Emile Mercier

Born New Caledonia 1901
Died Sydney, New South Wales 1982

By Lindsay Foyle

Emile Mercier was one of the leading cartoonists working in Australia from the 1920s to the 1970s. Much under rated by employers, but greatly admired by readers. His cartoons on everyday life are as relevant today as they were half a century ago.

One day, Claude McKay, the editor-in-chief of Smith’s Weekly, took a dim view of an X Emile Mercier had drawn under the upwardly extended tail on a cat. After a few stern words about “dirty gimmicks in cartoons”, the grim-faced McKay instructed Mercier to get rid of the cross. This presented Mercier with a challenge. He was someone who used to say you “have to think funny as well as draw funny” and he was not keen to let McKay’s prudish approach to his cat to go unchallenged. Mercier’s solution was to draw a miniature roller blind under the cat’s perpendicular tail. He was in no doubt the blind would draw more attention to the cat’s anus than the X had. Fortunately for him, McKay saw the funny side of the addition and let the cartoon run. Not a man to push his luck too far, Mercier drew all future cats without an X at the base of their tails.

When Mercier took on McKay he was only a contributor to Smith’s Weekly. He had been working freelance since he arrived in Sydney just over 20 years earlier. It was not by choice and said, “At that period, and for many years afterwards, I would have given my right arm for a staff job on a newspaper. But while I was selling joke drawings, no one would offer me a permanent job.” He did however obtain a regular spot on Smith’s Weekly in 1940 illustrating Lennie Lower’s weekly columns.

Emile Alfred Lucien Mercier was born in New Caledonia on 10 August 1901. From an early age, he wanted to be an artist. When 11 years old he drew a green hill covered with doves on a large sheet paper. On seeing the drawing his father, who was a well-known Banker, wrote under it, “Emile is wasting a lot of good paper.” Mercier was to spend his working life drawing on good paper. Few sheets were wasted.

As a schoolboy, he spent a short time attending Darlinghurst Public School in Sydney. He returned to Noumea and served in the French Colonial Army before moving back to Sydney in 1919, intending to study at night at the Julian Ashton Art School. To pay his way he took a clerical position doing translations. With his limited command of English, he took on a variety of odd jobs, which included office boy, a deck hand on coastal ships, a spruiker at the Sydney Royal Easter Show, and even acting on stage. He lived in a room in a run-down house in Paddington. It over looked a back yard and an alley that was inhabited by cats, dogs and overflowing rubbish bins.

It was Ashton who suggest to Mercier he take up cartooning. Using his locality and back yard view for inspiration, Mercier dispatched some drawings to Aussie and his first published carton appeared in the magazine in 1922. Soon after he was getting cartoons into Melbourne Punch, The Bulletin, Sportsman, The Daily Telegraph and Smith’s Weekly. By then he had given up part time work and lived off his cartooning.

At the age of 23 on 1 March 1924 Mercier married Esther Rodo Dunbar at the Methodist parsonage, Robertson, NSW. 

When the Australian Society of Black and White Artists’ (now known as the Australian Cartoonists’ Association) was formed on July 17, 1924 all the members came from Sydney. It was the first association of newspaper and magazine. Mercier was not one of them. It took him several years to join but in 1927 when the Society purchased an etching press Mercier used it to produce several small editions of fine plates on satirical subjects – with admirable skill and delicacy.

Kenneth Slessor - who had been editor of Smith’s Weekly in the 1930s - once pointed out “There was nothing cerebral about Mercier’s humour”. While Mercier said he was, “More interested in types than personalities”. However, he did put a lot of thought into his work and the local vernacular held particular fascination saying, “Australia is the only country in the world where you can call a dark horse a fair cow, and be understood!”

Mercier and Esther were divorced in November 1932, and on 17 December that year he married Flora Hazel Joan Gallagher, a bookkeeping machine operator, at St Canice’s Catholic Church, Darlinghurst; they had two sons. Together Emile and Flora produced alphabet primers and children’s books. 

