Norman Afred William Lindsay

Born Creswick, Victoria 1879
Died Sydney, New South Wales 1969

By Lindsay Foyle

It was working in Sydney that inspired Norman Lindsay to become one of the greats in the Australian arts world making contributions as a writer, cartoonist, illustrator, painter, children's book author and a sculptor. However, Lindsay is best known for his work as an editorial cartoonist on The Bulletin, where racist and right wing political leanings dominated and the “Red Menace” and “Yellow Peril” themes of his cartoons suited.

Lindsay was born in the gold mining town of Creswick, Victoria and grew up there, but spent his early working life in Melbourne, arriving at The Bulletin at the age of 21 and fell in love with the magazine and Sydney.

Norman was the fourth son born to Robert Lindsay (1843-1915), a doctor from Londonderry, Ireland, and his wife Jane Williams (1848-1932). He was considered to be a delicate boy. For most of his first six years of life his mother kept him indoors. Given little else to do he taught himself to draw. He copied illustrations from periodicals and drew whatever caught his fancy around the family home.

He was about 15 when his brother Lionel, began contributing to the Melbourne paper Free Lance. Norman soon joined him and began ghosting drawings for him.

When Lindsay was only 20, he established the Rambler in January 1899. It was a weekly paper based on the English comic Pick-me-up. It did not last. Failed after only a few issues.

There are several stories about who convinced Lindsay to seek work on The Bulletin. Both A G (Alfred George) Stephens, editor of the literary page and Julian Ashton argued over which of them was involved, while Lindsay said it was Jack Elkington. None of it matters because it was J F (John Feltham) Archibald who put him on.

At first Archibald offered him to stories to illustrate. Which he did in Melbourne and posted them to Sydney. They were accepted and he was paid £5 for his efforts. He had expected to get 15 shillings at most. He was then offered a job on the paper at £6 a week. It was an offer too good to refuse.

Lindsay arrived in Sydney on a small seven-hundred-ton coastal steamer to join the staff of The Bulletin in May 1901. He said many years later, “When I arrived there it was at its best, a city that will never again be seen on earth - a sailor-town city, a free-trade city, a pre-mechanized city, in which one jostled in lower George Street and the Quay sailors from all the earth, and glimpsed over wharves and roofs of harbour side houses the tall spars of sailing ships.”

Within a year Lindsay was supplying full page drawings to The Bulletin every week. This is despite never having had a drawing published in the paper before he arrived.

Archibald stepped down as editor in 1903 and James Edmond took over he stayed in the editor’s chair till 1915. It was Edmond who introduced the ‘Australia for the White Man’ strap under the masthead in 1908. William Macleod soon gained financial control and is said to have had a lot to do with its increasing conservatism, the slow decline and the disappearance of the larrikin spirit over the first three decades of the 1900s.

Lindsay was given an office at The Bulletin, but preferred to rent a studio in Bond Street, a short walk away. However, he struggled to establish a working relationship with Livingston Hopkins. He had been cartooning on the magazine for almost 20 years and had a well-furnished apartment on one of the upper floors in The Bulletin building at 214 George Street. Macleod was the general manager and had bought the building in 1896 and moved The Bulletin in as his tenant. He was one of the few people working at The Bulletin that Hopkins ever invited into his chambers.

In 1904 Stephens was producing a book, ‘On The Hop’, of full of Hopkins’ drawings. Needing to talk to Hop he went to his home in Raglan Street Mosman, taking Lindsay with him. It was the first and only time Lindsay visited Hopkins at his home. After offering both a glass of sherry, Hopkins suggested Lindsay might like to sit down. He did, but the chair in Lindsay’s words, “ejected a shrill screech under my backside as if I had sat on a cat. I shot up off it.” Hopkins then showed them a cello he had made before taking them for a walk in the garden, where again Hopkins suggested Lindsay might like to sit. This time Lindsay received a squirt of water in the ear. After this encounter Hopkins was able to pass a few words with Lindsay whenever they met.

Lindsay once said, “I took joke drawing as a serious contribution to art, and always used models for it, supplying of course, the facial character the subject demanded in dealing with idiosyncratic characters, it was my practice to act the expression and gesture required before glass. I later found that habit of value when I took to writing.”

When The Lone Hand was launched in 1907 (by The Bulletin), Lindsay had a drawing in it, and in many more in the issues which followed in the monthly magazine. While it has some success, it folded in 1928.

In 1909 Lindsay moved to London with his sister Ruby and her husband Will Dyson, just after they married. While Ruby and Will enjoyed success and liked living in London, Norman was unhappy. He hated the place. He hated the climate. He hated the English class snobbery. He hated the clothes. He hated the English art buyers. Norman even fell out with Ruby and Will. He was invited to submit some drawing to Punch only to have all three returned, unpublished. He sent in two more after he was assured that Punch would be delighted to use some of his work. After receiving a good offer Harpers in New York and an even better offer from The Bulletin, Norman returned to Australia in November 1910, just as Punch published his cartoons. Had he stayed he probably would have established himself as one of the major contributors to the magazine.

