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by Ian F. Grant

With his distinctive looks, abrasive personality and polarising politics, Prime Minister Rob Muldoon was a gift to political cartoonists in the 1970s and 1980s. New Zealand cartoonists also found rich material during the lively reign of Premier ‘King Dick’ Seddon and that of the first Labour government.

Cartooning in a new land, 1840 to 1899

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.

    • John Marshall, Memoirs. Volume 1. 1912 to 1960. Auckland: Collins, 1983, p. 129. Back
    • James Barr, The old identities: being sketches and reminiscences during the first decade of the province of Otago, N.Z. by an Old Identity. Dunedin: Mills, Dick & Co., 1879, p. 394. Back

Cartoonists at home and abroad, 1900 to 1950

New Zealand cartoonists overseas

David Low, New Zealand’s most famous cartoonist, had his first political cartoon published in the Spectator in 1902, when he was 11 years old. He left school the following year and cartooned for several Christchurch publications, including the Canterbury Times. In 1911 he accepted a temporary job offer from the Sydney Bulletin, the first major step on a career that took him to the pinnacle of world cartooning on London’s Evening Standard in the 1930s.

Low was one among many cartoonists who have left New Zealand. The country’s press has never provided a living for more than a handful of professional cartoonists, who typically have decades-long careers.

Harry Rountree, a litho artist at the New Zealand Herald, left early in the century for a successful career in England as a Punch cartoonist and children’s book illustrator. Fred Hiscocks, after a long New Zealand cartooning career, joined the London Daily News in 1925. A succession of cartoonists headed for Fleet Street, the centre of London’s newspaper publishing, after the Second World War – Keith Waite and Neville Colvin, then Les Gibbard, John Kent, Nicholas Garland and Murray Ball. Ball later returned home and created Footrot Flats.

Political chameleons?

Some cartoonists have adjusted the politics of their cartoons to the editorial stance of their newspapers. Tom Glover drew left-wing cartoons for Truth in the 1910s, criticising Prime Minister William Massey as a puppet of capitalism. As T. Ellis he produced cartoons for the Free Lance, in 1919–22, warning of the red menace (communism). Jack Gilmour, signing himself as J. H. Gee, also drew cartoons for the Free Lance depicting the Labour Party as Bolsheviks. He went on to become the cartoonist for the Labour Party weekly the New Zealand Worker.

Australia attracted a number of fine New Zealand cartoonists in the 1920s, including Cecil ‘Unk’ White, Noel Cook, George Finey (a caricaturist as good as Murray Webb) and Tom Glover. Alan Moir, who arrived in Australia in the 1970s, was still cartooning for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2013. Few cartoonists have ventured to the United States, but Will Hope, one of Truth’s excellent cartoonists, was at the New York Globe during and after the First World War.

The daily papers and second golden age

There were more editorial cartoons in the dailies from the mid-1920s. Trevor Lloyd was well established at the New Zealand Herald, while A. S. Paterson became the Dominion’s first staff cartoonist in 1925. J. C. Hill joined the Auckland Star two years later. Gordon Minhinnick served his apprenticeship on Edward C. Huie’s innovative Christchurch Sun for six months before its sister daily, the Auckland Sun, was launched in 1927. When it folded in 1930, ‘Min’ was immediately hired by the Herald and was to be the country’s pre-eminent cartoonist for decades.

Minhinnick was a master draughtsman and an innate conservative. New Zealand’s second golden cartooning period, between the mid-1930s and 1949, showed him at his best as he attacked the radical first Labour government and the policies and politicians he distrusted. There was also, after the Second World War, impressive work by Neville Colvin at the Evening Post and the Otago Daily Times’ Keith Waite.


‘Kennaway’, Andrew Kennaway Henderson, was a socialist and a pacifist. His hard-hitting cartoons attacked New Zealand political, press, church and business interests, along with the drift to fascism in Europe. He edited and managed his own magazine, the weekly Tomorrow. Launched in 1934, Tomorrow became one of New Zealand’s most important political and literary journals. It eventually proved too independent for the wartime government, and was closed under censorship regulations in 1940.


During the First World War the majority of New Zealand’s cartoonists took a patriotic stance, depicting heroic New Zealand soldiers and a bestial German enemy. Cartoonists such as Tom Glover in Truth and ‘MJ’ in the Maoriland Worker produced dissenting cartoons, condemning war profiteering and the government’s conscription policies. The veteran cartoonist Fred Hiscocks fought in the war, as did the young novice George Finey, both contributing to the two editions of New Zealand at the front.

