Pretty pictures of prominent politicians

With our 2014 elections recently behind us, it's a good time to review past elections, and especially interesting to see how they were perceived by the average citizen. Cartoonists, especially editorial or political cartoonists, have a way of concisely summing up the issues and personalities of the day to show the political and social climate at the time, in an insightful, but not often flattering, manner.

Election campaign cartoons , a pamphlet published in 1919, is held in the Alexander Turnbull collections. Its subtitle ‘Pretty pictures of prominent politicians’ belies the material within, which is anything but pretty!

Cover of a pamphlet of political caricatures and cartoons, showing three political figures.Cover of Election campaign cartoons, 1919. Record page

Cartoons vs documented records

In May, Auckland University held a symposium titled ‘Cartoons, comics and caricatures: Evidence or ephemera?’ The first part of the programme addressed the role of cartoons in a historical context, and made it clear just how valuable cartoons are in creating a picture of the political attitudes, social feelings and influences of the time, in a way often not documented in official records.

Shows a photo album with diary entries by politicians campaigning in the 1984 general elections - Rob Muldoon, David Lange, Bruce Beetham, and Bob Jones. Accompanying note from cartoonist states 'A light-hearted view of the election as it progressed. Note the reference to Bob Jones was in response to the fact that he had a spat with a press photographer and had banned them from his meetings'.James Lynch, "Election Diary", 1984. Ref: DCDL-0024875.

When a cartoon is first published, it’s easier to match it with current events, and the reader understands the context and the attitudes that surround it. However, over time that understanding fades, and it becomes more difficult to tell what the cartoon says about the events shown. Our team of arrangers and describers save that context when contemporary cartoons come into the collections, giving them relevance as historical evidence.

When a cartoon first appears as a digital file there is often only a title, date and cartoonist’s name. By adding subject headings and naming the people featured in the cartoons, then summarising the news issues, our describers present a historical background that gives the cartoon research value as the ‘public voice’.

Thanks to editorial cartoons (and especially with their documented context), you can read a reflection of the public mood at the time. Shown below is one of the cartoons published in the New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Journal around the time of the 1893 elections, where the women of New Zealand voted for the first time.

A woman wields a whip of womens' votes against immoral men who tumble at her feet.Ashley Hunter, "Womens' Vote. She that is to be obeyed", 1893. Ref: H-720-006.

Below the woman brandishing the whip of ‘women’s vote’ is an excerpt from a poem written by Tom Moore, originally for Queen Victoria:

Disguise our bondage as we will, 'Tis woman, woman rules us still.

Men are depicted as various sins, which, in the optimistic mood following the newly acquired vote, many hoped to eradicate.

Our history in cartoons

The following cartoon was published in the New Zealand Times, soon after the 1893 election results. It shows a woman standing by as her colleague administers 'young New Zealand' a tonic.

Shows a middle-aged woman feeding a boy called Young New Zealand with some 'Women's vote' medicine which he is reluctant to swallow. Another smiling woman looks on.William Blomfield, "The result of the dose - Liberals, 54; Conservatives, 14!! It did him good!!!", 1893. Ref: A-225-020.

In one frame the feelings of many New Zealanders are encapsulated – although the legislation is passed and women have achieved the vote, this was not joyfully accepted by everyone and is viewed as medicine that had to be taken.

Taking a journey through New Zealand electoral history from the 1890s onward, this is a very small sampling of the evidential nature of cartoons.

A small boy labelled 'trades and labour' holding by the hand a small girl labelled 'liberal asso' is pulling a toy cart labelled 'votes' is at the counter of a general store, being served by politicians including John Ballance and William Pember Reeves.

A large order

Ashley Hunter, The New Zealand Graphic and Ladies' Home Journal, 29 April 1893

In ‘A large order’ a small boy (trades and labour) accompanied by a girl (Labour association) demands several items on a ‘shopping list’ to be fulfilled by the shopkeepers (Balance, Seddon and Reeves). The unions supported the Liberals, who by 1900 had most items on the list, including eight-hour days and old age pensions, ticked off.

Collection record

Caricature of New Zealand premier Richard Seddon, enormously fat, with 'overwhelming majority' written across his stomach, being carried on the bowed down shoulders of a weary man representing New Zealand. In the shadow cast on the grass is written 'three years more' [as elected premier].

The shadow in the grass

Eceldowne Hiscocks, The New Zealand Graphic and Ladies' Home Journal, 6 December 1902

Richard Seddon is shown in his full bulk in 1902, weighing down the shoulders of ‘New Zealand’. Leading the Liberals, his party indeed had an overwhelming majority of 49 seats to 33 for Independent parties. Following this election the position of Premier of New Zealand was changed to Prime Minister and Seddon, famous for his ‘man of the people’ approach, was a personality to be reckoned with.

Collection record

Shows William Massey and Joseph Ward, leaders of the Coalition government formed in 1915, in army uniform and surrounded by members of the Cabinet.

