Desmond (Bill) Robert Leak

Born Adelaide, South Australia 1956
Died Gosford, New South Wales 2017

By Lindsay Foyle

While Bill Leak took to cartooning and illustration like a duck to water, he never gave up his interest in portrait painting. He entered the Archibald Prize many times, almost always having his entry hung. However, he never took out the main prize, but he did twice receive the Packing Room Prize and the People Choice Award with a portrait of Malcolm Turnbull. In the late 1980s he painted a portrait of Sir Donald Bradman, which was loaned to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra in 1999, to coincide with the centenary of Bradman’s birth 27 August 2008. Gordon Darling then donated the portrait to the national collection.

National Portrait Gallery director Andrew Sayers told the ABC the Bradman portrait was an important acquisition. “It is impossible to imagine an Australian National Portrait Gallery without a portrait of Bradman,” he said.

A fifth-generation Australian, Desmond Robert Leak was born in Adelaide in 1956. Some years ago, Bill said, “When I was about nine months old Mum and Dad decided to leave Adelaide and go bush. After considering my options I decided to go with them.” He was about five when he discovered that his first name was Desmond. From the day he was born he had been called Bill. Nobody had ever called him Desmond.

After a few years living in country towns the family moved to the inner west of Sydney. Bill was about 10 when started attending the Summer Hill Primary School where he first became interested in art. When the family moved to Beacon Hill – in the northern beaches area of Sydney - he attended the local high school, where he drew caricatures of teacher in compromising positions for the amusement of the other students. The drawings did not amuse the teachers and Leak said, “I wasn’t officially expelled.” His schooling continued at the near by Forest High where he obtained his Higher School Certificate. It was around this time he formally changed his name to Bill replacing the Desmond and Robert.

Leak studied at the Julian Ashton Art School for two years before travelling around Australia doing odd jobs to finance his travels. In 1976, he spent six months in Broom, signwriting and for a time working in the meatworks.

After he go back to Sydney, he got a job as a postman. Bill was fond of telling people about how at Christmas people would leave out bottles of wine for postmen. Never one to avoid a drink, Leak took the bottles and opened one or two and had a swig or two as he dropped off letters and collected more wine. Late in the day his boss found him only halfway through his deliveries, asleep on the side of the road - blind drunk.

Then followed a number of years in Europe - Germany - painting portraits. He returned to Australia in 1982 intending to continue with his career as a portrait painter.

One Friday afternoon in 1983 he walked into The Bulletin office and asked if there was any work for an illustrator. The magazine’s art director, Lindsay Foyle, told him the magazine did not use illustrations, but did publish cartoons. He explained cartoonists would offer political cartoons early on a Friday and if selected would be published the following week. All being well a cheque would arrive the following day.

Leak said, “I put together a portfolio of about six political cartoons and took them to The Bulletin office. I now realize that I was unbelievably lucky to find two of my cartoons in print the following week. It was an ecstatic experience to see my drawings in print. It was as though all of a sudden I’d found my true vocation.” Leak also expressed delight about the cheque for the cartoons, which arrived the day after publication. Saying in 2002, “It was just like total heaven.”

After establishing himself with The Bulletin Leak, became a regular contributor to Matilda magazine and also submitted cartoons to many other magazines including Playboy and the Australian Woman’s Weekly. By 1985 he was doing regular freelance work for the Sydney Morning Herald, which eventually lead to a full-time job.

Ultimately all he wanted to do was be an editorial cartoonist, but there were limited opportunities. On the SMH he was mostly illustrating political features. One of them was Alan Ramsey’s column on Saturdays. Leak said this “was the most enjoyable and challenging job I’d ever had. He’d brief me in the morning, and I’d have time to try to think of an appropriate image. I hope I didn’t let him down - it was a privilege to draw for Alan Ramsey.” Leak also filled in for Alan Moir when he was on holidays, which he said, “Was fantastic.”

In 1985, he attended the first Stanley Awards night. Leak said in Ann Turner’s book In Their Image, “I remember going to the first of the Stanley Awards and seeing my heroes, like Alan Moir, Bill Mitchell and Ron Tandberg, winning awards. I was very much a newcomer to the scene and held these people in absolute awe. I wanted to be up there with them, and worked really hard at it.”

In 1990 Leak had talks with David Armstrong, who was then editor of The Australian. He was offered and accepted an ironclad agreement to leave the Sydney Morning Herald and work on The Australian. Then, later that same day, he rang back and said he had reconsidered and was staying put.

