This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983
Nils Josef Jonsson (1890-1963), cartoonist, was born on 13 December 1890 at Halmstad, Sweden, eldest of three sons of Carl Alfred Jönsson, a blacksmith turned farmer, and his wife Augusta Bernhardina, née Karlsdotter. As a lad he worked behind a plough on a neighbour's farm and at 18 went to sea. Sailing in windjammers, he developed a skill painting seascapes inside the lids of sailors' sea-chests for a few shillings each. He jumped ship in New Zealand in 1915 and worked in cold stores, before arriving in Australia in March 1917.
While working at a variety of jobs, including timber-cutting in Queensland and as a high-rigger on Sydney's White Bay wheat silos, Jonsson saved the fees to attend J. S. Watkin's art school full time. Within a year he was appointed as an assistant instructor, then succeeded as a commercial artist and freelance cartoonist. Some of his earliest comic drawings appeared in Aussie in the early 1920s. In 1924 he joined Smith's Weekly.
Jonsson's technique was perhaps the most deceptive drawing style of any comic draughtsman working for the Australian press. Compared with the work of his contemporaries, his drawings looked from the start — for he never changed his style — as if instead of a pen, they had been drawn with a toothbrush. Yet these brilliant pen-drawings were outstanding for their skill and humour, drawn always with tremendous dash and zest. His humour fitted Smith's Weekly perfectly: it was tough, sometimes cynical, and uninhibited. His rollicking depictions of burglars, card-sharps, punters, jockeys, shipwrecked sailors and, needless to say, his 'blottos' were characters from a vaudeville world, reflecting a low-life continuity recorded by the earlier Bulletin artists Alfred Vincent and Ambrose Dyson.
After Smith's Weekly closed in October 1950, Jonsson was engaged by Sir Keith Murdoch of the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd to create a weekly comic strip in colour. From February 1951 until March 1963 he drew his popular, nationally syndicated comic strip, 'Uncle Joe's Horse Radish', an outlandish racehorse owned by a battling rural family — the answer, when he was not occupied with light duties around the farm, to the punter's dream.
Known among his fellow artists and journalists as 'The Bletty Blutty Gentle Swede', Jonsson had sandy hair and was short in build but enormously thick through the chest, partly as a result of being noticeably humpbacked. His physical strength was enormous. Although gentle and retiring, he was not one to back off from a challenge and was known to have once butt-thrown four bullying larrikins over a hotel bar. With his friends George Finey, 'Unk' White, Lennie Lower, Kenneth Slessor and others, Jonsson was one of the legendary Bohemians of Sydney in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
At the Bondi manse, Jonsson had married with Presbyterian forms a Sydney-born art student Agnes Mary McIntyre on 14 February 1927. They lived at Wahroonga with a dog, horse and numerous cats. Joe liked gardening and wood-carving. He died of cardiovascular disease at home on 19 March 1963 and was cremated. His wife and their son and daughter survived him. The poets, artists and journalists of Sydney honoured him with a traditional form of wake reserved only for those they considered a worthy, loved and respected person.
Vane Lindesay, 'Jonsson, Nils Josef (1890–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jonsson-nils-josef-6883/text11931, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 May 2015.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983