Reform, Liberal and Labour join political ranks

William Blomfield, New Zealand Observer and Free Lance, ca 1915

While showing that there is nothing new with regards to coalitions being formed (in this case between Massey’s Reform Party and Joseph Ward’s Liberal Party) in 1915, this cartoon is also indicative of how Māori were depicted stereotypically in cartoons. Maui Pomare, who was in the Executive council of Massey’s government, was a highly educated man and well respected. However he is shown in this cartoon in native dress, which was a common way to show that a person was Māori – a window into social attitudes of the time.

Collection record

Two men representing 'labor' (trade unions] and 'communists' are fighting over the wheel of their '1925 Labor bus' motor vehicle. The bus is careering down a road which is signposted to the general election.

The trouble in Labour's buzz-wagon

John Gilmour, New Zealand Free Lance, 14 January 1925

The Labour Party, now well established, is heading for the 1925 elections, but this cartoon shows the dissention within the party. A small but vocal section of the party supported communism, and you can see the worry this caused other, more moderate members, especially as they wanted to court the popular vote coming up to the elections.

Collection record

Shows the birth of the political union between Prime Minister Gordon Coates and his newlywed bride, William Forbes.


Gordon Minhinnick, New Zealand Herald, September 21, 1931

To beat Labour, the Reform Party (Gordon Coates) formed an alliance with the United Party (George Forbes). The major issue at this time was how to deal with the Great Depression, so the comment about two being able to live more cheaply that one would have referred to this – a good example of how cartoons can sum up a number of matters in one frame.

Collection record

Sidney Holland, leader of the New Zealand National Party and one of his associates as boxing coaches assessing a candidate 'boxer' to take on Peter Fraser, leader of the Labour Party whose face is a punching bag.

If only he had a drop of Maori blood

Neville Colvin, Evening Post, 3 July 1947

This cartoon follows on the heels of the 1946 election, which saw the Labour Party continue to govern. The elections were significant in 1946, as Labour won with a four-seat margin – the number of Māori seats, all of which supported the Labour Party. This cartoon suggests that it might need some Maori candidates for National to win the next election.

Collection record

Two frames. In the first frame Great Britain's Harold Wilson, who is quoted as saying 'In Australia and New Zealand the Labour Paries are again poised for electoral victory', is seen contemplating New Zealand's Arnold Nordmeyer as a delivering angel to the New Zealand taxpaper who is symbolised by a small man on his knees. In the second frame National's Keith Holyoake, who is quoted as saying 'It is apparent... that the Labour Party already has plans for higher taxation', sees Nordmeyer as a vampire preying on the same small man.

The eye of the beholder

Nevile Lodge, Evening Post, 11 September 1963

Some cartoons reflected the split in public viewpoints, as in this one leading up to the 1963 elections. Great Britain's Harold Wilson sees Leader of the Opposition Arnold Nordmeyer as an angel, while New Zealand’s Keith Holyoake views him in quite a different light.

Collection record

Shows Prime Minister Jack Marshall telling anti-Rugby-tour protesters that 'The Tour will go on', while below, at the 1972 general election, Norman Kirk and John Marshall stick knives into each other's backs.

No politics in sport

Nevile Lodge, Sports Post, 1972

Here, Lodge plays two public issues off against each other, the protests against the 1973 Springbok rugby tour and the impending 1972 elections, suggesting how quickly a supposed above-it-all figure might break out the knives.

Collection record

Shows Labour leader Bill Rowling shaking apples that represent election promises from a tree. Context: Bill Rowling seemed to be promising everything to everyone during the election campaign.

Shall I give it another shake... huh?

James Lynch, Taranaki Daily News, 16 November 1981

Election promises are almost as traditional as Christmas. Bill Rowling, Labour leader at the time, is shown here shaking down ‘promises’ like apples, covering a clearly unimpressed voter.

Collection record

A journalist and his editor discuss the reaction of the New Zealand public to the confusing electoral system being offered to them.

Someone to explain it all to them again

David Fletcher, Dominion, 29 July 1993

1996 was the first year New Zealand voted using the Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) method of voting. This replaced the first-past-the-post system which was voted for at a 1993 referendum held alongside the elections. Fletcher’s The Politician, while on the lighter side of politics, often catches the public mood of the time, and in this case the confusion created by introducing a new voting system.

Collection record

Where to now?

Leading up to the recent election, New Zealand cartoonists showed us possible coalitions, things politicians wished they hadn’t said or done, changes in party structures and potential new policies, as well as numerous side issues that add spice to our local and national news. Not all of this will make it into the future past of our social history. However, we may be sure that editorial cartoons will stand on their own as evidence, when the social and political context has been captured in such an incisive and meaningful way.

Cartoon shows a man trying to book a ticket on a time machine to time travel to the day after the 2014 General Election.Allan Hawkey, "Election campaign", 2014. Ref: DCDL-0029089.

By Corrina Gordon

Corrina Gordon is Research Librarian, cartoons.

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