Bruce Petty

Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism

Award Partner

Upon retiring earlier this year after a 55-year career of drawing political cartoons, Bruce Petty left a vast, characteristically scrawled mark on Australian cartooning. Beloved by his peers and the broader public, Petty has been published in some of the world’s most prestigious newspapers and magazines, and 11 of his own books. His work as an artist also spans animation and film directing – which won him an Oscar.

“Bruce is the inspiration and the great originator,” said fellow cartoonist Patrick Cook on Petty’s retirement. “He may prefer a National Day of Modesty, but he must be celebrated.”

Born in 1929, Petty studied in Melbourne before starting work at the Owen Brothers animation studio in Box Hill in 1949. They produced shorts and advertisements with cell animation and 16mm film; Petty worked on a safety film for kids called Careful Koala.

But London was calling. Petty moved to the UK – “everybody did in 1954” – supporting himself with freelance illustrating (“I did a lot of crummy stuff I didn’t believe in, but I was a sort of number-two Topolski. If they couldn’t afford Topolski, they could afford me.”) In 1955 he started contributing cartoons to Punch. He swung by New York in 1959, contributing to the New Yorker and Esquire. He spent eight weeks at the New Yorker working from the room James Thurber used – it was free on Thursdays and Fridays.

Petty returned to Melbourne, working in advertising before getting cartoons into The Australian Women’s Weekly and The Bulletin. He got a job at the Daily Mirror in 1961 and after The Australian launched in 1964, Petty became its first cartoonist. He took a post at The Age in 1977.

Petty was not one for staying within the lines. “His newspaper work pushed the boundaries of what a cartoon could look like in this country,” said illustrator Reg Lynch. “Bruce is more than a mere unique and brilliant cartoonist — he is a visual communication planet.”

Cartoonist Neil Matterson recalled: “As a teenager in the 1960’s I observed with wonder … it appeared that most of a Bruce Petty drawing had no visual means of support. They presented as a construction site minus bolts and rivets. In the intervening years I grew to realise that the meandering pathway of chaotic graphics were underpinned with deep thought and analysis of the day’s political and social issues, infusing the drawing with a very strong, yet not always obvious, foundation.”

Cartoonist Ron Tandberg: “He was a breath of fresh air in newspapers with his bold, free line, and was one of the influences that nurtured my desire to be a cartoonist.”

That stylistic energy and irreverence was paired with a deep understanding of local and international current affairs — 1980s Age editor Creighton Burns once said, “Petty’s the only bloke in the world who can draw the global economy in one frame.”

His work heavily influenced his peers. And he gave help and advice to younger cartoonists. Fellow cartoonist Les Tanner said in 1969: “The two worst things a cartoonist can become is a crying drunk, or a guru. Bruce Petty has become a bloody great guru.”

1977 was also the year Petty won an Academy Award for directing the short animated film Leisure, though he doesn’t have the statuette: “When I got it, the Oscar went to the producer. We got a picture of it, a very nice gold-framed picture.”

His trophy shelf is far from empty, though – with a Stanley for his contributions to cartooning in 2001, a Quill Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010 and a 2007 AFI documentary director nod for Global Haywire. And now he can add a Walkley Award.

On Petty’s retirement, cartoonist Bill Leak said, “Meeting Bruce Petty taught me that no matter how well you draw, if you want to produce great art, first you have to be a great man.”

A sense of wonder at the gig doesn’t hurt either. As cartoonist Phil Somerville recalls: “When I became a cartoonist and first met Bruce, his warm opening comment was, ‘What a very, very strange thing we do with ink and paper, isn’t it?’”