One Friday afternoon in 1992 the art director of Fairfax, John Sandiman contacted Leak and ask him if he would draw a cartoon for the next day’s Australian Financial Review. Leak was pleasantly surprised. For some time, he had made no secret of his wish to take over from Mark Cornwall who was drawing the daily cartoons. He drew a cartoon and headed off home.

On the following Sunday Leak came into the office expecting to start a three-week stint filling in for Moir on the Sydney Morning Herald, who was taking holidays. However, Leak was asked by Sandiman to “fill in for Cornwall who had suddenly started holidays.” The reason Cornwall was on holidays was because he had been told he was being removed from his cartooning responsibilities on the Australian Financial Review and need time to ponder his future.

Leak had been on the Australian Financial Review for about a year when John Alexander became editor. He said, “For some reason Alexander and I never got on.” A number of the people who worked with Alexander said that he liked Leak’s illustrations and caricatures, but was not a big fan of his cartoons. However, Leak did win a Walkley Award for one of the cartoons he drew for the Australian Financial Review in 1993 - after Alexander became editor. Leak said he “can’t recall Alexander saying anything to me about the win. But he did avoid me on the night I won.” Soon after winning the Walkley, Leak was removed from his cartooning duties and found him self back in the Fairfax art department. He was not happy about it.

At The Australian David Armstrong left and Paul Kelly replaced him as Editor-in-chief in 1991. The following year Chris Mitchell was appointed to the editor’s chair.

“Bill knew he was unloved by SMH editor-in-chief John Alexander and rang me not long after The Australian’s editor-in-chief Paul Kelly appointed me editor,” said Mitchell. Leak and Mitchell had met at some of the Stanley Awards nights when they sat at the same table. Mitchell added, “I spoke to Kelly about Leak and they went to dinner and did the deal. Bill fitted the paper like a glove. The Australian had none of the factionalism or private school snobbishness that marked Fairfax at the time.”

Kelly did not hire Leak in October 1994 to be The Australian’s main political cartoonist, but to draw three illustrations a week plus a major page one illustration every two or three weeks. Kelly said about the appointment, “The Oz has a great tradition of cartooning. It’s been one of the great strengths of the paper since it was established. We had Bruce Petty, we had Bill Mitchell and one of the things I was aware of was the real imperative to maintain this tradition of excellence and impact of cartooning. I think it’s important to have cartoonists who are comfortable on the paper. The Australian is the national paper it’s a broad sheet, and what I was keen to do from the start was live up to that standard and enhance it if I could. But it’s important to get the right cartoonist, people who is comfortable with us.”

A few years after Leak said, “Making the change was probably the best thing I ever did. Suddenly I had a new audience, a national audience. Also, I was able to do more colour work, which I find interesting and exciting. Going to The Australian was like being given a new lease of life.” He has also said that the biggest mistake he ever made was not accepting the original offer to join The Australian.

In 1996 David Armstrong returned to The Australian as editor-in-chief and soon after Campbell Reid became the editor.

For some years at The Australian Leak worked in a studio just to the side of where most of the subeditors worked. He would often pop out of his room seeking a word for the crossword he was trying to finish and talk sport, politics as well as possible cartoon ideas. Just as often people would wander into his studio to talk sport, politics and ask how he was going with the crossword. It was not uncommon for Leak to use these encounters to show his cartoons or illustrations and take on board comments. While never boisterous he was very sociable and nobody was ever in any doubt about him being in the office.

In February 1998, the Prime Minister John Howard kept one of his campaign promises and held a constitutional convention in Canberra. There were 152 delegates in attendance and half had been elected while Howard made up the other half with senior politicians.

Leak attended the convention as a member of the press. He was there to observe and draw cartoons. Leak had won a vast number of awards for his cartoons, but not all of his cartoons were award winners. Some do not even see the light of day. One of Leak’s cartoons drawn at the convention should not have been see by anyone. Leak drew it for his own amusement, and probably one or two friends. It portrayed Howard involved in a sex act with the American president Bill Clinton.

It would have been hard to have it published in an under-counter sex magazine and probably should have been destroyed as soon as it was drawn. Before it was drawn would have been better. But it was drawn. Not thinking about what might happen to the original Leak just left it lying on his desk and went back to his hotel room.

Leak had shown the cartoon to a number of people and was fully aware of how funny they all thought it was. One of them thought it would be funny to photocopy it and give a copy to every delegate at the convention. Just in case there were people, not at the convention, who were wondering what was going on, it was then faxed to a number of destinations around the country. At first Leak thought it was all very funny, then reality set in and he realized he was in big trouble and was contemplating the possibility of being sacked over it.

