George Edmond Finey

Born Auckland, New Zealand 1895
Died Blue Mountains, New South Wales 1987

By Lindsay Foyle

The comfortable relationship which existed between the editors of Smith’s Weekly, Claude McKay and Robert Clyde Packer and the artists working on the paper became severely tested in November 1925. George Finey and another artist, Lance Driffield (better known as Driff) decided to have an exhibition of their work at the Swain’s Gallery. Finey was expecting to sell many of the caricatures he had drawn for Smith’s Weekly. Before the exhibition could open McKay and Packer issued an injunction claiming that they owned the artwork. It had after all been done at Smith’s Weekly on paper bought by Smith’s Weekly with pen and ink supplied by Smith’s Weekly while the artists had been paid a weekly salary. Finey was indignant. He believed he owned the drawings and left the paper to fight the case in court. His contention was that Smith’s Weekly had only acquired copyright of his artwork and not the originals.

On 1 October 1926 the dispute between Finey and Smith’s Weekly ended up in court. Finey said he was near broke having had to pay a barrister £50 a day to present his point of view when he was out of work. He had moved from his home in Manly and was without requisites of any kind. Finey claimed in the end the case was settled out of court, because he was unable to continue fighting with pennies while Smith’s Weekly had vast funds. None of the other artists on Smith’s Weekly seem to have come to his aid and he failed to get union support in his fight. Finey claims he had made his point as the copyright law stated ownership rested with the artist if his work was of greater value than the material used. However, the truth is he lost the case and was instructed by the court to return all the artwork involved in the dispute and not to attempt to sell them again. He had a small win of sorts, when it was agreed that he could return to work at Smith’s Weekly.  

George Edmond Finey was born in Parnell a suburb of Auckland in New Zealand in 1895. He studied at the Elam School of Art and commenced work at the NZ Herald as a lithographic apprentice. Finey often said he served in the NZEF in the First World War as an under-age private and saw active service in France. However, he signed up in August 1915, aged 19 and 5 months, as a fully admissible recruit. He was wounded in 1917 and suffered burns and eczema as a result of mustard gas exposure. He was hospitalized on several occasions and after one, sent to England for treatment and recovery. While in London Sargent Finey attended a rehabilitation course in art at the London Polytechnic School before returning to New Zealand.

Unhappy with the way he found New Zealand he moved to Sydney in November 1919. It was not long before his work came to the attention of Alec Sass art editor of Smith’s Weekly. He offered Finey a full-time job. He quickly established himself as one of the bohemian artists then working in Sydney. He was well known in many of the pubs in Sydney and dressed avant-garde, usually scorning such fancy Dan items as a tie and he tended to wear sandals and let his fine crop of hair fly wherever the breeze cared to blow it. It was not unusual to see him walking in shirtsleeves and bare feet around Sydney in the middle of winter. He mixed well with the other cartoonists and was one of the founding members of The Australian Society of Black and White Artists’, in 1924. It was the first cartoonist’s association in the world and as a consequence, is now the oldest cartoonists’ association in the world. It has had many name changes and is now known at the Australian Cartoonists’ Association.

At the end of the 1930s Finey became unsettled at Smith’s Weekly. Believing his contributions were not being appreciated. He started negotiations with The Labor Daily, but was unhappy at only being offered £10 a week. A quarter of what he had been getting at Smith’s. Word got around that he was looking for a new job and he was dismissed from Smith’s Weekly at the same time as he resigned.

For a time, he was happy with what he was doing on The Labor Daily but after 18 months working there he was handed a little piece of paper with “On account of reorganization of staff your services are no longer required,” typed on it.

He then became involved with a drama group and some art classes and another group called “The Workers Art Club.” A number of plays were produced and Finey was elected president of the club, but resigned to concentrate on painting.

Economic circumstances force Finey and his family into some squalid accommodation and things were looking grim when he was informed that there might be work for him on Truth. He was offered a job, which he took at £25 a week. At first things went well, but he fell out with one of the directors Harry Campbell-Jones. He quit to take on the job of cartoonist for the Daily Telegraph, which had just been taken over by Frank Packer, Robert Clyde Packer’s son. Packer had launched the Australian Women’s Weekly on 10 June 1933, and then taken control of the Daily Telegraph in 1936.

The paper came up to expectations, yet Finey did not get the rise he had been promised and remained on what he had been getting on The Truth. He found it hard to come up with cartoon ideas that please the editorial team running the paper. He asked if he could show roughs at noon rather than at 3 pm in order to get the cartoon finished early.

