Ronald (Ron) Peter Tandberg 

Born Melbourne, Victoria 1943
Died Geelong, Victoria 2018

By Lindsay Foyle

The only Stanley award Ron Tandberg received was in 1986 at ‘The Bulletin Back and White Artist Awards’ held in Sheraton Wentworth in Sydney. It was for being the best political/editorial cartoonist that year. He was still struggling to put his coat on when guest of honour, Bob Hawke, was struggling to give him the trophy. It was a big night for The Age as John Spooner received three Stanleys. As Spooner was not there Les Tanner collected them for him. Tanner said on the night, “The Age has the best art department of any newspaper in the world.” Allan Salisbury took home the comic strip award and George Haddon the prize for the best cartoon drawn on the night. Neither worked at The Age, but they did live in Melbourne which pleased Tanner.

Ronald Peter Tandberg was born in 1943 to Melbourne working-class parents and raised in a small house at the suburb of Pascoe Vale South. His grandfather was a builder who gave away his money during the Great Depression and believed in communist ideas. Raised a Catholic, his father was a maintenance electrician while his mother was an overlocker who worked in a knitting mill. At one time both his parents worked at William Angliss Meatworks.

Until grade four Tandberg attended St Fidelis Primary School in Moreland, which he has said, “The Kids called it St Fiddlesticks.” He then went to St Joseph’s Christian Brothers College in North Melbourne for two years. After his mother became concerned about the welts on his backside he was moved to St Joseph’s College and then attended Coburg Technical School. Ron said, “It was a tough school. There was a lot of bullying.”

Ron’s family discovered little Ron had a talent for drawing when he about eight. “Saturday nights were spent at my grand-parents’ house,” he recalled. “They lived near Flemington racecourse and Grandpa was a bit of a punter – never had any money, but he was a punter. We discussed the horses and my brother who was 4 years older than me tried drawing them, then I drew some and the family discovered mine were better than his”.

Ask the nuns at the primary school where he attended for their recollections of little Ronny Tandberg and they would say: “Good drawer!” Later at Coburg Technical School, the same response would come from his teachers and mates: “Good drawer!” So, it was no surprise when he went off to Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology to study art. He was 16 with not much more than Year 10 of secondary school behind him.

Tandberg has been quoted saying, “My traditional education was pretty ordinary, but I think it helped because I didn’t have a structured way of looking at things, I had to have my own way of thinking about them.”

When he was heading off to the RMIT, Ron did not know he was destined to become a cartoonist, although, he said in 2011, “Being brought up a Catholic taught me to question things, and I always had that lack of respect for authority.”

“My drawing style came from a belief in simplicity which came from my four years of art at RMIT and it tied in with graphic design,” said Ron. He was not politically aware, “But a friend alerted me to Bruce Petty’s drawings in The Australian. Petty’s cartoons were bold and free.”

After RMIT Tandberg started work in the art department of the Leader Publishing in 1963. They published 10 or 12 suburban newspapers and it is where his first cartoon was published. It was in a magazine called Tom Thumb when he was about 19. The job did not last. After doing an impersonation of the general manager he managed to get sacked.

Next came a job in a small advertising agency. At the interview he agreed with everything the boss said. He was then told he got the job because of his ideas. “I didn’t believe in advertising particularly, but I thought it was the only area I could get into as a career. I learned about the impact of the caption in an advertisement, using a simple message with a minimalist approach, not just with words but also with drawing style. I had an obsession with simplicity.”

He then took a job as an art teacher at Williamstown High. During his time there, Ron drew a comic strip, Fred & Others. It was first published in The Herald in Melbourne on 29 September 1969. It was picked up by the United Features Syndicate and published in, The Advertiser in Adelaide, and syndicated internationally to papers like the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and also to newspapers in South Africa. “I had a few issues where it had been dropped by several papers and I tried to keep it going.” The biggest problem he had with the strip was when it was banned in South Africa for being blasphemous.

When he visited Geoff (Jeff) Hook at the Sun News-Pictorial he advised Tandberg he advised him to take his work around to The Age.” Tandberg said, “I went in and saw the editor there, the great Graham Perkin, who I’ll never forget – one of the greats! I can remember him asking if I was interested in politics and I said no, not particularly.”

