Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Black and White Maestros by Les Tanner (Part One)

Les Tanner

[Editor's note: the following survey of Australian cartoonists was written by cartoonist and cartooning historian Les Tanner for the centenary issue of Sydney publication, The Bulletin, published January 29th, 1980. Les Tanner's Family maintain a facebook page for him here.]

The Black and White Maestros by Les Tanner

"THE sketches in the American comic papers made us yearn." This is not some clubman, pre-Australian Play-boy, talking but W. H. Traill, editor and manager of The Bulletin in the early 1880s, reminiscing about the pioneering days of the paper.

Traill in 1883 was about to embark on two trips overseas which were to change the future of black-and-white drawing in Australia. He was going recruiting.

J. F. Archibald has most of the glory from The Bulletin but it was Traill who did the leg work. He brought "one of the many clever comic draughtsmen whose work embellished various Yankee papers which we received regularly . . . Further," he wrote, "we had taken notice that the illustrations  were effected by some photographic process unknown in Australia." The first was Livingston Hopkins (Hop); the second, photo-engraving. Photo-engraving was to illustration what television is to Willesee, Frost and Parkinson — without it they would have been as interesting and exciting as any bunch of nice lads.

Until photo-engraving, drawing for reproduction was a dodgy business, relying on the skill and sobriety of the engraver as he painstakingly pared away with his engraving tools at the wood block, scooping out the white areas and leaving the black areas standing to receive the ink. Admirers of Tenniel's style in illustrating Alice would do better to pay homage to his engraver. Now Hop, Phil May (Traill's second recruit), Norman Lindsay and the others no longer needed to limp in this fashion; Traill gave them dancing shoes. Now they could draw with pen or brush and have their lines photographically enlarged or reduced on to a sensitised zinc plate and the whites eaten away by acid.

William Macleod, The Bulletin's first cartoonist, had tried drawing on metal with acid-resisting ink, and then etching. Traill stunk his house out with collodion experimenting. However, Hop insisted that he import two American engravers.

 Livingston Hopkins (Hop)

Livingston Hopkins was a tall, thin, austere veteran of the American Civil War whose work caught Traill's eye on the train journey from San Francisco to New York. His humor was the dry, laconic, no-bull type we have come to call Australian. He thought up his own ideas, clipping cuttings from newspapers which he carried around "in case of an idea."

 The Little Boy at Manly as captured by his creator, Livingston Hopkins.

Hop was remarkable in that he had no set manner of drawing — style as it is sometimes called. He moved easily from pen to crayon to brush, in line or half-tone, so that for the two periods when he was the whole art staff, The Bulletin had the appearance of having a variety of artists working for it. Hop was a truly inventive man with a keen sense of the ridiculous. In an age where most cartoonists were searching for a national symbol and were dredging up some of the most unlikely antipodean Britannia-substitutes (Minerva, goddess of handicrafts, professions, art, war and wisdom, was one), Hop spotted in the subscription list to aid the Sudan contingent the words, "A Little Boy at Manly, £25." He was off with the longest-playing supporting character in the business.

Norman Lindsay depicts The Little Boy from Manly in a cartoon during the conscription furore.

Hop drew him, Low drew him (sometimes as the Meggitt's linseed oil boy), Minns drew him and Lindsay drew him. Sometimes a bit stunned, sometimes shedding a tear (for poor, dead Henry Parkes), cheeky, angry or defiant, the Little Boy at Manly was both original and right as a symbol. As for what Hop did to Premier George Reid, Malcolm Fraser should take comfort at his demise. Although dignified, if not freezing, in manner, Hop was a practical joker, given to seating people on strategic benches in his garden, whereupon they would get water squirted in their ears. He nevertheless believed in creating for the readers an acceptable public image of lunatic bohemianism (every-one knows that artists are mad) and his self-portraits convey this convincingly. Maybe the self-portraits were right. When was the last time you had water squirted in your ear by a six-foot patrician?

David Low renders the Little Boy at Manly as the Meggitt's linseed oil boy.

Livingston Hopkin's portrait from Harrower collection, Les Tanner portrait from Cartoons of Australian History by Peter Coleman and Les Tanner. The Black and White Maestros © the estate of Les Tanner.

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