State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 65 Autumn 2000


F.E. lithographer, ‘The “Mia-Mia” Department, or “King Bob” & his “Native Weapons”’, 1876. Chalk lithograph on white paper 32.4 × 24.3 cm. H17210, La Trobe Picture Collection. Satirises Smyth in his capacity as Secretary to the Board for the Protection of Aborigines. In 1860 Smyth became Victorian Secretary for Mines. In February 1876 an inquiry was held into his conduct and after a series of sittings, Smyth tendered his resignation. He was also criticised by the press for gathering aboriginal artifacts at a time when such vestiges were fast disappearing.


On the Edge and Over
Cartoons in the La Trobe Picture Collection

THE BASIS for the Library's cartoon collection is printed format. The earliest local material is to be found in the Melbourne Punch, modelled on the lines of its English namesake, which began publication in August 1855 after the Library was founded but before it opened in 1856. Illustrating its pages provided bread and butter for a number of artists then in Melbourne, including Nicholas Chevalier, Oswald Rose Campbell and wood-engravers like Samuel Calvert. Published works illustrated by such famous English black-and-white artists as Rowlandson and Cruickshank were acquired for the bookstock, along with the publications of S.T. Gill, Melbourne's ‘Colonial Cruickshank’.1 Then in 1869 the Trustees commissioned Gill to undertake a series of nostalgic watercolours of the goldfields of Victoria.2 But, apart from a few examples, separately published cartoons of political events and caricatures of Victoria's worthies do not seem to have been actively collected. One of these early examples, a chalk lithograph by an unidentified artist signing himself ‘F. E.’, shows civil servant and mining engineer Robert Brough Smyth (1830-1889) — now remembered for his compilations, The Gold Fields and Mineral Districts of Victoria (1869) and The Aborigines of Victoria (1878) — in a most unflattering light, shortly before his forced resignation from all posts except that of the Aborigines’ Board in May 1876. The ‘tyrannical and overbearing conduct’ referred to in his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography is all too plainly illustrated in detail in the cartoon.3
The Library's collection of early twentieth-century cartoons is patchy. Although the 1890s was a rich period of political satire, and a tradition of Australian black-and-white drawing was forming under the influence of the Sydney Bulletin, it was then not part of the policy of the Library to acquire original drawings. Examples of the work of Phil May, Will Dyson, Percy Leason and Thom Challen were acquired by gift. Acquisition of the Argus archive in 1968 (the newspaper had ceased publication in 1957) brought in examples of the work of Jim Edema and Harald Vike, but it was not until the 1980s that a systematic effort was made to collect cartoons. The Heidelberg School Picnic exhibition, which was held in the Queen's Hall from 3 October to 15 November 1985 and toured for most of 1986, signalled the Library's interest in building up a collection. The idea for the exhibition, it is worth noting, came from writer John Clarke (now even more widely known for his role in the ABC television satire, The Games, which he co-authored with Ross Stevenson), supported by cartoonist Peter Nicholson. It included work by nearly all the cartoonists working in Australia's daily and weekly newspapers, and most of the cartoonists represented donated their work after the exhibition had finished its extensive tour around Victoria and other states. The Australian Film Institute provided funds for acquisition for the
Library's Humour Collection, curated by Jo Pittendrigh and Jenni Boon. This laid a very solid foundation for the contemporary cartoon collection as it exists today.
Another important development about the same time enabled the Library to acquire some originals of New Zealand-born (Sir) David Low, possibly the most famous cartoonist ever to work in Australia. In 1986, his daughter, Dr. Rachel Whear, wrote to the Library offering a selection of her father's work for purchase. Fran Awcock, now the Director of the Library, was then in charge of Acquisitions, and came up with a novel fund-raising idea. An evening was held at the Last Laugh Theatre Restaurant in Collingwood on 23 June 1986, with entertainment by Gerry Connelly disguised as the Queen and Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The evening was great fun and raised a third of the funds required, the remainder coming from the Friends of the State Library and two donors, Neville Healey and Vane Lindesay. While it cannot be considered an in-depth collection, it gives a good idea of Low's technique, and includes examples of his treatment of Billy Hughes, the man who appears to have been his favourite Australian subject. His caricature of noted Victorian politician, Sir Alexander Peacock, is reproduced on the back cover of this number of The La Trobe Journal.
The introduction of Taxation Incentives for the Arts Scheme, 4 now known as the Cultural Gifts Program, has been a great benefit to the Library in many areas, particularly the contemporary cartoon collection. Artists and their families have generously given numbers of drawings year after year, so that the collection at last begins to document the issues which concern readers of newspapers and journals, and which amuse the artists and their audience. The collection has a strong emphasis on the work of artists working for the Age, but Peter Nicholson has been collected since 1987 and he now works for the Australian. In 1997, the inimitable Les Tanner donated the entire collection of his drawings, numbering several thousand, from 1965, when he started at the Age, to 1997 when he retired.5 Efforts have been made to include the work of women cartoonists including Kaz Cooke, Jane Cafarella, Judy Horacek and Mary Leunig. The general collection grows annually, mostly through donation, and contains several thousand works by artists whose names appear in the checklist below.6