The Age was not interested in taking on Ron’s comic strip, so he continued teaching while drawing cartoons for the teachers’ union monthly magazine, The Secondary Teacher. It was the same magazine Alex Stitt had been contributing designs, cartoons and illustrations to for 10 years. Tandberg has said, “I think my cartoon style began to evolve there.” It is possible to see the influence of Petty and Stitt in Ron’s style.

Tandberg recalled, “When the magazine stopped using the cartoons, I asked why and they said they did not relate to the stories. So, I said show me the stories, then. I am not sure, but I have a feeling that might have been a bit of a breakthrough – to actually draw on the stories.”

“I’m not sure if it was a first in Australia, but it just happened by accident. After that, my cartoons began appearing with the news items in the magazine.”

Writing for Inside Story, the editor of The Secondary Teacher, Bill Hannan said, “One day education editor of The Age asked me if the paper could re-run some of Ron’s cartoons in its ‘Education Age’ section. This was awkward. Ron happened to be away so I couldn’t ask him. The paper was vague about which cartoons they wanted and how they would run them. They were also cautious about payment. But I decided on Ron’s behalf that being in The Age it would be a good thing, and that matters of permission and payment could be sorted out later. Happily, when Ron came back he agreed.”

At the time Tandberg thought Perkin was keen on finding a pocket cartoonist a bit like Mel Calman, whose ‘little man’ cartoons where published in the Sunday Times in London. Tandberg said, “He saw my work in his own paper and invited me back in to his office, not realizing I was the same bloke he had seen earlier who wasn’t much interested in politics. He tried me out for two days a week, then three days, then four and then…” It was Fred from Ron’s comic ‘Fred & Others’ who became Ron’s ‘everyman’.

So here was Ron Tandberg, good drawer, particularly of horses and passionate about simplicity, starting work at The Age in 1972 and about to become a bit of a cartooning legend! Over the next 45 years he was to cartoon on Whitlam’s dismissal, Malcolm Fraser’s Easter Island aloofness, Sir John Kerr’s tipsy Melbourne Cup performance, Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s rustic folksiness, the Bob Hawke and Paul Keating Kirribilli rivalry, Joan Kirner’s gender challenges, Jeff Kennett’s open-mouthed struggles with silence, “Honest” John Howard, Kevin Rudd’s selfie nerdiness and any other subject making news in The Age. Often the memory of the cartoons remained long after the event they portrayed had faded into the background.

Tandberg won the first of his 11 Walkley Awards in 1976. It was the year George Haddon won his fourth - having won Walkleys in 1970, 1974 and 1975 for illustration - and the two flew to Perth for the presentation. Haddon said, “I had close friends living there at the time and Ron joined me drawing on place mats, tablecloths etc at their house for dinner a few times before we came home. I told them they should hang on to Ron’s drawings - hope they remembered!”

Tandberg won further Walkley Awards in 1977, 1979, 1980, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1997 and 2014 for cartoons and Gold Walkeys in 1979 and 1986. The Walkley Awards are conducted by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance and the Gold Walkley is the highest award, chosen each year from all the category winners. The first awards were handed out in 1956 with the first cartooning award being made in 1958. Nobody has won as many Walkley Awards as Tandberg has.

Tandberg was never afraid to show some well-deserved ridicule. In 1999 he and Peter Nicholson refused the offer of membership to the Savage Club in Melbourne on the grounds of not wanting to belong to any club that had people like businessman and prominent Liberal Party activist John Elliott as a member.

“The front page of a newspaper can’t afford the space for a big cartoon. The only way to get on the front page is to have a single column and a pocket cartoon either works or it doesn’t. You can’t disguise it with a good drawing. Anyway,” said Ron, “Even though I do the large ones sometimes, if you have a great idea, it doesn’t have to be big - the power can be in a small space!”

Ron had a few favourite cartoons – one, from 1997 was after a magistrate in Queensland sent an Aboriginal kid to gaol around Christmas: “Had it been a white boy from the eastern suburbs he would have just been told he was a naughty boy - there was discrimination involved obviously,” says Ron.

