State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 70 Spring 2002


Will Dyson's Caricature of
Henry Lawson

In May 1909 there was an unusual exhibition of black-and-white pen, and monotone wash drawings shown in Melbourne. These, with the exception of ten exhibits, were caricatures of prominent personalities of the day — politicians, judges, painters, theatrical actors, and poets — most of which had, at one time, been published in the old, red-covered Sydney Bulletin. In the catalogue of 182 exhibits, no. 54 is listed as ‘Henry Lawson Esq.’ and priced at £2.2.0. This original pen-and-ink, full-length portrait caricature was purchased by Thomas C. Lothian, who donated it to the State Library of Victoria in 1967.
The Henry Lawson caricature, with the other items in the exhibition, is the creation of the then little known Ballaratborn Will Dyson (William Henry Dyson 1880-1938), who went on to become a political cartoonist of great force. The year following the exhibition he moved to London where he became the first major cultural figure since Dickens to champion the working man forthrightly and without reserve. Among his many achievements, Dyson served as Australia's first Official War Artist during the Great War 1914-18.
Dyson's caricature of Lawson had appeared on the Red Page of the Bulletin on 17 September 1908 as no. 3 in a series, ‘The Bulletin Poets', with the accompanying text, presumably the work of the Red Page Editor, David McKee Wright:
Henry Archibald Lawson, 41 years old, though hardly of age yet. Habits: persuasive. Religion: Australian. Grievances: various. Business: existing — and a fairly strenuous life it is. Office Hours: 9 to 12, Saturday morning Bulletin office.
Lawson's state of mind at this time is evident in the informal will he wrote a fortnight before the caricature appeared. [See p. 18]
The catalogue of Will Dyson's exhibition formed four pages of a quarto-sized literary magazine The Key, with an illustration by Norman Lindsay caricaturing Dyson, who is shown with a large sharp knife, poised over his terrified victim ready to, as Lindsay's caption says, ‘practice his deadly art’.

Norman Lindsay cartoon on title page of 1909 Dyson Exhibition Catalogue. [Original in possession of Vane Lindesay]

The word caricature comes to us from Italy, where caricatura originated in the School of Carracci, and was subsequently introduced into England early in the eighteenth century. Caricature is universally recognized as a mock-comment on a person's appearance — ridiculous, savage, kindly, or humorous portraiture. A fundamental component of humour is that part which is based on an assault on dignity, hence are the pompous enraged.
The art of caricature in Australia, understandably, has had an isolated and spasmodic development and has been slow to create a continuity or a persistence of tradition like, for instance, that of England where, since the early part of the eighteenth century, there has been wide acceptance of the novel ‘popular prints’ of the sort produced by William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray, among scores of caricaturists, leading in the early nineteenth century to the founding of the first English satirical magazine, Punch, which created a still wider audience for caricature. In France the art was further developed by Honoré Daumier, ‘Caran d'Arche’ and Charles Leandre for journals such as Le Charivari, Le Chat Noir, L'Assiette au Beurre and Le Rire. The extraordinary Simplicissimus school of German caricature with Thomas Heine, Olaf Gulbransson, Bruno Paul and many others further popularized the art in the nineteenth century.
From this background there gradually emerged in Australia something of a local, unregarded school of portrait caricature that has been distinguished, but at widely spaced intervals, by Phil May, Will Dyson, then a lesser gap to David Low, and in recent

Advertisement tor 1909 Dyson Exhibition. [Original in possession of Vane Lindesay]

times by George Finey, and the art-deco stylish caricatures of Lionel Coventry, together with the outstanding comic portraiture of Noel Counihan, both one-time contributors to the Bulletin. Currently Tony Rafty, a remarkably competent caricaturist, has made his contribution to keeping this art alive in Australia.
Those familiar with Will Dyson's achievements recognize his triumphs in print-making. During the Great War he produced his magnificent lithographs of Australian soldiers on the Western Front, and during his 1925 return to Australia Dyson experimented with dry-point etching, resulting in a series of satires on the literary world, Hollywood and American high life in the 1920s. But it is not widely known that he also explored the technique of line-cuts.
A truly curious example, and possibly the first he ever attempted, was that to advertise his 1909 Melbourne Royal Arcade exhibition of caricatures, which was to raise funds for his planned trip to London. This lino-cut came about as a result of sheer editorial economy. It was published full-page size 22cms x 33.5cms in Randolph Bedford's Clarion. Normally, a process-engraved metal block would have been made from the artist's original drawing, but at considerable expense. And so Dyson cut away the white areas from special ‘Battleship’ linoleum which was then mounted on a type-high block of wood, locked up in the printing frame, inked and run through a flatbed press with the rest of the Clarion pages. In all print-making exercises the artist, of course, has to work ‘back to front’ or mirror-imaged. Dyson's lino-cut contains evidence of the difficulties involved, particularly where the wording is required. Many such are to be seen in this rare Dyson lino-cut, which is reproduced above.
Vane Lindesay
Vane Lindesay is a leading black-and-white artist and bookman, whose books include The Inked-in Image: A Social and Historical study of Australian Comic Art (1979). A portion of his memoirs, ‘A Bookman Recollects', was published in the last issue of this journal.