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Finey, George Edmond (1895–1987)

by Peter Spearritt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

George Edmond Finey (1895-1987), caricaturist and artist, was born on 16 March 1895 at Parnell, Auckland, New Zealand, son of English-born Solomon Finey, mariner, and his wife Rose Emily, née Newton, born in New Zealand. He studied (1912-14) at the Elam School of Art, Auckland, and sold his drawings to local newspapers. Enlisting in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, he served as a driver in the Army Service Corps in Egypt (1915-16) and on the Western Front (1916-18), and rose to sergeant (1918). Given leave to study art at the Regent Street Polytechnic, London, he admired the political caricatures in the German magazines Simplicissimus and Jugend. He was repatriated and discharged in 1919.

Having moved to Sydney Finey worked on Smith’s Weekly from 1921. He married Nellie (`Natalie’) Phoebe Murray, a typist, at St Clement’s Church of England, Mosman, on 25 March 1922. That year he started to draw `the man of the week’. In fearless portraits he distorted people’s features so that their characteristics and temperament were writ plain. He drew Archbishop Daniel Mannix with recessed eyes and a drawn-in mouth, suggesting a severe and perhaps intolerant character, and portrayed (Sir) Thomas Bavin as a whining orator. Finey’s work appeared in Art in Australia in June 1924; remarkably, the entire June 1931 edition was devoted to his caricatures. (Sir) Lionel Lindsay wrote that under Finey’s hand `the human countenance becomes elastic. Without truce or mercy he shapes it anew, yet preserves a curious memory of the original’.

After leaving Smith’s Weekly, Finey worked (1931-33) for the Labor Daily, but his more political work had been increasingly rejected by both newspapers. His left-leaning political views were rarely evident in his caricatures, which could be either merciless or celebratory, but were almost always obvious in his cartoons and captions. During the Depression he targeted the New Guard and bloated capitalists, showing unemployed workers as their victims. Following a period with Truth, he was employed by the Daily Telegraph and by the Sunday Telegraph which, in 1940, published a book of war cartoons by Finey, Wep [W. E. Pidgeon] and Bill Mahony. Finey’s war cartoons savaged Hitler and Mussolini. In 1944 he and Mahony were dismissed, allegedly for refusing to draw a political cartoon dictated by the editor, Brian Penton. He was later reinstated for three years (1953-56). Finey also drew for communist publications including Len Fox’s 1946 pamphlet Wealthy Men. Early in the 1940s he had left Sydney, which he called `the garbage can’, and moved to Springwood in the Blue Mountains.

A frequent exhibitor in Sydney, Finey also showed his art in Melbourne (1937), New York (1951, 1963), Japan (1952) and London (1963). Caricatures, including those of composers and screen favourites such as Fred Astaire, comprised only part of his work; he also painted and sculpted Australian flora and landscapes in a modernist style. In an interview with People (May 1950), Finey said that Australia had `not been painted yet’, with the exception of lucrative `pretty harbor scenes’, `erosion paintings’ in Vandyke brown and `gum trees in thousands’. He wanted to see murals on business houses and factories, as in Mexico. The following year an exhibition of his flower pieces, musical caricatures and sculptural paintings—including Sturt’s desert pea in a dilly-bag patterned with Aboriginal motifs— was shown in New York.

His self-published Book of Finey: Poems and Drawings (1976) revealed the eclectic range of his work, not all of which sold well. An exhibition of his art on musical themes, billing him as `the last of the great Bohemians’, opened at the Sydney Opera House in 1978. Most of the works were portraits or relief sculptures, using a wide variety of materials. The free-standing sculpture `Corroboree’ incorporated broken beer bottles with Aboriginal totems. He wrote The Mangle Wheel: My Life (1981), a chaotic autobiography, which reproduced some of his most significant work. The Blue Mountains Community Arts Council mounted a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1985, to mark his ninetieth birthday.

A small and impish man, Finey had paraded the streets of Sydney collarless, sockless and hatless. He had given up drinking in the early 1940s but continued to smoke for some years. His favourite subjects, from the world’s economic ills to the food value of onions, were sprinkled through his conversation. Survived by his three daughters and three of his four sons, Finey died on 8 June 1987 in his home at Lawson and was cremated. His work is represented in the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blaikie, Remember Smith’s Weekly? (1966)
  • V. Lindesay, The Inked-in Image (1979)
  • G. Caban, A Fine Line (1983)
  • Art in Australia, June 1924, p 21, June 1931, p 1
  • People (Sydney), 10 May 1950, p 3
  • Australian, 20 Jan 1978, p 8
  • G. Finey, service record (Archives New Zealand).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Spearritt, 'Finey, George Edmond (1895–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/finey-george-edmond-12490/text22469, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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