Political, or editorial, cartoons are important because they capture the essence of personalities and policies and get to the nub of issues. They can be, as former prime minister Jack Marshall put it, ‘instant enlightenment’.1
Cartoonists are often acute interpreters of public opinion. Editorial cartoons can be fresh and spontaneous, conveying the mood of the public.
The first cartoonist
James Brown, a Dunedin engraver, was probably the country’s first political cartoonist. Although his pencil and pencil-and-wash cartoon prints did not appear in publications, his caricatures were well-known and appreciated in 1850s Otago. It was remarked that ‘the cast of his mind was keenly, humorously, observant’.2 The first reproduction of Brown’s caricatures was in the book The old identities, published in 1879, two years after his death.
Early New Zealand cartooning
While some cartoonists worked privately during the 1850s, the first published New Zealand cartoons appeared around 1860. Like nearly everything else in the new colony, the earliest political cartoons were careful imitations of British models, in particular the satirical magazine Punch, which began in 1841.
Over three decades from the early 1860s there were at least eight local versions of the London Punch. They ranged from bad and amateurish parodies to publications with a rough sort of colonial vitality. The humour, invariably as stiff and mannered as the drawings, was often buried in lengthy captions. It generally depended on heavy-handed puns or complex classical or literary allusions. With a few exceptions – notably Arthur Palethorpe and Frank Varley – the Punch cartoonists were anonymous.
New Zealand’s early newspapers generally left illustrations of any kind to the magazines, which had the time to engage in the laborious and costly process of engraving onto wooden blocks. It was only after the introduction of photo-engraving in the 1880s that newspapers gave serious consideration to cartoons.
Weekly newspapers were often adjuncts to dailies, providing news digests to outlying settler communities. Weeklies made early use of improved lithography techniques, but it was not until the early 1890s that a different sort of weekly, with a greater emphasis on social, sporting and cultural coverage, began to use cartoons widely.
The Observer began its long and chequered publishing life in 1880, but it took the arrival of William Blomfield in 1887 to give the Auckland weekly its distinctive character. The ‘Blo’ signature appeared on an avalanche of comic art that was to continue for more than half a century. Blomfield became part-owner in 1892, with William and J. M. Geddis. Two years later this entrepreneurial trio began Christchurch’s Spectator – best remembered for publishing David Low’s first cartoon – and the New Zealand Free Lance in Wellington. These magazines, and the New Zealand Graphic, Ladies’ Journal and Youths’ Companion, launched by the Auckland Star’s Henry Brett in 1890, gave particular prominence to cartoons.
It was to be the first of the three golden eras of New Zealand political cartooning:
- the 1890s, during the lively times of Premier ‘King Dick’ Seddon
- the mid-1930s to 1940s, as cartoonists responded to the reforming Labour government
- the 1970s and 1980s, an era of rapid social changes.
In each case there was the happy coincidence of brilliant cartoonists and exciting political periods with larger-than-life personalities.
Living in interesting times
During the first golden age of cartooning many controversies provided great material for cartoonists. In the 1890s and 1900s debates raged over women’s suffrage, prohibition, labour issues and the introduction of a raft of new reforms. Race was a frequent topic, as artists expressed the white settlers’ fears of Asian immigration, while Māori were depicted as both a dying race and an annoying obstacle to the colony’s progress.
The 1890s – cartooning’s first golden age
Among the leading cartoonists of the 1890s, and into the 20th century, the NZ Graphic’s Ashley Hunter and Vyvyan Hunt provided the bridge between the very stiff and formal style of the earlier Punch cartoonists and the much faster, more spontaneous work of ‘Blo’, his brother J. C. Blomfield and Fred Hiscocks. It was this trio who best captured Premier Richard Seddon’s large, dominating personality, boundless egotism and energy as he stormed up and down the country ‘selling’ the ground-breaking policies of the Liberal government.
The Auckland Weekly News, published by Wilson and Horton from 1876, did not make illustrations a feature until 1898. Cartoons were increasingly popular after Trevor Lloyd, also a pioneering flora-and-fauna etcher, joined the staff in 1903. He was subsequently the New Zealand Herald’s cartoonist for three decades. Lloyd’s less-than-flattering portrayal of Māori was consistent with his strongly felt belief that they were obstructing European land-owning ambitions.