In the Second World War cartoonists often ridiculed the fascist dictators as power-hungry buffoons. The New Zealand soldier was represented by such long-suffering characters as Minhinnick’s Soldier Sam and Neville Colvin’s Fred Clueless. Cartoonists in the armed forces, such as Colvin and Nevile Lodge, contributed work to the service publications Parade and the NZEF Times.

Cartooning from 1950 – a changing society

1950s and 1960s

There was a comfortable smugness about New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s and, in parallel, it was a quiet, unspectacular period on the cartooning front. Gordon Minhinnick, the fire of the preceding two decades somewhat abated, continued at the New Zealand Herald. After J. C. Hill’s departure, Neil Lonsdale, who had an advertising background, drew at the Auckland Star from 1953 to 1968.

Nevile Lodge, also from the commercial art world, began his long Evening Post stint when Neville Colvin left for England. The Dominion had no staff cartoonist after A. S. Paterson left in 1950, until Eric Heath, a freelance artist, began in 1966. At the Otago Daily Times, Sid Scales took over when Keith Waite left for Britain in 1951.

General interest magazines, historically the major supporters of the cartooning craft, were now faltering and dying – the Observer closed in 1954, the Free Lance in 1961 and the Weekly News a decade later.

Māori making a mark

While Māori have frequently been the subject of cartoons, there have only been a handful of Māori professional cartoonists. These include Harry Dansey, the regular cartoonist for the Taranaki Daily News in the 1950s. Fellow journalist Noel Holmes commented that Dansey was an elegant artist but lacked the cruel sense needed by a great cartoonist. In the 1990s and early 2000s James Waerea was resident cartoonist for NZ Truth, while Anthony Ellison drew political cartoons for a range of papers from the 1980s to early 2000s.

1970s and 1980s

Strong political convictions and anger about injustices motivated a number of cartoonists during the third golden era of New Zealand cartooning, from the mid-1970s until the end of the 1980s. There was a fortuitous combination of a large number of talented cartoonists with a period of convulsive and compelling politics. Abrasive National Prime Minister Robert Muldoon tried to insulate the country from international economic forces and then ‘Rogernomics’, named for Minister of Finance Roger Douglas in the fourth Labour government, swapped regulation for heady, unprecedented liberalisation.

Among the new cartoonists were Bob Brockie (a caricaturist of distinction), Peter Bromhead, Malcolm Evans, Trace Hodgson, Tom Scott, Murray Webb, Garrick Tremain, Allan Hawkey, Chris Slane, Malcolm Walker, Mark Winter (who used the pen-name Chicane) and Al Nisbet. In dailies and weeklies they produced a stream of hard-hitting cartoons through a period of unprecedented change.

In the 2000s all of these cartoonists, along with the New Zealand Herald’s Rod Emmerson and Guy Body, were still at work, but their output was not helped by blander politicians and the political constraints of MMP (mixed-member proportional representation).

Women cartoonists

The feminist movement and the changing role of women in the 1970s and 1980s opened the way for female cartoonists – although political cartooning remained strongly male-dominated. In the early 1970s prejudice against women was such that Rosemary McLeod had to get her boyfriend to submit her cartoons to Salient (the Victoria University student newspaper), which refused to publish cartoons by a woman. McLeod’s cartoons later gained mass circulation, appearing regularly in the Listener. Sharon Alston and Helen Courtney achieved prominence with their cartoons in the feminist magazine Broadsheet. In the 2000s Sharon Murdoch’s cartoons featured in the Dominion Post.

Cartoons as historical documents

Generally, the convention that cartoons can be harder-hitting than the written word, and the lack of successful libel prosecutions, have encouraged cartoonists to take advantage of editorial and managerial controls that have usually been exercised lightly. For this reason editorial cartoons are increasingly recognised as important historical sources alongside official, but often sanitised, records.

The country’s rich cartooning heritage has been systematically preserved at the New Zealand Cartoon Archive at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington since 1992. By 2013 the archive, holding more than 50,000 cartoon originals and copies, had curated 14 exhibitions and published six books.

Looking to the future

In 2013 the Young Cartoonist Award was established to encourage emerging cartooning talent. Jointly sponsored by the New Zealand Cartoon Archive and the Listener, the award attracted a field of strong entries in its first year, pointing towards a promising future for New Zealand cartooning.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ian F. Grant, 'Cartooning', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Ian F. Grant, published 22 October 2014