Tuesday, 11 February 2020

The Black and White Garden

While doing research on several artists involved with the Bulletin I became aware that a small, but significant, number of their illustrations had garden related themes.  Later, I decided to explore some of these cartoons in an attempt to discover how gardens were perceived by Australian cartoonists, a group who like to be known as ‘black and white artists’. 

"I can't get him out of the house since he took up gardening."
1949 Bulletin joke block by Percy Lindsay

The Bulletin was one of Australia’s longest running publications and was in print from 1880 until 2008. During its early years the paper was proudly radical, racist, chauvinistic, nationalistic and republican. Its readership was diverse and the paper was extremely popular in rural areas where it became known as the ‘bushman’s bible’. From the early years of the 20th century the Bulletin became increasingly conservative and slowly moved its editorial gaze away from rural subjects towards the suburban values of the growing cities. In cartoon terms this meant an increasing focus on humour related to middle class leisure activities such as golf, motoring, shopping, dining, and of course, gardening.

‘If only the Joneses would try to keep up with US!’ 
1957 Bulletin joke block by R W Coulter  

Garden related cartoons were mostly seen in the paper from the end of the First World War up to the time the paper changed ownership to Sir Frank Packer in 1961. It can be no coincidence that this four decade period was also the time when the popularity of home gardening as a leisure pursuit was arguably at its peak.

A dominant theme in garden related cartoons was the labour disputes between married couples. A typical cartoon would show the man of the house labouring in the garden (sweat invariably pouring from his head) while his bossy wife would scornfully direct works from the comfort of the veranda. This sort of image would have appealed to the mainly male target audience of the weekly.

1960 joke block - artist unknown

Other popular subjects include the ignorance of new gardeners, adapting to technological change in the garden, conflict between owners and their garden staff, and the public’s interaction with statues in our public parks. Another surprising subject was the antipathy to the growing of cactus and succulents which followed the infestation of prickly pear around the country.

Ideas for jokes often came from Bulletin readers themselves, who would receive a small fee if their idea was used. Contributing artists were then commissioned by the paper’s art director. No Bulletin artists stand out as preferring to work with garden related subjects although the many images of Juan Endean and Percy Lindsay are noteworthy.  

The Bulletin was not the only publication to include such comic images. Other periodicals included them and the specialist gardening press occasionally included garden cartoons, although many were sourced from popular overseas artists such as Norman Thelwell whose work was often reproduced in Your Garden.

Jokeblock by English cartoonist Norman Thelwell
published in Your Garden in 1960

By the late 1970s jocular cartoon images of gardens disappeared from the printed page. Hopefully the tide of garden ‘good taste’ will turn and like the increasing respect given to political cartooning we will see a return to seeing comic imagery in our gardening periodicals.

An updated version of this article was published in the October-December 2012 issue of Australian Garden History, the journal of the Australian Garden History Society. This article includes different images to the ones shown above.

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