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Poisoned Pens- Cartoonists of the early Sydney Bulletin

by Alan Moir

David Low had two great periods. One was the "Dictator era" of the 1930s to early 40s,which has been well researched and documented. The other is less known and relatively poorly documented: his years at the Sydney Bulletin from 1911 to 1919. The importance of this period is not for the political impact of his cartoons, Australasian life was a small sideshow compared to European events of the period, but because of the influence that the Australian cartooning "school" had on his forming style, later taken to Europe and having an enormous stylistic impact on the world of political cartooning.

The Bulletin was started up in 1880 as an Australian version of the feisty and famous New York based satirical magazine, Puck. The Bulletin publisher William Traill, after a visit to the United States, brought back two items that were to utterly change Australasian cartooning. Livingston Hopkins, an established New York cartoonist, and the newfangled photo-engraving process which released the cartoonists from the limitations of the available hand-engravers.

Hopkins, a Civil War veteran, was a dry but highly moral cartoonist working in the politically robust post-Civil War era. He found many similarities in the Australia of the 1880s and '90s, a pioneering rough hewn society relatively free of class divisions, with pioneering political debate.. Women were winning the vote, the Labour movement was well developed, and a healthy republican sentiment was in the air. Hopkin's dry laconic wit was an instant success and became one of the springwells of the later "Australian" humour.

Traill then went to London in 1886 and returned with the 21-year-old Phil May, not yet known outside the pages of St Stephen's Review. May responded to the egalitarianism of Melbourne where he was based, and although did few political subjects, eventually drew over 900 cartoons in the three years he was on the Bulletin, mainly of characters and situations in the street. Free from the stultifying illustrating surrounds of Victorian London, and with the advantage of photo-engraving, he soon began paring back his technique, into what was then a very 'loose', style. In ill health, he returned to England in 1889 to enormous success. Although he had been on the Bulletin for only three years his impact in drawing technique on his Australasian colleagues was immediate and widespread. Australian cartoonists found that a mix of Hopkins and May made a potent poison. Thus began what could be loosely called an Australian "school' on the Bulletin.

Over the next few years many cartoonists contributed in this laconic, comparatively relaxed style; Norman and Lionel Lindsay, Hugh McCrae, Ambrose and Will Dyson. In 1911 Will Dyson joined London's Daily Herald, and with his robust approach soon became fashionable among the chattering classes of the time. Others followed, and to these cartoonists, fresh from fiercely egalitarian and reformist Australia and NZ, England, still stodgy and Victorian, was an alien land.

Low joined the Bulletin, from New Zealand, in 1911, first as a caricaturist and later in 1914 on Hopkin's resignation, as Melbourne based political cartoonist (Melbourne was the capital until Canberra was built) with the assignment of getting to the 'core' of day-to-day politicking. He had based his style on May, went through a period of experimentation in 1914, first trying a clean-cut Simplicissimus style, then a simple painterly Puck style with wash. Apart from the political cartoons he often did full page features in a lighter vein. For simplicity and clarity he drew these in brush, and he soon started to transfer this simple bold black and white technique into his political cartoons. He also transferred over the disarming humour, whilst retaining that dry sardonic Bulletin comment.

By the time he went to London in 1919 his technique was well established and confident, in fact hardly changing for the rest of his life. Some of his icons e.g. the Labour carthorse, and the Blimp character were first developed on the Bulletin, as were characters' gestures, expressions, and many of the situations which were to be used in later more dramatic times. This was his greatest creative period.

After he left in 1919 there was never a real replacement for his dynamism, and Bulletin cartoons went in a lighter "Punch" direction. But for that earlier period, 1880 - 1920, the Bulletin cartoons stand with the best of those of the great satirical magazines; Punch, Simplicissimus, Krokodil, and Puck.

And the indirect impact on other cartoonists, through May, Dyson and Low was profound and international, in drawing technique, the delivery of wit, and in political stance.