“The argument was that he was a repeat offender and as soon as I read the line about the kid being a repeat offender, that got my brain going. I had the Magistrate saying to the aboriginal boy: ‘YOU ARE A REPEAT OFFENDER – YOUR GRANDFATHER WAS BLACK, YOUR FATHER WAS BLACK AND YOU ARE BLACK’. It was a favourite because of the surprise element and it also had something to say about prejudices, and how people can rationalize behaviour.

Tandberg won the Melbourne Press Club Quill Award for Best Illustration in Any Medium in 2006 and the Quills People's Choice Award in 2002. It was the same year he was awarded National Museum’s Australia Political Humour award for best political cartoon, which he also won in 2003. He was inducted into the Melbourne Press Club’s Australian Media Hall of Fame in 2014.

In February 1987 Fairfax took over the television station HSV-7 in Melbourne. It was a disaster, as broadcast rules did not allow for more than two TV stations to be owned by anyone. Fairfax already owned two stations, one in Sydney and the other in Brisbane. There was an additional problem. Fairfax where not allowed to own a TV station in Melbourne because they owned a newspaper there, The Age. The Melbourne public showed their displeasure by not watch HSV-7. Fairfax ended up flogging all their TV interests off to Qintex, controlled by Christopher Skase. That turned out to be another disaster. Dismayed by how the company was being run, in August 1987 Warwick Fairfax launched a takeover bid for John Fairfax and Sons. While the takeover was successful it ended up a disaster because in October the world stock markets crashed and Warwick went broke. As the rubble was being cleared away Canadian media operator Conrad Black and Kerry Packer combined to launch a takeover in 1991 via a jointly owned company, Tourang. Packer soon departed and in 1992 Black took control of Fairfax. Many saw him as a disaster and there was considerable disquiet in the offices of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.

"I hope my arrival will dispel the notion that I have cloven feet and pointy ears," uttered Black in 1991, soon after he touched down in Australia to make his case for ownership of the Fairfax group. Not everyone was convinced.

Everyone was mightily surprised when Tandberg left The Age and moved to the Herald Sun in 1993, not long after a new editor Alan Kohler had been appointed at The Age by Black.

Tandberg had become disenchanted with the changes happening at The Age. A former Age executive, Steve Harris, was then the Editor-in-Chief at the Herald Sun, and he wanted Tandberg to swap papers. The two were old friends since the day when both worked at The Age. Harris had been asking Tandberg to join the Herald Sun for six months.

Harris says he would never have left Fairfax in the first place if Black’s goons had not overlooked him for the editorship of The Age in preference for Alan Kohler in 1992.

Tandberg arrived at the Herald Sun with great fanfare. His cartons soon adorned the front page. There were many attempts to get Tandberg to return to The Age. Particularly by Michael Hoy, a senior Fairfax executive in Sydney who rang him regularly. Eventually, after 17 months he did return ‘home’ with posters outside lolly shops proclaiming ‘Ron is back!’. He arrived with an agreement he would work from home, in his studio in Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula - near the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. From there he could finesse, fiddle, frustrate, fulminate and torture himself and his wife, Glen, in peace and isolation until he got something that he was happy with.

Tandberg said that although he was very well treated at the Herald Sun, he knew pretty well straight away that it had been a wrong move. “The decision to leave was out of anger,” he said, “and the decision to go back was out of reason and logic.”

Towards the end of 2017 Tandberg discovered he had oesophageal cancer and spent time undergoing intensive radiation treatment. In Australia, about 1400 people are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer each year. It is an aggressive cancer and survival depends on individual condition, type of cancer, treatment and level of fitness. So, no one can tell you exactly how long anyone will live. But only about 40 out of 100 people live for 5 years or more.

Tandberg told his friend Tony Wright a few weeks before he died, “I've been drawing for close on 50 years,” he told Wright. “And the world is in a worse place now than it was when I started, so I'd have to say my influence has been pretty limited.” He turned 74 on New Year's Eve, died on Monday 8 January 2018, at the St John of God Hospital in Geelong, surrounded by members of his family – his wife, Glen, at his side.

Tandberg never stopped seeing the funny side of life. While getting treatment for his cancer he drew a number of cartoons illustrating his condition with his last drawing being of the pier at Queenscliff, featuring happy souls fishing and walking their dogs on the beach.

Ron Tandberg entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2015.

Further reading