Bruce Leslie Petty

Born Melbourne, Victoria 1929

By Lindsay Foyle

The first cartoonist to work for The Australian was Bruce Petty. There were more established cartoonists working in the country that Murdoch might have chosen, but none would have had the impact that Petty was to have. Many readers initially disliked his scribbly style, but there were many more who loved his intellectual approach to cartooning. It was not long before he became the most influential cartoonist in the country.

Bruce Leslie Petty was born in Doncaster, Melbourne 1929. He was drawing as a child, but not impressively, educated at Doncaster State School and then Box Hill High School. After he left school he worked for a few years on the family orchard. He also studied art at night at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He was 19 when he took a job at an animation studio in Box Hill and from there moved to the Colourgravure studio at The Herald. Petty said in 1969, “I went to work on a motorbike. I just left it on the kerb. Great, great joy. I think motorbikes are weirdly, impressively seductive. I didn’t wear a helmet, drove around like a loony. Awfully dangerous - but then it was possible.”

While studying at RMIT, Petty picked up a book containing some illustrations by Feliks Topolski. “I had never seen anything like it,” he said. “Just scribble. A child of 10 could do it...except that it was stunningly evocative. I’d been struggling away at RMIT with anatomy, and here was a man who didn’t bother about it, who got it right. He obviously knew anatomy. You couldn’t shortcut it. I did a lot of scribbling, sort of parodies of Topolski.”

Petty was 25 when he decided he wanted to travel. He headed to London, “Which,” as he put it was what, “everybody did in 1954.” He said he got enough work to survive on, “I did a lot of crummy stuff I didn’t believe in, but I was a sort of number two Topolski. If they couldn’t afford Topolski, they could afford me.”

In 1955 Petty sent some funny drawings to Punch where Malcolm Muggeridge was editor. Punch was undergoing a redesign and Muggeridge was looking for something different. “My drawings were certainly different,” Petty said. His style was described as “a bit weird” and he was told if he shifted the eyes to the right place they would think about him. So, he got busy and shifted a few eyes around and submitted some more cartoons. Punch published three cartoons from those originally submitted and paid Petty £12. “Every week I tried to submit 10 drawings,” he said. “They might take one or might take none, or might take three.” He was also doing other work in London including some theatre design and managed to get back stage at the theatre and opera a few times.

Eventually homesickness got to him. He decided it was time to return to Melbourne. The path he took included a stopover in New York where he sold cartoons to Esquire, Saturday Evening Post and the New Yorker. It was his cartoons in Punch that got him in the door of these magazines. He worked in New York for about eight weeks where New Yorker gave him use of a room on Thursdays and Fridays. James Thurber used it on other days. Leaving New York, he visited Cuba. He then went to Guatemala, bought a motor bike and rode it to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. When the bike fell to bits he went to Panama, hoped on a boat and came home.

Back in Melbourne Petty took a job with the advertising agency Robertson, Walker and McGuire. Petty said he “Didn’t do much cartooning until 1960 or ‘61.” His cartooning started to make an impact after he walked into Les Tanner’s office at The Bulletin in 1961. Tanner had only been in the job since July, having spent the previous year cartooning in London. Petty showed him some roughs that Punch and the New Yorker had rejected and some they had not. Tanner was impressed. Some of the roughs were selected and soon published in The Bulletin. Petty had been fortunate to arrive at The Bulletin when he did. Not long after with a declining circulation Frank Packer acquired to rights to reused Punch jokes in The Bulletin and the number of new Australian cartoons in it declined. Petty was also selling cartoons to the Australian Women’s Weekly.

In Melbourne both the The Herald and Sun News-Pictorial had full time political cartoonists. The Age however had not had one since before World War Two. Despite a history of selling cartoons to magazines in London and New York when Petty approached The Age about a job he was rejected.

Given he was having more success in Sydney than Melbourne, Petty packed his bags and moved north. It did not take long before the cartoonist’s grape vine was in full swing. Petty contacted Tanner and told him he was in town. Tanner, in turn told John Endean, who was doing some freelancing work at The Bulletin. Endean had a friend on The Daily Mirror. The paper had been taken over by Rupert Murdoch the year before and he was working hard to revitalise it. Endean’s friend had originally asked him if he knew anyone who could draw political cartoons. As Endean was a cartoonist and his friend knew that, Endean assumed he was not the cartoonist they were looking for. So, he passed the information on to Petty, who then made contact with The Daily Mirror. It was not wasted effort. Petty got the job and started drawing political cartoons for the paper in 1961.

It was a good move for Petty who said, “Rupert Murdoch was in charge, but The Mirror had an extraordinary editor, Doug Brass. He was erudite and academic, knew Europe and understood my jokes. It was a relevant paper, a mix of popular news and ideas.”

Petty was working on The Daily Mirror for almost three years before he moved onto The Australian when it started. He said in the book In Their Image, “We all went to Canberra like a big wagon train. We were there to enlighten the world. I was pretty much allowed to choose what to draw, but it would be the story of the day or yesterdays. Neither Rupert nor the editors tried to influence what I drew.” In those days The Australian was not seen as being to the right of centre. Petty said in an interview in 1989, “This did not reflect Murdoch’s personal political taste. He was a pragmatist. In the ‘60s it was politically expedient to have a cartoonist with my point of view of the world.”

