Eric Ernest Jolliffe

Born Portsmouth, England 31 January 1907.
Died Bateau Bay, New South Wales 16 November 2001

By Lindsay Foyle

If Eric Jolliffe had not loved to read he would probably never have become a cartoonist. Cartooning was something he had never thought of doing.

He was youngest boy in a family of 12 children, and was born on 31 January 1907 in Portsmouth England. In 1911 Bill and Annie Jolliffe moved their family to Western Australia. Four years later they moved to Sydney. Jolliffe always claimed the family was extremely poor, moving from one house to another, constantly one step ahead of a landlord. But he had a happy childhood, spending his days playing in the streets and exploring the wharfs in Balmain area.

From an early age he liked to read and given a choice would probably have pursued a career as a writer. But his sketchy education at Smith Street Superior Public School finished when he was 14. After a string of boring jobs and many squabbles with his father, Jolliffe decided leave Sydney. He was 16 when he set off to travel around New South Wales. He found work as a boundary rider, rabbit trapper or doing what ever he could in sheering sheds. Cowra, Canowindra, Coonamble or Walget, it didn’t matter to him where he went as long as he was moving around.

Jolliffe fell in love with country people and with the beauty of the out back and wanted to spend the rest of his life exploring it. In 1928 while on holidays in Sydney he went into Angus and Robertson’s bookshop. He didn’t have the money to buy a book, but he could look and read from what was on the shelves. In one of the books he discovered drawing wasn’t a gift but could be learnt.

Filled with the passion to become an artist he enrolled in an introductory night class at East Sydney Technical College. To support himself he took a job as a window cleaner at a building close to the Bulletin’s office in George Street. For a time it didn’t look like he had made the right decision. His teachers were outspoken about his total lack of talent. It was obviously they hadn’t read the same book he had. They all told him he couldn’t draw and advised him to seek another interest. He continued to draw.

He met and married Mary (May) Clark in 1932 and they had one daughter Margaret (Meg). Working close to The Bulletin enabled him to inundate the paper with cartoons and to retrieve the numerous rejections. The Bulletin had become popular with contributions from Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson who had a romantic approach to life in the bush. Jolliffe’s cartoons tended to show the harsh reality and it didn’t go over too well. It wasn’t till 1934 that he had a cartoon published. He soon became a regular contributor and from took over the Andy feature Arthur Horner had been drawing when he left The Bulletin for Smith’s Weekly.

When the Second World war broke out Jolliffe joined the RAAF serving as a camouflage officer. It was during the war he first met tribal Aborigines in Arnhem Land and the Kimberleys. He quickly developed a deep appreciation of their love and understanding of their country, and their capacity to live off the harsh land. He was also absorbed by their complex social and cultural life.

He realized that no cartoonists had drawn tribal aborigines. He decided then as soon as the war was over he would going up to Arnhem Land and move amongst them before it all changed, getting material to draw cartoons.

After the war Jolliffe took a job with Smith’s Weekly but again found it hard to get his cartoons on aborigines and the outback accepted. He resigned from Smith’s Weekly and took a trip around northwestern New South Wales. The same country he had worked in as a youngster. He said, “I wasn’t there to work my guts out - setting rabbit traps of getting chucked off horses. I was there as an artists, and the material I got on that trip became Saltbush Bill.”

When he got back to Sydney he sent a batch of Saltbush Bill cartoons to Pix. The first was published 27 January 1945 and they continued every week for almost 50 years. The following year he put out his first book of Saltbush Bill Cartoons. Pix were also first to publish his Witchetty’s Tribe cartoons on 11 October 1947. Jolliffe liked drawing from life and use the well know Sydney model Gwen Fletcher when drawing the aboriginal women in the tribe. She had worked in Paris and was considered one of the top models in the world. By the early seventies books reprinting these characters had sold more than 6 million copies. In 1973 he started publishing his own magazine, Jolliffe’s Outback which contained Saltbush Bill and Witchetty’s Tribe and a comic strip that had been run in the Sunday papers for over 20 years, Sandy Blight, along with his own humour accounts of country life.

Jolliffe liked to get away into the bush for about three months every year. He spent a lot of time in Queensland where he was involved in adult education and he also spent time gathering material for his cartoons. Whenever he got a few quid together he would spend some time in the Northern Territory. He would contact Bill Harney who was a patrol office who used to look after Ayers Rock and the two of them would head off into Arnhem Land. Harney was married to an aborigine and Jolliffe thought he was great and admired how much he knew about aborigines.

For many years Jolliffe lived in Deewhy on one night after more than just a few drinks with Les Dixon the two of them were stopped by a policeman. One look and the policeman didn’t need to be told that neither of them was in condition to be driving. He told them to leave the car where it was and to find their own way home and to get the car the next morning. They locked the car and headed of in the direction of home. But it was raining and as soon as the policeman was out of sight they returned to the car and continued their journey.

They hadn’t gone more than a few hundred yards when the policeman returned and pulled them over a second time. He said he thought he had told them to leave the car where it was and find another way to get home. Before anyone could say another word, Eric said that was true, but they had realized they had left the car in a dangerous spot and they had only returned to it to move it to a safer position. The policeman laughed and said he was prepared to accept that explanation this time but wouldn’t accept it again that night. They locked the car and continued their journey home without it.

In 1981 Jolliffe became the first honorary life member of the Boardertown and Districts Agricultural Museum. Three week after his cartoons came in for criticism as it was thought by some of his drawings were racist. He discounted the criticism as he had friends all over the outback both white and black and none of them considered him to be racist. Two years later he was appointed a fellow of The Australian Institute of History and Arts. And in 1985 and again in 1986 he was voted by the cartoonists in the Australian Black and White Artists’ Club the best single gag artist in Australia.

In 1988 the racism issue came up again. Some of his cartoons were included in a book, 200 In The Shade about racist attitudes towards Aborigines. Jolliffe was shocked and hurt, again he didn’t think the criticism justified. He had spent over 50 years drawing cartoons about Aborigines, contrasting their life with that of European Australians. He had always intended the contrast to show the Aborigines in the better light. David Swain said in the introduction to the book “Eric Jolliffe has been credited with single-handedly killing off the ‘Smith’s Weekly Abo’. But the change was to other stereotypes: from openly unflattering to obvious affection. Jolliffe has created his own popular mythology of tribal Aborigines: his hunters are exuberant actors in farcical situations, his young marrieds are black versions of white suburbanites, and his young women are sexy pin-ups. Perhaps Jolliffe’s comic world has simply been overtaken by events.”

But what ever hurt Jolliffe felt at that time was overshadowed in May 1998 when at Government House in Sydney he was awarded the Order of Australia for services to art as a cartoonist and illustrator. By this time it was estimated his books of cartoons, comics and writing had sold in excess of 12 million copies.

May died in 1993 and he also lost Meg in 1997. Jolliffe died in his sleep at his home in Bateau Bay 16 November 2001.

His grand daughter Jane Emerson survived Jolliffe.

Eric Jolliffe entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2016.

Further reading