1927 - 2001 | VIC | Cartoonist & Columnist
Tanner’s stellar career as a political cartoonist, historian of cartooning and columnist began at the Sydney Daily Telegraph. His art was powered by a fierce sense of social justice, tempered by intuitive wit. Tanner’s anti-capital punishment cartoon of Sir Henry Bolte in 1967 led to the pulping of an issue of The Bulletin and a job as chief political cartoonist on The Age. From 1970 to 1997 he also wrote a much-loved weekly column, ‘Tanner with Words’. He was the winner of two Walkleys and the Melbourne Press Club‘s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Growing up in a noisy, theatrical Sydney family in the 1930s – when television was 20 years away and the local cinema was showing Marlene Dietrich and Movietone newsreels in the aftermath of the Depression – was Les Tanner’s preparation for a career in magazines and newspapers.
Acting attracted him. He appeared as a lad in comedian George Wallace’s Australian film Gone to the Dogs. It was the days of Mo McCackie and Roy Rene, Dad and Dave and Beano and Champion’s Rockfist Rogan, the boxing spitfire pilot.
There were comic strips – ‘Ben Bowyang’, ‘Wally and the Major’. Mercier cartoons were satirising Sydney, giving a hint of dada; the scenes in his drawings were set on floors supported by bed springs. Tanner was intrigued.
He began as a cadet with Consolidated Press and moved into illustration. When he was 18, the Sydney Telegraph sent him to Japan to draw for the British and Commonwealth Overseas News, a magazine for the post-war occupying troops.
He lived alongside the first people to survive nuclear attack. The enormity of it would have had to make an illustrator consider a political cartoonist’s career. Tanner was fascinated by Japanese culture and, on returning, curious about Australia’s.
Back in Sydney, he studied painting at the famous Julian Ashton school. He designed sets and acted for New Theatre productions. He made political ceramic sculptures with his friend Gus McLaren.
Post-war minds were restless, as was Tanner’s. As the victorious West’s imperial history unfolded and Russia looked to be experimenting with social justice, the Communist Party seemed to be part of the future. Membership grew. ASIO got busy. Tanner joined.
When Solzhenitsyn’s accounts of the gulags and Stalinism appeared, and the Communist tanks moved into Hungary, he resigned. His global utopianism reappeared as newspaper political satire.
Drawing for the Daily Sketch in London in the late 1950s, he won Cartoonist of the Year – and those were the days of cartooning giants Vicky, Abu and Giles.
He contributed in a London court to the defence of Oz magazine against obscenity charges.
Returning to Sydney, Sir Frank Packer’s Bulletin magazine hired him. The dozing Australia of the Menzies era was beginning to stir into life. Asia appeared from nowhere. Black power and Aboriginal freedom marches began to engage minds. Tanner caricatured this culture battle.
The winds had changed, but they changed slowly in Victoria. Ronald Ryan was to be hanged. To illustrate a protest piece by his friend Peter Coleman, Tanner drew a spectacular cartoon of Victorian Premier Sir Henry Bolte with a rope around his neck.
Sir Henry was not amused. The edition was pulped. But the drawing had leaked interstate and generated a program on ABC TV. Les Tanner’s was now a national voice. He was soon recruited to The Age by editor Graham Perkin.
Tanner established cartooning as a significant complementary voice to the journalists who were unfolding the nation to Asia and the world and to a social revolution. Cartooning had a profile. It had an immediacy and an audience. It had become more than a comic aside.
Tanner was a witty and forthright conversationalist, so it was a shock when a throat malignancy brought on by a lifetime of heavy smoking required a laryngectomy. His surgeon was Weary Dunlop, hero of the Burma Railway. They became great friends.
After the surgery, Tanner communicated with a crackling parody of a voice via electronic messages. One liners.
From the 1970s through to the 90s he drew political cartoons and wrote a much-loved weekly column, ‘Tanner with Words’. Often it was about life in suburban Melbourne. He once famously described his chaotic home as “the Hyatt of bad manors”. Tanner felt deeply the death of his wife, Peg, in 1996.
I first met Tanner, as did many hopeful cartoonists, taking a set of drawings to his Bulletin office in George Street, Sydney. Immediately warm and encouraging, quick and alert, ready to talk about the worlds of art, film and politics, he was embedded in a desk awash with magazines, references, roughs. Somewhere in there was the pen and ink drawing space.
He was compact built, Sean Connery handsome – the crinkled smile and bright eye. And funny. Women fell about. His enthusiasm for original graphic comment was infectious. At The Age in the 70s he led an interesting and varied team of cartoonists: Spooner, Nicholson, Tandberg and Leunig. I contributed from Sydney.
Tanner’s cartooning life spanned a period of powerful political and social issues – the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, black power, land rights, women’s liberation, pop art, the pill and drugs. These were issues ready made for his daily cartoon commentary and weekly columns. He drew on his fascination with human behaviour at all levels.
His caricature line had something of the scratchy Searle line. But his cartoons had a look of theatrical performance, something like graphic music hall.
His caricatures were his own inventions. He constructed political bodies to fit his own original version of anatomy. The old Julian Ashton life drawing skill seems to resonate in his absurd configurations.
His Billy McMahon head was a ridiculous dome but the skull socket shapes were there. His Keating nose had a proper bone structure. McEwen eyebrows grew, bush-like, out of an overhanging forehead from Tanner’s imagined cranium library. The image in the frame always had a sure aesthetic dimension.
Tanner was a superb cartoonist and commentator. His voice limitation he overrode in his own way so that, although abbreviated verbally, his wit remained as strong as his wisdom.
Bruce Petty, cartoonist and Academy Award winner, was inducted into the Victorian Media Hall of Famer in 2013.
Portrait by June Mendoza, 1970. Courtesy State Library Victoria.
Billy McMahon caricature by Les Tanner.
Tanner's notorious Bolte cartoon.
Portrait courtesy of Fairfax Media.
Tanner With Words, Les Tanner, Nelson, Melbourne, 1981.
'Les Tanner', on Design & Art Australia Online website.