A waif with no resting place

Marian Minson has collected 20 intriguing images for her exhibition Savaged! The Cartoon Colony: New Zealand in satire, 1769-1907, currently on show in the new Turnbull Gallery on the 1st Floor of the impressively refurbished National Library.

Marian’s exhibition is a welcome commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the NZ Cartoon Archive which was launched at the Turnbull Library in 1992.

Details of images from SavagedFrom "Savaged", L-R: Trevor Lloyd, When knights were bold | Augustus Earle, Against truth | Unknown, Maori conference

I’d seen some of these cartoons, or art works with cartoon intent, before. Seeing them again is a reminder of how effective and powerful satirical drawings can be, but they also bring back some less welcome memories.

In the late 1970s, I’d been commissioned to write a cartoon history of New Zealand. Very little had been written about editorial or political cartoons in New Zealand and there was more than enough to do in terms of finding out about the cartoonists and pondering the significance of what they were doing without having to actually find a great number of cartoons as well.

But I committed the cardinal sin of not checking out the cartoon collections in the country’s research libraries before agreeing to the commission. Having a passing acquaintanceship with the cartoon collection at the Mitchell Library in Sydney, I bowled, bushy-tailed, into the Turnbull Library in Wellington, then in the Free Lance building on the Terrace in Wellington, expecting to find a neatly and usefully catalogued cartoon collection, albeit on a smaller scale than in Sydney.

Nothing. No cartoon collection: just a collection, incomplete, of early New Zealand Punch magazines and a haphazard scattering of cartoons. The Cartoon Archive owed its existence to the collection of cartoon images I subsequently found in thousands of magazines and newspapers for The Unauthorized Version: A Cartoon History of New Zealand . With that project ended, the cartoons needed a home. I was convinced of their importance, and strongly believed future researchers should be spared the search through large, heavy, musty volumes in the tombs of the Parliamentary Library and elsewhere.

It is particularly appropriate that Marian Minson should have curated this exhibition. In 1992 she had the embryonic Cartoon Archive, a waif with no particularly logical resting place within the Turnbull, foisted on her orderly and highly respected Drawings and Prints Department. She has added this initially unwanted addition to her overall responsibilities with calm good humour – and if this exhibition is anything to go by she has acquired considerable knowledge of and, I fancy, rather more interest in editorial cartoons along the way.

The exhibition shows that the differences between the fine arts and cartoon art is not as wide as some would have it. Not only did some established artists, like Augustus Earle, used cartoon techniques on occasion, but Nicholas Chevalier, known here for his 1860s oils and watercolours, was also a prominent Melbourne Punch cartoonist.

It is a skilfully assembled collection of images that traverses the period before there were any cartoons drawn or published in New Zealand up until 1907, when the country became a Dominion. (The Dominion was launched the same year – a newspaper that was, decades later, to publish a progression of talented cartoonists.) I have always particularly liked the exhibition’s first image – the brilliant caricature of Joseph Banks in which James Gillray pins his victim to his ‘specimen board’ with devastating effect.

Gillray, James 1757-1815 :The great South Sea caterpillar, transformed into a Bath butterfly. Gillray, James 1757-1815 :The great South Sea caterpillar, transformed into a Bath butterfly. Ref. B-093-014-a

One cartoon I found particularly interesting was apparently drawn by David Low when he was 13 in 1903. The caption noted it was unpublished and had possibly been drawn for the Press. I have a rather different explanation. I fancy Low was actually honing his cartooning skills and the cartoon was unpublished because it was essentially a copy of a cartoon Fred Hiscocks drew for The Graphic the same year – complete with Seddon at his desk examining Massey through a magnifying glass. Also, to the best of my knowledge, the Press did not carry Low cartoons, or anyone else’s, for many decades. Interestingly, the Press did use the cartoons of the now famous Low after the Second World War, in tandem with the mild, whimsical sketches of Charles Milne.

Low, David Alexander Cecil, 1891-1963 :[Prime Minister Richard John Seddon views Opposition leader William Massey, through a magnifying glass. ca 1906]. Low, David Alexander Cecil, 1891-1963 :[Prime Minister Richard John Seddon views Opposition leader William Massey, through a magnifying glass. ca 1906]. Ref: A-279-005

The original idea for this commemorative exhibition came from Chris Szekely, the Turnbull’s chief librarian. Like his predecessors, Margaret Calder and Jim Traue, Chris has been an enthusiastic and influential supporter of the NZ Cartoon Archive.

By Ian F. Grant

Ian F. Grant is chairperson of the Guardians of the New Zealand Cartoon Archive and has written widely on cartoon history.

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