The next day he offered 5 ideas at noon and was told none were suitable and to come back at 3 with more. None were good enough and he was told to return at 6 with more. These too were rejected and more were asked for by 7. At 7 all the days’ work was spread before the editor. Twenty-five ideas in all. One from the first batch was selected. Finey protested about the waste of time and was told by the editor “That’s what you’re here for,” and sent off to complete his drawing.

In October 1944 Bill Mahony was ordered by Brian Penton the editor of The Daily Telegraph to draw a cartoon. Mahony said Penton’s idea was silly but he drew it and put it unsigned on the editor’s desk. The next day he was told to sign it. When he refused he was sacked. Finey was then told to draw the cartoon. He refused and was also sacked. Mahony and Finey had both worked together on Smith’s Weekly and now they were unemployed together. Before Finey left the building, Packer asked him to stay and draw the cartoon. He again refused and Packer said “Very well, you stubborn old bastard, you can’t carry a torch at fifty! And work will not be found at any other paper, there is also a sum of money owing to the Telegraph - lent for investment in a chicken farm and house, that must be paid back now.”

After Mahony and Finey had left The Daily Telegraph freelance cartoonists John Santry and Bernard Hesling were used to fill in until George Molnar was appointed in January 1945.

The loan money was quickly returned, but Finey was out of work and no work was available anywhere. He moved to Springwood where housing was less than half the price of Sydney. As things got grimmer he received a wire from Sir Keith Murdoch offering work on The Herald in Melbourne. Of cause Finey was interested and asked for more information. Five months later he received a letter from Murdoch apologizing for the delay and saying that after consulting with his editors they could not find space for him.

Finey was having a very lean time with little money coming in. He made small amounts from lecture tours of country towns and sold a few paintings. But that was all the work he could find. He held an exhibition of paintings in Japan in September 1952. Glory but not much money.

Then in 1954 Finey received a letter from Packer asking him to return to the Daily Telegraph at a salary of £40 a week as long as he drew what the editor asked for - without fail. If he did not do so instant dismissal would follow. Mahony received a similar offer around this time too.

Finey asked the editor what was to happen to Molnar. The editor put the same question to Packer too. The reply was “Let them both do a drawing and publish the best.” Finey had little choice but accept the offer. Molnar on the other hand contacted the Sydney Morning Herald and informed them of his feelings. They offered him an increase in salary and he only had to draw two cartoons a week to begin with. Packer matched the offer but Molnar declined saying, “I have a job.”

Things did not go right for Finey for long. In 1955 there was a two-week strike on the newspapers in Sydney. Because nobody had supported him and Mahony in 1944 Finey did not feel he could support this strike. For his trouble Packer gave him a £60 bonus. For all he cared it could have been thirty pieces of silver. He donated the money to Sydney Hospital.

But it was not long before he was told there would be no more Finey cartoons run in The Daily Telegraph. The only reason was that Packer had said so. The real reason was probably the amount of alcohol he was drinking. Soon after his salary was dropped to £10 a week which he took without protest. He began looking around for extra work to make up the short fall. That came as an ironworker installing a diesel engine on the Manly ferry. The job lasted until he injured his hand and was unable to lift the steel plates on the ferry.

Then, The Daily Telegraph job completely disappeared and he retreated to Springwood to concentrate on his painting. In June 1962 Qantas sponsored an exhibition of Finey’s work in their Sydney office after it had been briefly on display at Sydney University. Arrangements were then made for the exhibition to go to London and New York at Qantas’ expense. Finey said it was “a decision that caused some elation after the tooth and claw treatment in newspaper cartooning.”

To Finey, London in 1962 looked much like it had in 1919. The exhibition held at the Qantas gallery went over well, but brought no money as nothing was for sale. After two weeks it was packed up and jetted to New York.

There was a retrospective of Finey’s work at the Sydney Opera House in 1978. At the time he said, “I don’t really care much for museums as everything about them is artificial. I never bothered playing art politics - I was always much too busy with my own creative activities. I am so involved with my work mentally and physically that I hardly pause long enough to sign finished pieces.” In fact, Finey had staged an exhibition of his work every eighteen months since arriving in Australia in 1919.

His last exhibition was in the Blue Mountains a year or so before he died in 1987.

George Finey entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2009.

Further reading