The next day a very shaky Leak was back in Sydney and in Campbell Reid’s office wondering if he still had a job. Reid said, “Most cartoonists are driven by the same performing gene as actors and other performers. In a public environment, they feel the need to put on a show. Some of them have this more than others. And Bill seems to have it more than most. It’s partly because the act of cartooning comes so easy to him. It just pours out of his pen. He can make drawings, not life like, but catch personalities and the situation in a flash. It’s enormously funny. So, because he doesn’t have to lock himself in a room he’ll draw anywhere. He’ll even draw in a bar after 27 schooners. Everybody just falls about laughing.”

Reid went on to say, “On two occasions when I was editor the morning after a one of Bill’s performances in a bar in Canberra I got calls from the Canberra staff asking if I had see Bill’s latest cartoon. This resulted in me either wanting to find a rock to crawl under or saying ‘no’ and asking them to fax it to me. The one involving the Queen and John Howard was just up everywhere. It was arguably one of Bill’s most widely seen unpublished cartoons. It was everywhere. As a sort of minder to someone like Bill you’re like everyone else, struck by the absurdity and can’t help but laugh. But on the other hand, it’s like you’re just about to be involved in a car crash. And you’re not even driving.”

But it was a Howard - Clinton cartoon that really caused problems. Reid said, “The cartoon involved some of the most arguably greatest political manoeuvring in the history of Canberra. It was between the senior people in the Canberra bureau and senior people in John Howard’s office to make sure that the prime minister’s extreme displeasure was resisted without anyone having to acknowledge that the cartoon ever existed. I’m not sure if the prime minister ever saw it.”

Reid added, “When I heard about the cartoon I said to Bill, there is this cartoon going around Canberra. ‘Bill said Yeeees’. I then described it to him and he said ‘Yeeees’. I then said, Now Bill that sounds like a cartoon that you might have drawn. And he went ‘Yeeees’. So, I then said, what am I going to tell the prime minister when he rings? To that Bill had no answer.”

Reid never discovered if Howard ever saw the cartoon. But he understood that if he did and if he rang he would have to take on board Howard’s displeasure. He also explained to Leak what this would involve.

At different times Leak has been made aware of Howard’s special interest in his cartoons. On one occasion when Armstrong was in Canberra, Howard took him aside and mentioned Leak’s cartoons. Howard used words normally associated with conversations attributed to waterside workers and according to Armstrong “his face turned purple as he waved his arms about like an uncontrolled windmill for added effect”. When Armstrong returned to The Australian he mentioned to Leak Howard’s special interest in his work. But he gave Leak no instructions as to how he might add to the prime minister's happiness.

Not every cartoon Leak drew gained a public viewing. Many never got more than an office display. On one occasion the features subeditors organized a ‘salon des refuses’ exhibition of his rejections. They hung them along the chest high partitions, which divided some of the desks in the office. They even had a fake opening of the exhibition and invited the other journalists along while they made speeches about Bill and his work. Leak responded with a speech, and then Warren Brown - from the floor above at the Daily Telegraph - crashed the party. In a pretend outrage, he started giving each cartoon a mark out of ten and then tearing some down claiming he was jealous because the Telegraph subs had never done anything like that for him.

Armstrong enjoyed the event and explained, “If Bill had been upset about having his cartoons rejected, it could only have been because it happened so infrequently that it came as a shock! I always thought there was no point in asking someone as brilliant as Bill to draw the cartoons and then trying to tell him what to do. Very occasionally I thought a cartoon didn't quite work but Bill was always very professional (of course) about getting it right. No tantrums; no sulks. However, my recollection is that Bill often did two cartoons. The first was outrageous, drawn for the heck of it, and was meant to be knocked back. The second one was the real one.” Later that evening everyone went to the Aurora (one of the local pubs) and drank, joked, told stories and laughed. Leak and Brown started competing, drawing cartoons on the coasters.

Chris Mitchell returned to The Australian as editor-in-chief in 2002 after spending seven years in Brisbane as editor-in-chief of the Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail. He replaced David Armstrong who moved on to develop a special project that was being kept under wraps by News Limited.

Leak had never made a secret of the fact that he wanted to be the daily cartoonist at The Australian. But it had never been anything but talk. Sometimes it was very annoying talk which more than once upset some of the senior people on the paper. Then in February 2003 he approached Mitchell about his contract, which had run its course in 2001 and had never been renewed. As soon as Leak walked in Mitchell’s office Mitchell said to him “I suppose you’re here to talk about your contract.”

Leak said, “Yes.”

