Don't Laugh, This Is Serious

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Here is a story about Frank Packer that pops up every now and then.

When he took over Smith’s Weekly in 1950, he gave orders that all the cartoons that had been kept by the weekly newspaper over the previous 30 years were to be cleaned out of the office and burnt. They took up a lot of room. Smith’s Weekly did have a lot of old cartoons in the office when it closed in 1950 and Packer probably would not have wanted them.

Media historians will note one small problem with the story. Packer didn’t take over Smith’s Weekly, Fairfax did.

Well, sort of. Fairfax took over the magazine in name, but they did not take over the newspaper’s office or the staff. Fairfax only wanted the newsprint Smith’s Weekly held in stock. Most of the staff went into a Sydney based production unit working for Keith Murdoch and the Courier-Mail.

So what happened to all the cartoons? National Press, the owner of Smith’s Weekly, sold the office space — and presumably the contents — to people who had no interest in publishing. What happened to the contents, including the old cartoon originals is not known. As none of the cartoons have been seen since 1950, it is most likely they were destroyed. And this, sadly, is typical of the attitude of newspaper proprietors to the original artwork they commissioned, published, and paid for.

Sarah Parsons’ winning entry to the 2008 newmatilda.com prize for political cartooning. Check out this year’s finalists here.

Reproducing cartoons hasn’t always been as simple as inserting image files with a mouse. Before 1883 all artwork created for reproduction was drawn on wooden blocks. Once a cartoon had been approved for publication, the wooden block was handed to an engraver who dug out all the wood between the black lines in the drawing to make a printing block.

All that changed in 1883. The ship that brought cartoonist Livingston Hopkins from New York to Sydney to work on The Bulletin also carried the first photo-engraving equipment for use in Australia. Suddenly, wooden printing blocks were a thing of the past. Cartoonists could draw on paper and have the image photographed and reproduced on a zinc plate in a matter of hours.

There was a side benefit too: photo-engraving left the original artwork intact. Because cartoonists had no history of retrieving their artwork, however, most of the cartoons wound up in storage in newspaper offices. Newspaper proprietors just assumed they owned the artwork and to some extent artists did too.

Things changed as the Depression began to bite in 1932. When George Finey, known for his savage celebrity caricatures, and another of the Smith’s Weekly artists, Lance "Driff" Driffield decided to stage an exhibition of their work at Swain’s Gallery in Sydney, Smith’s Weekly issued an injunction claiming they owned the artwork. It had after all, been done at Smith’s Weekly on paper bought by Smith’s Weekly with pen and ink supplied by Smith’s Weekly by artists whose bills were paid by Smith’s Weekly.

Finey left the paper and fought the case in the courts. His contention was that Smith’s Weekly had only acquired copyright of his artwork and not the originals. The case was settled out of court as a penniless Finey was unable to continue fighting Smith’s Weekly then owned by millionaires Joynton Smith, Claude McKay and R.C. Packer (James Packer’s great grandfather). But Finey had made his point as the copyright law stated that ownership rested with the artist if the value of the artwork was of greater value than the material used. Few newspaper editors paid much attention. They continued to claim ownership, telling cartoonists if they had a problem, they could quit.

Many of the publishers, however, did not have a clue what to do with the originals they amassed. The Argus was published in Melbourne from 1846 till it folded in 1957. A century’s worth of cartoons had gathered in the office of The Argus and all of them were sent to an incinerator.

Individuals suffered too. From the early 1940s almost all of the artwork drawn by Stan Cross in his Sydney studio for the comic "Wally and the Major" was sent to the Melbourne office of The Herald and Weekly Times. After the artwork had gone to print, it was stored in the office. But in 1957 someone in the Feature Service Department decided the drawings were taking up too much space. Most of them were destroyed. Cross only discovered the loss after the event. He was devastated at the destruction and complained bitterly, but the damage had been done. The original of what is arguably Australia’s most famous cartoon, "Stop Laughing, This Is Serious" that Cross drew for Smith’s Weekly in July 1933 has also been missing for years.

