Page 1: Biography
Paterson, Alan Stuart
Cartoonist, illustrator, museum and art gallery curator
This biography, written by Susan E. Foster, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Alan Stuart Paterson was born in Hawera on 24 January 1902, the son of Ada Fannie Butler and her husband, Alexander Paterson, a draper, who was later an art dealer. He was a nephew of George Butler, New Zealand’s official war artist in the First World War. By 1907 the family had moved to Wellington, where Alan was educated at Clyde Quay School and at Wellington College.
After working as a clerk for the Department of Lands and Survey from 1918 to 1923, Paterson spent a year at St Martin’s School of Art, London. In a letter to a friend in 1924 he enclosed two drawings of himself showing the change from a Kiwi with a lemon-squeezer hat to a dapper, bowler-hatted gentleman with a stick. He also reported that the teachers at the art school had said his work ‘isn’t bad’.
On returning to New Zealand in 1925 Paterson worked briefly as a cartoonist for the New Zealand Times before becoming the Dominion ’s first staff cartoonist. Apart from a three-year break during the Second World War (when he was made redundant as an economy measure) he worked for the Dominion until 1950. His cartoons for the paper were generally light-hearted comments on everyday life. A common approach was to take an item of news and explore its comic potential through a sequence of thumbnail drawings. The eye is drawn through the sequence by a series of lyrical lines linking one caption to the next. Although he occasionally drew one-picture cartoons on political topics, and did several serious war cartoons, he preferred to draw something that interested ‘Mum and Dad and the kids’. He often related news items of national or international significance to a more parochial problem. Thus New Zealand’s defence problem was linked to the Otago Rugby Football Union’s ‘little defence problem’ in holding the Ranfurly Shield.
Paterson worked his cartoons out in his mind at night, then drew them in the morning, usually taking 1½ to two hours. In his early drawings the influence of Phil May and a young David Low can be seen before he developed his own fluid, economical style. Among his cast of characters was a tabby cat, Gardiner, and a black cat, Mrs Mahogany, which, together with a long-haired dog, were based on his own pets. A small boy who appeared in a number of cartoons was a three-year-old nephew. Another personality was Honoria Wraith, Paterson’s fictitious secretary. However, the best-known and -loved of his characters was Little Eric of Berhampore. Small, moustached and dressed in an oversized coat and hat, Little Eric was always ready with an opinion, mostly about rugby, on which he would expound at length to his significantly taller friend, Whitey.
An indication of the popularity of Paterson’s cartoons was the amount of fan mail he received – 15 to 50 letters a week. Two books of his Dominion cartoons, Nothing serious and Look pleasant please , were published in 1932. He also produced cartoons (1926–30) and advertisements (1926–32) for the New Zealand Artists’ Annual. In addition to cartooning, Paterson produced delicate drawings of fairies, flowers, birds and Maori goblins, and painted watercolours of rural and coastal scenes. As a member of the Wellington Savage Club he designed many of the menu covers and concert programmes for the ladies’ night at the club. The lyrics for these concerts were often written by Paterson and he was involved in acting and backstage management. During the 1930s he held various offices within the club.
On 7 November 1936 Paterson married Nancy Marion Whitehead in Wellington. Around this time he was described as being tall and dark with brown eyes, nervous artistic hands, and a slightly worried, forgetful and dogged expression. In most photographs and drawings he is wearing glasses and has a small moustache. His interests included gardening, P. G. Wodehouse and Gilbert and Sullivan.
Over the years Paterson was commissioned to illustrate a number of books, including Sketches from Maoriland (1939), Wonder tales of Maoriland (1948), New Zealand beckons (1952), Changing days and changing ways (1954), and several publications in the series ‘Legends of Maoriland’ (1962) published by A. H. & A. W. Reed.
In May 1950 Paterson became a cartoonist for the New Zealand Labour Party’s daily newspaper the Southern Cross. The paper warned its readers not to expect him to be political: ‘A little nonsense now and then, maybe, but nothing that would make the truest tory go red in the face’. Late in 1950 he moved to Palmerston North and in 1951 began working for the Country Library Service. In 1964 he became curator for the Gisborne Art Gallery and Museum. He died suddenly in Gisborne on 16 June 1968, survived by his wife, a daughter and a son.
Three separate series of Paterson’s sketches were published posthumously: The bull pen (1969), which sold over 100,000 copies; Knight after knight (1970); and Professor Paterson’s book of engaging birds (1971), a series of satirical drawings of birds, drawn for his friend the author June Opie, who was in hospital.