Before leaving London, he bought a top hat, placed it on the floor, then jumped on it. It was a farewell gesture to England. However, his health was suffering. After being away for 18 months he returned to Australia and spent a short time in Melbourne and Creswick, before travelling to Sydney. He soon fell ill with pleurisy. Tuberculosis was even suspected.

After originally living in Sydney he moved to Leura, in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, in the hope it might help him recover. Soon after he moved again, this time to Faulconbridge. Enjoying living in the mountains he bought a house at Springwood, which became his permanent home. As his health recovered, so too did his energy and he began to diversify his talent. Painting and writing as well as drawing for The Bulletin again from 1914.

When the Great War started in 1914, Lindsay wanted to, “stir up the slack to see a sense of what this war means.” Working from Springwood, Lindsay would get a phone call after the Wednesday conference at The Bulletin, about what was needed from him. Lindsay resisted using the phone himself. He was not keen on modernisation in science and it took him many years before he would consent to use the telephone. In 1915 Samuel Prior took on the job of editor and kept it till 1933. Prior was the editor of The Bulletin when D. H. Lawrence praised it in Kangaroo as “the only periodical in the world that really amused him”. 

During the war the Germans became synonymous with the ‘Hun-ape’, spectres of death and destruction. Lindsay provided one full page propaganda drawing each week, inflicted with the prevailing war fever.

The Bulletin also supported conscription and Lindsay needed little persuasion to support that view. But it was not as popular with the public as two referendums were lost on making it compulsory. The war ended in 1918 and Lindsay turned his attention to another subject. He wrote the children’s classic The Magic Pudding.

He created a scandal in 1930 when his novel Redheap (largly based on his hometown of Creswick) it was banned. Many of his novels have a frankness and vitality that match his art.

In 1931 Lindsay took himself off to New York, “to breathe some clean air.” He stayed for some time, but got homesick and returned to Australia and The Bulletin. The following year The Bulletin launched the Australian Book Publishing Company. Lindsay was pushing dozens of manuscripts towards it, but success was patchy. Lindsay was fascinated with writers and poets and his influence on Sydney poetry was considerable. Unfortunately, the venture folded after only surviving three years. After the death of Prior in 1933, John Webb became the new editor and retained the position till 1948 when David Adams was appointed the new editor.

While Lindsay did not work in The Bulletin office, he always took an interest in what was going on. When cartoonist John Firth, resigned in late 1944 - so he could work for the Sydney Morning Herald - Lindsay wrote to Webb expressing his displeasure. He did not really think his action would change anything, but wanted to make the gesture.

Lindsay has strong views on how The Bulleting should be run. He also expressed his opinion of art, poetry and literature. In Australia he was thought of as an artist who also wrote. In America he was thought of as a writer who drew. He did both extremely well. While considered an intellectual by many, he did hold some nutty ideas. One was his belief Atlantis had existed. Destroyed by a nuclear explosion some 20,000 years ago. He thought it lay at the bottom of the North Sea and archaeologists would one day discover just where.

Living in the Blue Mountains always brought communication problems for Lindsay. In 1940s the system used for letting him know what was required was much as it had been when he first moved to Springwood. The editor would ring him and tell him what was wanted. The difference was Lindsay now took the calls himself. He would then hire models and complete the drawing in his studio. The finished drawing would be taken to the train station and given to the guard, who would pass it onto a copyboy when the train arrived at Central station in Sydney. It would then be rushed to The Bulletin office. The editor, along with Ted Scorfield would appraise the drawing to see if it fitted the brief. If it did not, Scorfield would modify it.

For some-time Lindsay, though The Bulletin was dying of senile decay and nobody there seemed to know how to revive it. While he was right, he was still shocked when he received a letter from the editor, David Adams in 1958 telling him his £800 annual salary would stop at the end of the following week. At the time the minimum weekly wage was £13.1.0, Lindsay was only getting a little over £15. Lindsay said, “Damn it, I’d expect an association lasting sixty years to count for something. You’d think I was an office boy they’d caught pinching stamps.” He was right. For the past 57 years he had been considered one of the best newspaper illustrators in Australia and deserved a personal notification at the least.

Two years later, The Bulletin Newspaper Company was sold to a company owned by Frank Packer, Conpress Printing Ltd, which offered nearly £420,000. Donald Horne replaced Adams as editor and immediately removed the ‘Australia for the White Man’ strap under the mast head. Within six months all the people Lindsay had known at The Bulletin had departed. In 1967 Les Tanner, the art director since 1961, comissioned Lindsay to do one last drawing for The Bulletin. It was a parting gesture to one of the greats. Tanner departed for The Age soon after. After producing thousands of drawings, paintings, stories and other artworks Lindsay died in 1969 in the Royal North Shore Hospiatal, Sydney and was buried in Springwood.

Norman Lindsay entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2009.

Further reading