Petty’s working process was to spend up to nine hours a day working to find the right idea for one cartoon. He would read local and overseas newspapers make innumerable sketches. All the time refining ideas until he got what he wanted or the deadline arrived. He said, “You just sit and think and think and slowly go mad. I tell you it’s dull.” While he may have thought of his job as dull there were people all over Australia who were buying The Australian just to read his cartoons.

Les Tanner has been quoted as saying in 1969, “The two worst things a cartoonist can become is a crying drunk, or a guru. Bruce Petty has become a bloody great guru.”

As soon it had been announced in 1976 Larry Pickering was moving to The Australian, Murdoch sent Petty a note saying Pickering’s arrival was not going to affect him. While Petty was glad to get the note, he was not convinced he had a long future at The Australian.

Pickering’s first cartoon for The Australian was published on the 28 February 1976. There was also an announcement on page one, heralding him as the best cartoonist in the country. From that day on Petty never got another original cartoon published in The Australian. While Petty says little about what happened at the time he did say some years after, “Murdoch is a smart man who knows newspapers, and as the political climate began to change, he hired Larry Pickering. He was lampooning everything at a time when I was still hanging on to profit redistribution.”

James Hall who became editor of The Australian in April 1973 and was a good friend of Petty’s said, “I think Bruce thought he was increasingly out of tune and sympathy with Rupert politically - and vice versa. As well he probably realized that his cartoons were rather abstract in style and intellectual in meaning for the paper at that time. In the end I suspect he found it all too hard and not satisfying enough he wanted to go on battling every day.”

Hall was probably right. He had been with the paper since it started and had an excellent understanding of the many political nuances of Murdoch. All the evidence supports the argument that Petty had fallen victim to Murdoch’s oscillating political leanings. Hall also knew personally about Murdoch’s shifting whims. Les Hollings replaced him as editor in the middle of 1975.

With his Left of centre leanings, this political change of direction would have been very hard for Petty to cope with. When the chance came along to work on The Age he took it. Petty is reluctant to say how he got to The Age, but Tanner had been there since 1967, so there is a good chance an old boy’s network had some influence. Petty resigned from The Australian, and his cartoons started appearing in The Age in June 1976.

During his 12 years at The Australian Petty had cartooned on Prime Ministers Menzies, Holt, Gorton, McMahon, Whitlam and Fraser; the Vietnam war; the Six Day War in 1967 involving Israel and its neighbours followed by the Yom Kippur War in 1973; Lyndon (LBJ) Johnson as President of the United States, Richard Nixon in 1968 and his resignation in disgrace in 1974; the departure of Nikita Khrushchev as leader of the Soviet Union and the rise of Leonid Brezhnev; Mao Tse-tung’s rule in China and his death in 1976 and the emergence of Hua Guofeng; and elevation of Margaret Thatcher the United Kingdom. Interesting times for any cartoonist.

While working for The Age in Melbourne, Petty continued to live in Sydney. He operated from his home and originally faxed roughs to Melbourne. He usually sent down two or three ideas along with suggestions about which one he liked. “I listen to the news in the morning to get the story of the day, but I listen to the news all day in case the news changes” he said. “I just work on here in Sydney, but if I’m in doubt I ring them in Melbourne and ask what the editorial’s going to be, or what is on the opposite page. I get a bit panicky if it’s not faxed by deadline. I’ve never failed to meet a deadline. There are always fall-back drawings. And if it is a bit late, I think they are so pleased that something has come it they use it unless it is really outrageous.”

In 1977 Petty won an Academy Award for directing his short-animated film ‘Leisure’. He does not have the statuette: “When I got it, the Oscar went to the producer. We got a picture of it, a very nice gold-framed picture.”

In the late 1980s Petty said, “There are more problems now than there used to be. I don’t mind them making money but I don’t want them deciding how people live ...cultural matters. There are more puzzles than there used to be.” He also said, “There appears to be an enormous economic joke and I find that interesting.”

Petty was presented with a Stanley Award by the Australian Cartoonists’ Association in 2001 for his contributions to cartooning. Then in 2016 he was given the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism. It was also the same year he retired from The Age – at a time when the paper was cutting back on staff - after a 55-year career of drawing political cartoons. He left a vast, characteristically scrawled mark on Australian cartooning. Beloved by his peers and the broader public, Petty has been published in some of the world’s most prestigious newspapers and magazines, and 11 of his own books. His work as an artist also spans animation and film directing – which won him an Oscar.

Bruce Petty entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2014.

Further reading

Fifty Years of Australian Cartooning, Journalists’ Club 1964 In the making, Thomas Nelson (Australia) Limited 1969 The Journalistic Javelin: An Illustrated History of The Bulletin, Wildcat Press 1979 The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons, Chelsea House Publishers 1980 A Fine Line, Hale & Iremoner 1983 40 Years of Cartooning, The Australian 1994 Oliphant & Rigby: Two Australians loose in America, Embassy of Australia 1995 Artists and Cartoonists, Australian National University 1999 In their Image, National Library of Australia 2000 Comic Commentators, Network Books 2008 The Insiders cartoon exhibition, ABC 2009 2018 Cartoon Exhibition, Australian Cartoonists’ Association 2018 Inked: Australian cartoons, National Library of Australia 2019