1956 - 2017 | NSW | Cartoonist & illustrator
Bill Leak was one of Australia’s most highly-decorated, courageous, polarising and funny cartoonists. He won nine Walkley Awards, 19 Stanley Awards and was 12 times a finalist in the Archibald Prize for portraiture. In his final 10 years at The Australian, he became even more angry and brutal in his attacks on political correctness and Islamist extremism. He became the focal point of a fierce national debate on free speech and racial vilification after he drew a cartoon on Aboriginal delinquency, a piece of work that divided his admirers and haters more than any other.
In some ways, Bill Leak was a caricature of most people’s idea of a cartoonist - gregarious, hilarious, entertaining, witty, fast-thinking. He epitomised the larrikin spirit so often attributed to our cartoonists. Yet the fact that he became a cartoonist at all was the result of an unlikely turn of events that would be remarkably fortunate for him – and his readers.
Leak was a complex individual capable of the most astounding things - an exquisite portrait painter, a terrific writer, a raconteur, a thinker, an unparalleled satirist and a showman. Indeed, his extraordinary but far-too-short life veered down many exhilarating paths, yet few would know that art was not initially his foremost passion.
As a teenager Leak was considering a career as a professional jazz pianist. His great artistic ability soon eclipsed his musical aspirations. Editorial cartooning would eventually
enable him to combine all his amazing talents in a sort of polygamous marriage of art and writing and storytelling and philosophising and performing. For decades his passion for the cartoon never waned. Until he died, Leak gave that rectangular space on The Australian’s letters page everything he had – his heart and soul.
Bill Leak’s 27-year cartooning career had an inauspicious beginning on a busy Friday afternoon in 1983 at the offices of Consolidated Press, in Park Street, Sydney. The Bulletin magazine’s art director, Lindsay Foyle, received word there was a hopeful young cartoonist clutching a portfolio of work wanting to see him. For any aspiring cartoonist in the 1980s, The Bulletin was the best bet for seeing your work in print with the magazine occasionally publishing unsolicited freelance political cartoons.
There, waiting in the reception area, stood a lanky, enthusiastic, but “slightly embarrassed” young bloke with a mop of dark hair. “Here was this portrait painter Bill Leak, who was dead broke and was desperate for money.” Foyle remembers. “He knew absolutely nothing about publishing, but he said he wanted to be an illustrator. I told him we didn’t use illustrations, but we did use cartoons.”
Intrigued, but not quite understanding the process of professional cartooning, Leak presumed a cartoonist merely illustrated someone else’s idea. “Then where do you get the ideas from?” he asked. “You make ‘em up yourself,” Foyle replied. It was as if a light bulb was suddenly switched on above Leak’s head.
Leak recalled the moment he saw his first cartoons published in the magazine: “I now realise that I was unbelievably lucky to find two of my cartoons in print the following week. It was an ecstatic experience … It was as though, all of a sudden, I’d found my true vocation.”
Unwittingly, Leak possessed a wealth of personal experiences that made him an ideal editorial cartoonist: a kid from the bush who grew up in a beachside Sydney suburb, a promising jazz pianist who’d chosen instead to pursue a career as a classically-trained painter. He’d spent a year driving an old Holden panel van 29,000 km around the Australian continent, painting landscapes and picking up bizarre work in far-flung places such as the meatworks in Broome. He’d lived in squalid squats in Darlinghurst and London. He’d spent years in Europe studying the great masters. He’d learned a foreign language. He’d become a husband and a father. He’d even returned to Australia with his young family, securing a well-heeled patron allowing him to continue his painting.
But those few cartoons in The Bulletin changed the trajectory of his art career forever.
Leak would often describe himself as an autodidact – he had more or less taught himself everything he knew, and as far as cartooning was concerned, this would be no different.
Because of his painting skill, his amazing eye for portraiture and his superb knowledge of art, he could bring a sophistication and cultural authority to his work. And because he was a genuine ratbag, the capacity to pillory absolutely everything, anything and anyone came as second nature.
Leak would bring into play another of his passions – the Australian vernacular. When speaking at a lectern, he was always erudite, but in general conversation he took great pleasure in invoking old-time Australian idioms. He never listened to the radio; he listened to the wireless. He’d speak of himself in the third person: “A man has to face the facts”; “A man should learn”. A beer in the morning was a Lachlan Macquarie – an early settler. Leak’s mastery in telling jokes fed the distinctive Australianness of his captions.
Through the 1980s and into the 90s, Leak’s newspaper career rocketed. After filling in for Alan Moir on the Sydney Morning Herald and getting his first full-time cartooning role on the Financial Review, he took a leap of faith to leave Fairfax to join The Australian. It was “probably the best thing I ever did,” he said in a later interview: “Suddenly I had a new audience, a national audience.”