It’s not only in Melbourne that original artwork was destroyed. In 1960 Frank Packer’s company, Australian Consolidated Press, took over The Bulletin Newspaper Company from the Prior family. Packer assured those working on the magazine that their jobs were safe. They were not. Within two weeks managing director Kenneth Prior was gone and so was editor David Adams. Ted Scorfield, the 74-year-old art director, was replaced by Les Tanner.

While the new editor, a young Donald Horne, was cleaning out the staff at The Bulletin, a huge collection of cartoons were cleaned out too. Much of the artwork that had been accumulated by the magazine over the previous 80 years was stored in a room with a large fireproof metal door. It could have been one of the largest collections of cartoons in the world. Just before Packer took over, thousands of these drawings had been donated to the Mitchell Library by the Prior family. Another large volume had been placed with the West Australian Art Gallery. Those that did not go to a library or art gallery sat in the storage room until early 1961 when they were scooped up and put into a large mobile garbage bin. Every time the bin was full it was wheeled around to a side door and emptied into a garbage truck in the street about two floors below. The small number of drawings that did not make it onto the truck disappeared into the night as those working on the magazine went home.

Syd Nicholls drew the "Fatty Finn" cartoons on and off from the early 1920s to the late 1970s. By 1977 his health was in decline and his eyesight, which had been poor since his days in New York in the early 1930s, deteriorated. Consequently he found it hard to meet the weekly deadlines for his comic — which he had been drawing weekly for The Sun-Herald since the early 1950s. Many of his original drawings had been stored in the Fairfax art department and they were taken out of storage so some could be rerun. An office cleanup ensued and a copyboy was instructed to "get rid of the mess". He mistook the original drawings for part of the mess and, tragically, burnt them.

Accidents happen and so do deliberate acts. For years ACP stored all the illustrations from the Women’s Weekly, the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph and many other magazines in a building in Pier Street near Darling Harbour. In 1983 ACP was forced to sell the building to the NSW state government because it fell within the Darling Harbour redevelopment area. When the building was cleaned out for the sale, all the illustrations and cartoons were taken to a tip and dumped. The Women’s Weekly had employed some of the best illustrators in Australia for almost 50 years and not one illustration or drawing was saved. It would have been the best collection of magazine illustrations in Australia and possibly the world. There was also a vast number of cartoons by George Finey, George Molnar, Clarrie King, Les Tanner and many others. ACP spent a fortune accumulating the artwork and the value of the collection could well have exceeded that of the building itself.

A similar situation arose in the early 1980s when ACP decided to incorporate the KG Murray publications with the other magazines at the ACP Park Street headquarters. For over 40 years all the cartoons that had been used in the KG Murray magazines, which included Man and Cavalier, had been wrapped up every month and sent to the printers to be stored. Once again, the entire collection was destroyed rather than being offered to the Mitchell Library in Sydney or a similar body.

In the mid 1980s, several artists tried to remove their artwork from the office of News Ltd in Sydney. The art director Des Condon told them it did not belong to them. When the Finey case was brought up, Condon consulted News Ltd’s lawyers. A few days later he came back saying News Ltd did own the artwork but as they did not need it, the artists could take it and store it themselves.

Newspapers don’t keep old cartoons anymore, they let the artists keep the originals. That is, when there are originals. More often than not, cartoons are now delivered to newspaper offices in digital form and much new work is wholly produced on a computer making originals all the more scarce.

Today there is a burgeoning market for original cartoon artwork and some originals sell for thousands of dollars. But with so much of Australia’s cartooning heritage already destroyed, and fewer "originals" being produced, collectors looking for originals to add to their collection will find it harder and harder as time goes on.

The winner of the newmatilda.com prize for political cartooning will be announced tomorrow (Thursday) night. See the finalists here.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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