The Society of Australian Black and White Artists, now the Australian Cartoonists Association, is the world’s oldest cartooning organisation.
It was formally established in 1924 in a cartoonist’s studio on the first floor of the old Royal Arcade which linked George and Pitt streets, Sydney, an unusually formal venue for newspaper illustrators and cartoonists to gather as they were more likely to meet in pubs. Indeed, the founding president Cecil Hartt was known to be ‘as handy with a glass as he was with a pencil.’
Since the 1880s, artists had been flocking to Sydney to sell cartoons and illustrations to The Bulletin, the publication that forged careers of literary giants Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson. Earlier publications like Sydney Punch, based on the London satirical publication, had also drawn heavily on the skills of black & white artists to provide commentary on political and social issues of the day.
The wave of populist nationalism that began in the 1880s and continued across the periods of Federation and the first world war, provided rich material for artists, writers and cartoonists. After the war the nation was even more fervently defining itself as Australian instead of British. The mythology of the Digger became conflated with the ideals of the Australian ‘bush’ man. Escalating social and economic friction polarised left and right politics, intensifying during the Depression, while a fear of Asia also played into a defensive attitude expressed in racist cartoons.
New publications like Smiths Weekly (established in 1919) joined The Bulletin and Lone Hand (established in 1907) in hiring this new wave of illustrators and cartoonists. While the first wave of artists in the 1880s had gathered a reputation as bohemians, Henry Lawson coined the phrase ‘Beerhemians’ for their 20th century counterparts. They were considered great drinkers but they were not necessarily unconventional in a traditional ‘bohemian’ sense – they had jobs, ran their own businesses and even ran charity masquerade balls. In between drawing, drinks were had in old cobble-stoned Wynyard Lane which and down at the Press Club on Elizabeth Street.
The Artists’ Balls, organised jointly initially by artists of many disciplines, were well attended. May Gibbs reported having a great time at the Ball at Town Hall in 1922, but the following year the tone of the event must have deteriorated as her husband deemed it ‘a disgusting affair’. Newspapers reported all sorts of bacchanalia and sordid behaviour from the artists, leading to attempts to ban the event.
In 1925 the Black & White Artists began to host their own balls as well, feeling that the work they did in preparing for the general ones was overlooked. The event at the Palais Royale in September 1925, to raise funds for the Children’s Hospital and the Society, was attended, not only by the state Governor, but by a board of censors as well as 100 private detectives or ‘special police’. The hotel management declared in an interview before their event: ‘Let them have their champagne by all means, but don’t let them start to bathe in beer or my men will take a hand’. While this did indeed put a slight dampener on proceedings, more balls followed in subsequent years.
Like the newspapers and magazine that employed the artists, the Club itself has waxed and waned in activity and membership over the years, but is still going strong as the Australian Cartoonists Association. In 1985 a national awards competition for cartoons – named the Stanley Awards in honour of Stan Cross – was launched, and still continues today. Records of the association and the awards are held at the State Library of NSW.
Read Lindsay Foyle’s entry A Short History of the Black & White Artists’ Society on the Dictionary here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/a_short_history_of_the_black_and_white_artists_club
and Deborah Beck’s entry Scandalous nights: Sydney’s artists’ balls here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/scandalous_nights_sydneys_artists_balls
Australian Cartoonists Association: http://www.cartoonists.org.au/
Minna Muhlen-Schulte is a professional historian and Senior Heritage Consultant at GML Heritage. She was the recipient of the Berry Family Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria and has worked on a range of history projects for community organisations, local and state government including the Third Quarantine Cemetery, Woodford Academy and Middle and Georges Head . In 2014, Minna developed a program on the life and work of Clarice Beckett for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight Program and in 2017 produced Crossing Enemy Lines for ABC Radio National’s Earshot Program. You can hear her most recent production, Carving Up the Country, on ABC Radio National’s The History Listen here. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Minna!
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