Mitchell then said, “I suppose you’re going to ask me for more money.”

Leak said, “Yes.”

Mitchell continued, “I suppose you’re going to tell me you want Peter Nicholson’s job too.”

Leak, going along with the spirit of the conversation again said, “Yes.” Then to Leak’s surprise Mitchell went on to say, “Well I think I’m going to say ‘yes’ to everything.”

This had not been what Leak had expected. Mitchell then explained that he had been thinking about what to do to strengthen the paper’s use of cartoons. He had two top cartoonists and was only getting one good cartoon a day out of them. What he wanted to do was to move Leak onto daily cartoons and get Nicholson to draw a pocket cartoon for the front page. While it might have been easier to get Leak to draw the pockets because he was in the Sydney office and Nicholson in Melbourne, Mitchell thought Nicholson’s style would be more adaptable to doing the pockets. But he also wanted to keep Nicholson occupied with some bigger work in other parts of the paper.

Obviously, Leak was happy with what was proposed. Understandably Nicholson was not impressed. It meant a total change in the way he operated and instead of finishing the day when his cartoon was done he would now have to stay at his desk till the front-page story was chosen. Nicholson thought he might draw the pocket cartoon only to find it was not used. The night editors had a habit of dropping pocket cartoons from the paper once the editor had left the building. Mitchell convinced him that it would be there everyday and that he wanted to make it a feature of the paper. Nicholson and Leak took on their new duties in March 2003.

Mitchell said, “It was a decision many in the company did not initially support, yet I was clear why I wanted Bill, and the company went with it. I wanted the paper to reclaim some of the larrikin personality that marked it out from the then stodgy Sydney Morning Herald and The Age of the 1960s.”

One thing did not make Leak happy was that he now had to draw cartoons six days of the week and only get Saturdays off. It was suggested to him if he liked he could take Sundays off too and let Nicholson draw the cartoon for the Monday paper. The suggestion was quickly rebuffed. Having got the job of being the daily cartoonist he was not about to share it with anyone.

Howard’s complaint about Leak did not bring him any happiness. Leak never missed a chance to make fun of him. In 2004 when the Liberal senator George Brandis, was reported as calling the Prime Minister a "lying rodent", Leak liked what he heard. He started drawing Howard in every cartoon with a long tail. Many called it a rodent’s tail, Leak was not sure as he suggested it might be a rat’s tail.

Leak dabbled with the thought of becoming an author when his novel Heart Cancer was published in 2005. While it was published as fiction, there were certain thinly disguised parallels with his-own life. However, it never sold as well as he had expected and he gave up on the idea of writing a second. In another change of career direction, he participated in the 2008 ABC six-part TV series Face Painting where he painted portraits of six well-known Australians. He said, “there was talk of a second series but I didn’t want to get involved as it is too time consuming.” He also had a short stint at being an evening presenter on the ABC’s Radio National. It did not last given the competing amount of time needed to prepare for the program and the work he was still doing drawing his cartoons were incompatible.

A year after Labor had come to power in Canberra Leak was visiting John Singleton at his Strawberry Hill Stud at Mount White, just north of Sydney. At approximately 6pm on 8 October 2008 - and after a few drinks - when leaning over a balcony to feed some macaws and other exotic birds flying by, Leak over balanced and fell to the grass a little under 2 meters below. He landed on his back and hit his head on the ground, just missing a rock. He was critically injured and rushed by helicopter to the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney.

Singleton was quoted at the time saying, “He was just leaning over feeding the birds. It happened to me the week before last - you lean over too far and you fall - he fell (2m) right at my daughter's feet. It was all in slow motion. It's not as though he stumbled. Here is this wonderful bloke having this wonderful experience feeding these beautiful birds and he's just reached out too far. I heard two bangs and he was out cold.”

Leak was delivered to the emergency department in a serious condition and underwent tests, including a CAT scan, to check for spinal problems and other internal injuries. He had brain surgery that night and again the following day to alleviate pressure on the brain. Two weeks after being admitted Leak was released from hospital and returned home. However full recovery was a long process.

“It took Leak a long time to return to full health and gradually return to his cartooning duties at The Australian,” said Mark Basil Butler a long-time friend who had worked with Bill from the time he had started at The Australian. “There was always something missing, and he often had the look of a man who had forgotten something. As he came back to consciousness, doing one, then two cartoons a week, I became one of his regular sounding boards for his cartoons. In particular he wanted help with kickers. He rang me at home or at work just about every Sunday for 12 months or so.”

