Portrait of Will Dyson, by Charlotte Rudolph, 1933. Courtesy of State Library Victoria.

Will Dyson

1880 - 1938    |    VIC    |    Cartoonist, etcher

Dyson was an internationally feted cartoonist, renowned for his powerful work during the early decades of the twentieth century. His sardonic wit, deeply held loathing of injustice and deft pen produced some of the most memorable cartoons of the era and ensured him celebrity status in his short lifetime. He was also an etcher of great merit, and his work as a war artist on the Western Front is recognised for its fine draughtsmanship and unsurpassed humanity.

Dyson’s [caricature of] Tommy Bent is corruption personified ... He also drew for the Melbourne Clarion, where he delighted in skewering obese top-hatted capitalists.

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Will Dyson

Will Dyson was born in Alfredton, near Ballarat, the son of George Dyson, a mining engineer, and his wife Jane Mayall, an emigrant from Lancashire. Growing up in South Melbourne, Dyson swiftly developed his skills, encouraged by his older brothers Ambrose, a successful illustrator, and Ted, who had managed to carve a living from writing and was a regular contributor to the Sydney Bulletin.

Dyson was soon attracted to Melbourne’s bohemian fringe, where his conviviality, socialist convictions and intellectual vigour were appreciated. In this milieu he became fast friends with Norman Lindsay, then beginning his long controversial career. Lindsay often invited Dyson to his family seat at Creswick, where on weekends the Lindsay clan staged cheerful and, by modern standards, innocent toga parties. At one of these mock bacchanals Dyson first met Norman’s beautiful sister Ruby, a talented illustrator, whom he was later to marry.

By the early 1900s, Dyson’s astute caricatures of politicians – his Tommy Bent is corruption personified – were appearing regularly in The Bulletin. He also drew for the Melbourne Clarion, where he delighted in skewering obese top-hatted capitalists – unlike today’s svelte robber barons, the Edwardian version literally took up more space than he was entitled to. Easy meat for young Dyson – “I have sometimes to admit Nature’s ability as a caricaturist”, he wrote, “but I do not feel that Art cannot improve upon it.”

Though reasonably prosperous Dyson felt, like many Australians before and since, that there was more opportunity abroad. Together with Ruby, he sailed in 1909 to London where, unlike many Australians before and since, he enjoyed immediate success. He found work at Vanity Fair and the Weekly Despatch, and then hit his stride drawing for the proudly socialist Daily Herald, where his then novel depictions of slavering Capitalist versus noble Proletarian drew enthusiastic praise.

During this period Dyson savaged the British class system, casting a cold colonial eye on its hypocrisies. He also produced many fine drawings sympathetic to the Suffragettes, at a time when his contemporaries were content to portray them as deranged harridans. His work was championed by such diverse literary giants as Chesterton, Wells and Shaw, and the London Daily News announced that “Mr Dyson, whether you like or hate him, is a force in contemporary England”.

Then came the War to End all Wars. Like many committed socialists, Dyson initially saw the conflict simply as an extension of the international class struggle – he just drew his fat capitalists in pickelhaubes and jackboots instead of the traditional top hat and spats. He soon realised however that twentieth century warfare was a uniquely horrible mixture of advanced technology and blind nationalism. He was particularly revolted by that novelty, war from the air, and his drawings of rabid apes hurling projectiles from aircraft are still chilling.

In 1916 Dyson left the Daily Herald, and after a prolonged battle with red tape was assigned to the AIF on the Western Front as an official (and unpaid) war artist. Despite his long residence in England, Lieutenant Dyson remained patriotically Australian, frequently risking life and limb in the front line capturing what he later described as the “Digger Face”. These war drawings, usually rendered in charcoal or pencil and wash, were far gentler than his political cartoons.

Avoiding vast battlescapes, he worked on an intimate scale, focusing on the many privations and rare moments of ease that characterised life in the trenches. His Australians stoically, often humorously, endure pelting rain and stinking mud as they play cards, write letters, gather what little firewood they can from the shattered battlefield. In one poignant drawing, a lone digger concentrates intently on the grave marker he is carving for a dead mate. These works, preserved in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, are amongst his finest.

After the Armistice, Dyson returned to the Daily Herald. Disillusioned by the senseless bloodshed of the Great War and outraged by the politicians who plucked a tainted peace from its ashes, he drew what is probably his most famous and prescient cartoon. Captioned “Peace and Cannon Fodder”, it shows the “Big Four” allied leaders – Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Wilson and Orlando – grandly departing the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Beside them, weeping behind a pillar, we see an infant labelled “1940 class”.

Hot on the heels of the war came the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1919, which took his beloved wife Ruby from him. Dyson never really recovered from this blow, and though he returned to Australia and produced fine work in his remaining years, his health was fragile. He died in his sleep at the age of 57.

Andrew Dyson (no relation) has drawn and written for The Age since 1989.

'One of the Old Platoon' by Will Dyson. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of NSW.


'Welcome back to the Somme', by Will Dyson. Courtesy of AWM.


Portrait of Henry Lawson, by Will Dyson. Courtesy of State Library Victoria.




Further reading


Will Dyson, Ross McMullin, Angus and Robertson,1984.


Will Dyson holdings in the Australian War Memorial, AWM website.