Leak’s arrival on the cartooning scene had been something of an explosion. He was incredibly competitive, winning Stanley and Walkley awards as fast as they could cast them. And, simultaneously, there developed growing annual speculation as to whether he’d pick up an Archibald Prize. The public loved Leak’s portraits and you could hear a collective sigh of frustration and disbelief when someone else would invariably win.
Yet portraiture gave Leak a standing on a level few other cartoonists could imagine. Don Bradman, Brett Whiteley, Gough Whitlam, Barry Humphries, Gough Whitlam, Robert Hughes, Bob Hawke, Bill Hayden, Graeme Richardson, Malcolm Turnbull – he had painted all these people and he actually knew them. And they knew him.
As his confidence grew, so did his understanding of the power of the cartoon. In those earlier days, Leak harboured an unabashed hatred for conservative politics, conservative politicians - and their apparatchiks. It was deeply personal. He had an ingrained sense of justice – a black and white philosophy of what was right and what was wrong - and as far as he was concerned, conservative politics seemed hell-bent on crushing the arts, education, health, welfare – all the things he understood to be fair and ethical.
Leak often spoke lovingly of his father Reg, as Bill’s brother Graeme puts it: “A die-hard Labor man.” When Robert Menzies died, Graeme recalls, “Dad’s response was, ‘That’s the first decent thing the bastard ever did’.”
Leak’s hatred of conservative politics was never more apparent than after John Howard’s landslide victory against Paul Keating in 1996. He was floored by Howard’s evisceration of Keating and went on the warpath against the new government, drawing a relentless stream of anti-Howard, Anti-Reith, anti-Costello, anti-Anyone-Who-Was-In-Cabinet cartoons.
Howard grew more ape-like with every caricature, one particular cartoon depicted him leading a gorilla by the hand from the GST cage - both the PM and the lumbering primate sporting exactly the same face. He painted a dwarf-like John Howard sitting in the corner of a gigantic Chesterfield armchair.
Yet the Howard years didn’t prove to be the End of Days after all. After the razzle-dazzle of Kevin Rudd’s 2007 victory wore off, the political world Bill Leak understood changed. Labor began to unravel, stirring his disillusionment.
In 2008, Leak suffered two catastrophic setbacks. A fall from a balcony at businessmen John Singleton’s NSW Central Coast property almost resulted in his death. And some of his prized artwork, including a signed portrait of Don Bradman said to be worth around $170,000, was lost in a fire at Singleton’s beach house.
Leak’s health took a dreadful mauling and for some time there were doubts whether he would ever return to cartooning, but through sheer determination he clawed his way back. While convalescing at his home in Hardy’s Bay, his outlook began to change diametrically. He thought the world had sleepwalked into some absurd politically correct wilderness and had lost touch with the things that truly mattered. To the dismay of many, he turned sharply to the right. Conservatives embraced Leak as if he were a prized Soviet defector coming in from the cold.
Disillusioned and angry, Leak was again on the warpath, this time tackling head-on new-found and previously unimagined targets – the LGBTQI movement, injustice surrounding indigenous Australians, the Safe Schools program, radical Islam. While always spoiling for reaction, even Leak was unprepared for the mobilisation of those who sought to silence him – and perhaps destroy him. Even those he had once counted as friends turned on him. He feared for the safety of his family and himself from the threat of Islamic terrorism.
The pressure was tremendous but perhaps because he had found happiness with his new family, living on the coast and viewing the world from a distance, meant he could come to terms with many things he wrestled with in the past.
To remember Leak as some sort of martyr or villain due to the last moments of his life is absurd and unjust, and ignores how much he gave during his short life. The shock of his passing remained raw months after his death from a heart attack in May 2017. But history will correctly identify him as one of the greatest and most talented Australians.
Warren Brown is the editorial cartoonist for Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph newspapers. He is also well known as an author and for his appearances on television and radio. More than this, he was a close mate of Bill Leak.
Bill Leak with portrait of former MP Graham Richardson, an entry in the Archibald prize. Courtesy of News Corp.
John Howard cartoon, published December 2000. Courtesy of News Corp.
GST cartoon, courtesy of News Corp.
'Change we can believe in'. Courtesy of News Corp.
Bill Leak with portrait of art critic Robert Hughes. Courtesy of News Corp.
Bill Leak and his Les Patterson portrait, with Art Gallery of New South Wales head packer Steve Peters. Courtesy of News Corp.
Bill Leak with 1998 portrait of Gough Whitlam, entered in the Archibald Prize. Courtesy of News Corp.
Bill Leak in his Killcare studio with dog Gus. Courtesy of News Corp.
In Their Image: Contemporary Australian Cartoonists, Ann Turner, National Library of Australia, 2000
Moments of Truth, Bill Leak, Scribe, 2005
UnAustralian of the Year, Bill Leak, Scribe, 2012