There is a long and rich tradition of different forms of illustration in Australian newspapers and magazines, which has shifted in kind and content in response to technological change, commercial imperatives and the broad political climate. This tradition began before the nucleus of a European society was established in 1788, and the Botany Bay venture was already the subject of scathingly satirical graphic commentary by Hogarth, Gillray and Rowlandson back in Great Britain.
An anonymous stand-alone engraving depicting the arrest of Governor William Bligh in 1808 was possibly Australia’s first political cartoon. Unlike European societies of the same period, there is limited graphic material to flavour our understanding of the new colony, but early evidence of newspaper illustration comes in one image from the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. It depicts the Irish convict uprising at Castle Hill in 1804, and hovers between illustration and political cartoon, in the sense that it is both a description of events and a commentary upon them. It was not until later, when censorship was less of an issue, that freer publishing was possible. An image such as ‘A Chain Gang’ (1842) is an example of a drawing that includes descriptive and illustrative power because it makes an implicit comment on penal servitude.
The discovery of gold in the 1850s and the growth of the wool industry had the effect of transforming the Australian colonies from a harsh penal culture to a more complex, diverse and wealthier society. This new prosperity created demands for the accoutrements of a growing European civilisation in the southern hemisphere. The market and demand for newspapers and magazines grew rapidly, with the likes of the Illustrated Sydney News (1853–55, 1864–94), the Sydney Guardian (1848–50), the Sydney Mail (1860–1938) and the Melbourne Punch (1855–1925) vying with each other to provide news, gossip and entertainment to a prosperous and literate middle class.
Improvements to engraving and lithographic technology, coupled with improved distribution courtesy of the growing railway networks, helped satisfy the demand for extravagant and complex illustrations that depicted lord mayoral dinners, soirees and balls attended by visiting dignitaries. These illustrations faithfully recorded the hundreds of people present, and notified the general population of their social standing. Their intent was primarily social reportage.
The Victorian gold rushes were the spur for a vigorous newspaper market that possibly exceeded Sydney. These publications included the Newsletter of Australasia (1856–62), the Illustrated Melbourne Post (1862–68) and the Australasian Sketcher (1872–89).
The introduction of photography in 1888 brought to a close the illustrated dramatic recreations of both social occasions and news events such as the Siege of Glenrowan and Ned Kelly’s trial and execution. Photographs had been the graphic reference for wood engraved images, but now half-tone photographic images—originally poor in quality—became a cheaper and quicker way of illustrating news and events. Now shorn of its utilitarian function, illustration became freer and more imaginative.
By 1880, new publications that carried illustration of a different purpose began to appear. A notable example is J.F. Archibald’s the Bulletin, which didn’t seek to flatter the social prowess of its readers. The Bulletin, nationalist in political sentiment, was dominated by political cartoons, caricatures and illustrations. It established the reputations of Phil May and ‘Hop’ (Livingston Hopkins), and later David Low and Norman Lindsay, effectively establishing a tradition. Unlike previous generations of illustrators, these names were well-known to the general public.
The newspapers and magazines of the early to mid-20th century were the dominant advertising medium of the period. A powerful element in the competition for readers was a strong contingent of an able and varied group of artists. The decades after World War I introduced to newspaper and magazine readers diversely talented artists whose illustrative formats widened further. Stan Cross, Jimmy Bancks and Syd Nicholls, originally illustrators, became famous as comic strip creators, then a relatively new mode of expression for newspaper artists. Newspaper sales rose and fell as editors retained or lost their artistic services.
Most prominent artists began as illustrators, but subsequently alternated between illustration, political cartoons and comic strips. The brothers Ambrose and Will Dyson, who drew between the early 20th century and the 1930s, were examples of this. Will went on to a career in England and became a war artist of great distinction. Syd Nicholls, another from this period, began his career drawing ferocious anti-war illustrations and cartoons. After World War I, he devised and executed the comic strip ‘Fatty Finn’, depicting the adventures of a working-class boy; it endured and remained popular until the 1960s. George Finey was a New Zealander who made his reputation in Australia. He was skilled in all aspects of newspaper art—a genuine all-rounder and a superb caricaturist who playfully mimicked many of the 20th century’s art movements in his illustrations.
By the 1950s, the use of photo colour gravure printing had become widespread. A form of reproduction technologically superior to earlier methods, it enhanced the publications in which illustrations appeared. Beneficiaries included artists of the calibre of Arthur Boothroyd, Charles Altmann, Bruce Begg, Ron Laski, Astra Dick, W.E. Pidgeon (‘WEP’), Donald Friend, George Haddon and many other talented individuals contributing different types of illustrations to newspapers and magazines.
This was also the period of the introduction of television to Australia, and both television and radio made strong inroads into an advertising market previously dominated by print. The demand for illustration—particularly in magazines such as the Australian Women’s Weekly (1933– ) and Australasian Post (1946–2002)—remained, but a slow decline began and, as the temper of the times changed in the 1960s, the successful and prolific artists of an earlier generation were ill-matched to a growing and sometimes rebellious youth culture.
The beginnings of change were first noticeable outside the mainstream press. University and alternative publications took advantage of cheaper offset printing, and younger artists began producing scandalous illustrations and cartoons. These drawings were more rough-hewn and less artistically accomplished than their more mature predecessors, but they were vigorous, confronting and attuned to their times. Offset printing eliminated expensive block-making for artwork and photographs, and was thus a boon to the smaller, independent press.
Alternative publications such as OZ (1963–69), Lot’s Wife (1964– ) and Broadside (1969) accepted work from a new band of artists of a libertarian and anti-establishment bent. John Spooner, now and for several decades with the Age, began as a young law student doing caricatures for the Monash University paper Lot’s Wife. Martin Sharp was a feature of OZ magazine; Michael Leunig was with Broadside, Nation Review (1970–81) and Newsday (1959–70); Michael Fitzjames did illustrations for the Digger (1972–75); Peter Nicholson contributed to the University of Melbourne’s Farrago; and Patrick Cook was a freelance contributor to Nation Review. All graduated successfully to the mainstream press. They were joined by artists such as New Zealander Alan Moir, now with the Sydney Morning Herald, and Philip Burgoyne, the art director of News Limited and a fine illustrator contributing to the Australian. More recently, the Australian has carried Bill Leak’s work.
The National Times (1971–88), the Australian, the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Financial Review and the Bulletin all became home to a band of illustrators, caricaturists and cartoonists, this writer included. Many are still working, but have been complemented over recent years by others such as Simon Letch and John Shakespeare on the Sydney Morning Herald, David Rowe on the Australian Financial Review and Sturt Krygsman and Eric Lobbecke on the Australian, as well as many other artists of great skill and diverse abilities.
The current transition to digital news media publication, with its attendant pressures of technological formats, commercial imperatives and shifting aesthetics, will necessarily transform the role and style of media illustration into the future.
REFs: P. Coleman and L. Tanner, Cartoons of Australian History (1967); P. Hogarth, The Artist as Reporter (1967); J. King, The Other Side of the Coin (1976).