The man Leak reported to at The Australian was Nick Cater, who had the power to accept of reject his cartoons, and more and more he began steering them in a certain direction: anti climate change and anti-Gillard.

“Like many a genius,” Cater said, “Bill suffered melancholic bouts when he would doubt his own genius. Rising early, as he habitually did, and having scoured the day’s news for inspiration that would not come, he’d call and we’d talk. It was from those sessions that some of the irreverent gags would emerge.”

Leak once told Butler, “Cater was the most intelligent man I’ve ever met.” Butler added, “After I had given Leak, a huge spray about Cater and climate change denialists, he no longer rang.”

As the topics of Leak’s cartoons changed there were many comments about how he was now only critical of the Left and never the Right. Leak said he had been taking in what was going on in the political world while recovering, but was not being critical of the Left, just the Labor government. He said he would continue to find fault with the government once the coalition retook power. That never happened. He wrote in 2012, “While trawling through a number of popular left-wing blogs recently, I realised I had to accept a painful reality: I have become a rabid right-winger and a Murdoch toady.” He dated the change from the time Labor won office in 2007, which also about the time he started cartooning from his home at Hardys Bay, an hour and a half’s drive north of Sydney.

Butler said, “It is probably worth considering that his illness deprived him of a large income at a time when he had just sunk a lot of money into building a new house at Hardy's Bay. "Mate, I'm eating into my super," he told me. He tried for many months to get Chris Mitchell to put him back on the paper full-time, but Mitchell strung him along, to the extent that Bill called upon John Hartigan and Singleton to lobby on his behalf. To no avail: Mitchell had him over a barrel, and kept him there until just the right deal could be struck.”

Mitchell said Bill, “suffered debilitating headaches for the first few years back in the cartoonist’s chair. He struggled through the fog of heavy pain relief to get his thoughts together each morning for the day’s cartoon.”

He added, “After starting back a couple of days a week, in time he came back to full-time work. For the second time in the first decade of the new century he justified my decision to make him the paper’s main daily editorial cartoonist, after many years of the Saturday Bleak Picture and illustration work.”

In October 2012 multi millionaire John Singleton’s central coast guesthouse was destroyed by fire. Also destroyed was a grand piano and a number of paintings belonging to Leak, which all up, might have been worth as much as half a million dollars. Leak had lent them to Singleton, but they were not covered by his insurance and Leak had not insured them himself. He was especially upset about a portrait of the late Sir Donald Bradman, said to be worth around \$170,000, which was only one of the paintings destroyed. Despite their friendship Singleton was unable to find a way to compensate Leak for the loss. The friendship then came to an end.

Never politically correct Leak now found himself defending his cartoons from attacks by people who had previously championed him. Just as those he had once lampooned now came to his defence. Despite which direction he viewed politics from Leak always took the view free speech was for everyone and he had the right to point out when an emperor had no clothes. As he put it, “Freedom of speech is the freedom to offend, and that means the freedom to offend anyone.” In recent years, it was his cartoons on LGBTQI people, Muslims, the Safe Schools programme, Indigenous Australians, Gillian Triggs and the Human Rights Commission (which she headed), which drew the most negative attention.

Defending himself after being nominated Racist of the Year in 2016 Leak wrote, “As a white, Aussie male of a certain age, I could identify as a member of a persecuted minority myself and luxuriate in self-pity while being perpetually offended. Instead I find myself not only disillusioned but also frankly amazed that the contagion of political correctness could ever have spread to our shores.” While there were many who complained about Bill’s cartoons it should be remembered not one complaint to the Press Council or the Human Rights Commission were ever upheld.

Leak attended the launch of his latest book of “deplorable cartoons”, titled Trigger Warning on Wednesday night 8 March 2017. Paul Whittaker, the editor-in-chief of The Australian said at that event he “spoke with his trademark wit and wisdom to a room filled with friends, colleagues and fans, all of whom wished him well and expressed great appreciation of his strength and his unwavering commitment to free speech and true Australian values”. The following day Leak had a phone conversation with John Howard and said of Howard after it had concluded, “What a great man.”

The shockwaves went around Australia on March 10, 2017 when it was announced Leak died at the age of 61. By all measures he had been one of Australia’s great cartoonists. Between 1987 and 2002, he amassed 20 Stanley Awards (eight of those for Cartoonist of the Year), nine Walkley awards and was twice awarded News Corporation’s cartoonist of the year.

In 2015 Leak said, “I’ve been cartooning for about 30 years and I still love it. When I know I’ve got something in the paper I just can’t wait to get to the newsagents in the morning to see how it looks.”

Bill Leak entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2017.

Further reading