Phil May

1864-1903    |    NSW    |    Cartoonist

More than any other individual, Philip May defined the 20th century style of cartooning while working for The Bulletin in Sydney in the late 1880s.  His economy of lines transformed cartooning from the detailed Victorian style to the relative simplicity of modern cartooning.  His influence on colleagues in Australia and around the world was immeasurable, including Sir David Low, perhaps the greatest of all. May’s sympathy for the underdog was adopted by many of his successors and is an Australian cartooning tradition that survives to this day.

They were utterly unsuitable for the printing of work in which the value of light and shade was pre-eminent, and so I was driven to the ruse of expressing all I had to express in the fewest possible lines.

Phil May



Phil May

He was born and died in England but for three years when Philip May worked in Sydney and Melbourne, he was the gold standard of the colonies’ cartoonists. And May’s experience of working for The Bulletin magazine helped shape a style that led to him being dubbed a genius in his homeland.

Philip William May was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, and after starting work at 12 took a range of jobs before becoming a scenery painter at the Leeds Grand Theatre where he also appeared as Dick Whittington’s cat in the local pantomime. He started drawing actors who worked at the theatre and eventually tried his hand unsuccessfully in London before the purchase by the Prince of Wales of a May caricature set his career in the right direction.

May was soon a regular artist for St Stephens Review and earning a decent salary of eight pounds a week. The Bulletin’s managing director, W.H. Traill, had gone to England in search of new artistic talent for the magazine: he found May at the Review and offered him a 1000 pound annual salary. May was frail, already suffering from consumption and missing most of his teeth, when he accepted the offer – the lure of a climate that would improve his health clinched the deal. May and his wife Lilian arrived in Sydney on 29 December 1885.  So began a dazzling period of productivity and inspiration. Nearly 900 illustrations, cartoons and caricatures flowed from May’s pen in the less than three years he spent at The Bulletin.

If there was one element of May’s style that drew comment it was the economy of his drawing, ushering in a new approach to black and white illustration. The style was, in part, driven by the limitations of The Bulletin printing presses. “Perhaps I should say that the printing machines of the Sydney Bulletin were my real master,’’ May admitted later. “They were utterly unsuitable for the printing of work in which the value of light and shade was pre-eminent, and so I was driven to the ruse of expressing all I had to express in the fewest possible lines.’’ May’s simple linework disguised great effort, from careful drafting, tracing from early sketches and then redrawn from the tracing paper on to board before printing.

His subjects were the famous and the influential, such as politicians Henry Parkes and George Reid, or more social, such as his series of portraits called Things We See When We Come Out Without Our Gun. Regardless of subject, the drawings, at their best, were sharp and satiric, with a comforting layer of humanity.   

During his brief time in Melbourne, May became friends with politician and newspaper director Theodore Fink, who gave the artist 1000 pounds to subsidise a trip to Rome in 1888. From there, May moved to Paris before he returned to England in 1890 to build the profile that would cause leading artist James McNeil Whistler to proclaim that May was the only black and white artist of genius in England. May continued to send some illustrations to The Bulletin but as his fame in England grew, his work appeared less frequently in Australia.

May joined Punch in 1895 and was considered the most popular illustrator of the time. He produced his own annuals from 1892 to 1903. His philosophy was as simple as his inspiration. “Sometimes it is suggested by a story I have heard, or by something I have seen. Sometimes it occurs to me spontaneously,’’ he wrote. “My types are all individuals. I am constantly on the look-out for the individual who embodies a type. When I am drawing a picture with several figures in it I often go out into the street to look for types. But I am collecting them at all times and in all places, more particularly in trains and omnibuses.’’

Despite May’s lucrative work, he struggled to keep his money, frequently giving it away or spending it, often in pubs. Stories proliferated around him. One, involving celebrated English cricketer W.G. Grace centred on Grace’s questioning May’s drawing of a fieldsmen wearing wicketkeeping gloves. May knew little about cricket but he did know how to prod a bee’s nest: he waited until late at night and sent a messenger to reply to Grace. The cricketer arose from his bed, went to his front door, to find a messenger, covered in snow, with May’s answer to Grace’s question – the fieldsman was wearing gloves ... to keep his hands warm.

May’s health which had never been robust gave up on him at an early age. He was only 39 when he died in London, in 1903. By then, May was described as a rival to the legendary Charles Keene as England’s greatest cartoonist. And he was a significant contributor to establishing the great Australian cartooning tradition.

Nick Richardson has been a journalist for three decades, having worked for a range of publications in Australia and England. He completed a PhD in history at the University of Melbourne, and is currently adjunct professor of journalism at La Trobe University. Nick is a former Melbourne Press Club board member.

'Labour and Capital', Phil May, ‘Poverty and Wealth; It all depends on the position of the bundle’, Bulletin, c. 1887. Courtesy State Library of New South Wales.

'That Quarrel Scene', a cartoon featuring Sir Henry Parkes and Sir John Robertson, 1886. Courtesy National Library of Australia

Things we see when we come out without our gun - Timotheus [Howard Willoughby, Melbourne "Argus"], 1889. Courtesy State Library Victoria.

Self portrait of Phil May. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.