There was nothing too complicated about Mercier’s work. Wine was plonk, with the setting for most of his cartoons the working-class inner-city Sydney suburbs of Surry Hills and Redfern. Terrace-houses, backyards, cats in back lanes, cafes, pubs (bars), public transport, men on stilts, roads on springs, racecourses as well as fishing, boxing and local shops all featured in his funny line drawings. He was shocked by what he thought was Australia’s obsession with putting gravy on everything. It was reflected in his cartoons. Gravy was everywhere. It was found on the menus as gravy in aspic, fried gravy or just gravy bones and empty tins littered streets.

These details and his originality endeared to middle class readers. His drawings of homes and localities were so right that people felt that he drew them from their own streets. Mercier once said, “I want people to see themselves. I never draw faces you can’t see around you in a crowd. People are what interests me.”

George Blaikie in his book Remember Smith’s Weekly, said Mercier, “could never control his natural Gallic naughtiness and delighted in introducing to his comic drawings touches that were likely to offend the gods a little. When contributing to The Herald in Melbourne for Sir Keith Murdoch, he found he could horrify his employer by doing drawings of dirty dustbins in back alleys. Emile immediately specialized in extra dirty bins with fish heads and other horrid things poking out of them. Most readers found the dustbins very funny to look at, Sir Keith’s teeth were set on edge every time he sighted one, which Emile cheerfully arranged, every second day or so.”

Later his cartoons became synonymous with an old, vanishing Sydney. It was suggested by historian Vane Lindesay Mercier’s fascination with Sydney limited his Australian ordinance as well as his international appeal.

Mercier was naturalised in 1940 and in the same year he obtained regular work with Truth as a political cartoonist and for the paper created two comic strips, News Splashes and Week Spots. In 1941 he started Pen Pushers, a comic that ran in the ABC Weekly and soon after he linked up with Frank Johnston Publications where he drew a number of comic books (which included Speed Umplestoop, Supa Dupa Man, Tripalong Hoppity, Three-Gun Ferdie, Wocho the Beaut, Doc McSwiggle, Bowyang Bill and the Snifter Princess, The Case of the Haunted Piecrust and Search for the Gnu-Gnah). Also, many of Mercier’s cartoons reappeared in anthologies published from the 1940s to the early 1960s. Despite many requests Mercier refused to resurrect any of these characters in later years.

It was in 1949 when he filled a lifelong ambition - a full time job drawing daily topical cartoons for the Sydney afternoon paper, The Sun. Soon his cartoons were being syndicated to newspapers in other States and Angus & Robertson Ltd published thematic collections of his cartoons in book form. His daily single-panel cartoons were often topical, and mildly satirical. He avoided making direct comment on politics, preferring to poke fun at politicians in general, rather than any recognisable figure.

Mercier was a medium-sized man, who dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and a tie. His fellow artists and journalists saw him as a man who could never control his 'natural Gallic naughtiness'. However, he always stood up to bullying newspaper editors. A trait that earned him respect with all who worked with him.  

In 1958, he was widowed when Flora died. At the age of 62 on 22 May 1963 in the district registrar’s office, Chatswood, Mercier married for third time. His new wife was Patricia Clare Alfonso, a 40-year-old divorced typist with three sons.

In most of his cartoons he targeted the daily life of the readers of The Sun. Drunks, tramps, fads, fashions, sport, house design, horse-racing, golf, boxing, food prices and motoring were the subjects he enjoyed lampooning.

For almost 20 years many of Mercier’s daily cartoons were reproduced in annual collections published by Angus and Robertson. He retired from The Sun in 1968, but continued cartooning for trade magazines while contributing yearly to the Salon International de la Caricature at the Pavilion of Humour in Montreal, Canada until his death on 10 March 1981 from Parkinson’s disease at Castlecrag, Sydney. He was buried in the Catholic section of the Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Emile Mercier entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2015.

Further reading