 1880s. Although a fine impressionistic draftsman, his main contribution to Australian political cartooning was in providing an image that became inextricably linked to the 'White Australia' immigration policy of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It showed a grotesque 'Asian octopus' overpowering 'defenceless Australia', and is still used today to illustrate the xenophobic attitudes that prevailed in Australia at that time. The longevity of that one image, compared to the thousands of words on the subject that are now forgotten, is testament to the power of the political cartoon to focus opinion on an issue and to encapsulate an editorial viewpoint.

In 1889, a dockers strike in London was in full swing. The dockers eventual success was ensured by a donation of 30,000 pounds from Australia. The sentiments which led to this donation were fostered by a series of pro-Labor articles and cartoons in Australian magazines Livingston Hopkins – another example of the power of the cartoon to sway public opinion and initiate political action.

The turbulence of the early twentieth century – the Boer War, women's suffrage, Federation, restrictive immigration policies, the Great War, the Great Depression – provided a rich lode of material for social commentators, satirists and cartoonists. It was a golden age for Australian cartoonists – some of the legendary names of the black-and-white art rose to prominence at that time. The Lindsay brothers, Norman, Percy and Lionel, worked at The Bulletin; a rival magazine, Smith's Weekly, was established in 1919; Will Dyson and New Zealand-born David Low made their names in Australia before venturing to greater, lasting fame in England. Dyson virtually revived the English tradition of satirical cartooning single-handedly. Low's style was much more spare and modern than Dyson's, and he went on to become one of the twentieth century's most influential cartoonists, creating the immortal Colonel Blimp along the way.

On 17 July 1924, the world's first society of cartoonists, the Black and White Artists' Society, was formed in Sydney. Among its early members were some of the finest cartoonists Australia has produced – Sd Nichols, Bunk White, Greg Russ, Jack Quayle, John Wiseman, Jack Baird, Joe Johnson, Cyril Samuels, Frank Jessop, Brodie Mack, Mick Paul, Harry J Weston, Jack Warring, Sd Miller, Arthur Mainly (the Test cricketer), FH Cumberworth, Fred Knobbles and Stan Cross. Later, many more famous names joined – among them Emile Mercier, Jim and Dan Russell, Eric Olive, Monty Weeded, Bill Pidgeon ('WEP'), Paul Anti, and James Kessler. The society now operates as the Australian Cartoonists' Association, and continues to promote the cause of Australian cartoonists in a world where syndicated (US-based) cartoons are becoming more prevalent and powerful.

The Australian influence on world cartooning, first established by Will Dyson in England, has continued in the latter half of the twentieth century with the rise to prominence in the US of Pat Oliphant (originally from Adelaide) and Paul Rigby, from Melbourne. Oliphant has lived in America for over 30 years, and has had an exhibition of his works at the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

Behind the Lines: The Year's Best Political Cartoons

Behind the Lines

Sean Leah, 'Behind the Lines', Behind the Lines: The Year's Best Cartoons poster. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Australia.

The political cartoon can be a devastating weapon  – a weapon that can make readers laugh out loud in agreement, or clench their teeth with frustration and anger in opposition. To create a cartoon that strikes a chord with the public requires inspiration, lateral thinking, and the ability to see humour where others see only 'news'. To do it consistently, every day, every week, for years on end – well, that takes a certain type of mind. And some of Australia's most consistently 'spot-on' cartoonists are exhibited in the Behind the Lines: The Year's Best Political Cartoons exhibition held annually from 2003 to 2010 at the National Museum of Australian and since 2011 at the Museum of Australian Democracy in Canberra.

The Behind the Lines: The Year's Best Political Cartoons exhibitions are a celebration of the best of Australian political cartooning. The exhibitions have provided an opportunity to view the original works of Australia's leading cartoonists including Bill Leak, Alan Noir, Peter Nicholson, Geoff Pryor, Cathy Wilcox, Ron Stander, Mark Knight, Sean Leah, Bruce Petty, Dean Alston and Ward O'Neill. The exhibition also provides an opportunity to look again at the major political events in Australia over the last 12 months.

Cartooning competitions

An entry in the 1998 Junior Stanley Awards

Nick Sullivan (11), Willowware Primary, Blackman's Bay, WA. An entry in the Primary Schools section of the 1998 Junior Stanley Awards. Used with permission.

Members of the Australian Cartoonists' Association are eligible to enter the prestigious Stanley Awards in categories including Comic Strip Artist, Editorial Cartoonist and Caricaturist. The Stanleys are named in honour of Stan Cross, a pioneer Australian cartoonist, and they take the shape of the figures in his classic cartoon, 'For gorsake, stop laughing: this is serious'!

Useful links

History of political cartooning

Political cartooning in Australia

Behind the Lines

Cartooning competitions

Cartooning resources

Last updated: 8 December 2014

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