Kaz Cooke (1962-), ‘I love a skin-cancer country!’. Pen, ink, 19.4 × 26.0 cm. H90.16/3, La Trobe Picture Collection.


Judy Horacek (1961-), ‘How a misinterpretation of semiotics led to a new religion’, 1989. Pen, ink, 29.7x 21.0 cm. H90.55, La Trobe Picture Collection.

Some artists select the works they wish to be donated, and others allow the Picture Collection staff to choose. This last method is both educative, amusing, and very good for the spirits. The follies of politicians and their physical appearance are continuing themes. In the post-war period there has been a distinct cult of the bushy male eyebrow — first Menzies, then John Howard and Alan Stockdale (in Victoria). Henry Bolte's ears fascinated cartoonists in the past, and the searchlight has now moved on to those of Peter Costello, while almost all contemporary cartoonists render John Howard's mouth as if the lower lip had a plate extending it in the manner of some African peoples.
John Spooner's work in the Picture Collection depicts, often with gut-wrenching effect, contemporary social mores and ills. With his drawings of the battered wife, the murdered child, family disruption, heroin addiction and political indifference, he is putting contemporary society under the microscope. The power of these drawings, most of them without words, will survive because they depict universal concerns.

Arthur Horner (1916-1997), ‘The Uriel Report on downunder’ 4. Religion (iii) 1978–1979. Pen, ink and wash. From a set of 80 satirical drawings. Published in the Age 1978-1979. H93.365/8, La Trobe Picture Collection.

One cannot imagine a viewer in the next century looking at them in puzzlement, their significance lost with the immediate context.
There are gaps to be filled in the collection. If art and literature extend beyond state boundaries, so does humour and editorial comment. Changes in newspaper ownership mean that the work, especially of editorial cartoonists, is Australia-wide. Petty and Moir appear in both the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald; and the Australian and Australian Financial Review both have a national circulation. In future the Library needs to extend its cartoon collection to reflect this expansion of horizon in the twentieth century.

Checklist of Cartoonists Represented in the Picture Collection

This list is a guide to artists only, and not the number of works held. Users should check the computer catalogue first and then telephone the Picture Collection for further information.
Christine Downer
Christine Downer is curator of the La Trobe Picture Collection.


Argus, 27 April 1866, p. 5, col. 1.


The Victorian Gold Fields 1852–3, with an introduction by Michael Cannon, [Melbourne]: Currey O'Neil with the Library Council of Victoria, [1982].


Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 6, pp. 161–63.4 It was introduced in 1977–78 for a trial period of three years, and came into permanent effect on 1 January 1981. Recent changes to the Act have broadened its application and exempted gifts made under the Program from capital gains tax.


An account of this acquisition can be found in State Library News, no. 9, June-August 1999, pp. 2–3.


The list is only a guide. Artists with fewer than three works in the collection have been omitted.