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Frank Benier (1919–1998)

by Robert Phiddian

This article was published online in 2024

Frank Benier (1919–1998), cartoonist and painter, was born on 13 December 1919 at Hindmarsh, South Australia, only child of John Compton Bennier, motorman, and his wife Emily Elizabeth, née Eames. The first Benniers had migrated from Mecklenburg, Germany, in the mid-1840s, and formed part of the South Australian German-speaking Lutheran rural community, although Frank would be convinced throughout his life that the family origins were Basque. Spelling his name Benier, he wore a beret, and, later in life, insisted on his right to wear it in the Sydney Journalists’ Club as national dress, despite a ‘no hats’ rule. He talked often of the Basque roots of his creativity as a cartoonist and painter.

Disinclined to accede to his father’s desire that he work on the land, Benier showered the Adelaide Express and Journal with illustrations, having his first published in 1934 when he was fourteen years old. After a local education, he found employment as a copy-boy on the News, Adelaide’s main afternoon newspaper, and worked his way towards the art department until World War II broke out. Enlisting in the Citizen Military Forces and commissioned as a lieutenant in February 1940, he joined the Australian Imperial Force on 1 July. He served in the Middle East (November 1940–January 1942) and Papua (August–September 1942) with the 2/27th Battalion, but an injured knee kept him out of action and he was transferred to the Australian Intelligence Corps—‘a contradiction in terms,’ he asserted (Kerr 1996). From December 1942 he was back in Adelaide, where he performed intelligence duties. On 31 March that year he had married Barbara June Franson at St John’s Church, Adelaide.

Placed on the Retired List in February 1944, Benier returned to the News and worked in various illustrating roles until, in January 1950, he was granted a regular platform called ‘Today’s Benier.’ This feature was an editorial cartoon that pointed to his career-long focus on gags and social commentary more than on politics or satire. He always had an instinct to attack ‘pomposity’ and to be ‘all for the freedom of the little man’ (Bennier 2011, 579). In this impulse his work resembled in style the clear lines and direct humour of contemporaries such as Emile Mercier and Paul Rigby. His first marriage having been dissolved in 1952, he married Gwen Mary (known as Penny) Needham, née Butterfield, on 7 November 1955 in Adelaide.

Moving to Sydney in 1956, Benier continued to develop the style he had used at the News. After some work in advertising and book illustration, as well as a few freelance cartoons for the Bulletin, he found a job in the art department of John Fairfax & Sons Pty Ltd. This position led in time to cartooning at the Sun when Mercier recommended that Benier stand in while he was on holiday. Benier worked there until 1962, then, with Penny and their children, drove across Asia all the way to London. He worked there for three years, before returning to Sydney and Fairfax’s Sun and Sunday Sun-Herald at the beginning of 1966. The following year he won a Walkley award for best cartoon.

A bon vivant, Benier was an active presence in the Black and White Artists’ Club. With his beret, ‘Basque heritage,’ pipe, and love of wine, he cut a striking figure in the raucous Sydney media circles of the era. Rupert Murdoch offered him a pay rise, variously quoted at 30 or 50 per cent, to move to the Daily Mirror (the Sun’s afternoon daily rival in Sydney), so he transferred in 1973, bringing many loyal followers with him. After he moved to Patonga on the central New South Wales coast, he worked from there. Getting up before dawn, he would draw his cartoon, then rush to the railway station to hand it to a compositor who lived nearby and worked at the Mirror. Eventually, the introduction of the fax machine made this work pattern smoother.

Benier retired from the Mirror in 1986. Following his wife’s death, on 2 November 1996 he married Philippines-born Teresita Adimos (Mary Lou) Mason, née Docena, in a Roman Catholic service at the Wetlands, Patonga. Like many successful cartoonists, he had maintained a rich complementary artistic practice to balance the pressures of daily productions, and he continued painting landscapes at Patonga. He died on 14 October 1998 at Woy Woy and was cremated. His wife, one son of his first marriage, and two sons of his second survived him; one son from his first marriage had predeceased him. He bequeathed more than 2,200 cartoon originals to the State Library of New South Wales, and hundreds more are held in the Bulletin and Fairfax collections. Even so, these represent but a minority of the prolific output of this popular twentieth-century cartoonist.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Andrews, Malcolm. ‘Blessed be the Buffoon Deflater.’ Australian, 27 October 1998, 16
  • Bennier, Marc, ed. Bennier, Benier, Bannear: The History of Johann Joachim Carl & Dorothea Hanna Maria Bennier and Their Descendants in Australia. Nailsworth, SA: Marc Bennier, 2011
  • Foyle, Lindsay. Personal communication
  • Kerr, Joan. ‘Frank Bennier.’ Design and Art Australia Online. 1996. Last updated 2007. Accessed 10 July 2023. https://www.daao.org.au/bio/frank-bennier/biography/. Copy held on ADB file
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, SX9117
  • State Library of New South Wales. PXD 586, Frank Benier

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Robert Phiddian, 'Benier, Frank (1919–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/benier-frank-32723/text40675, published online 2024, accessed online 14 April 2024.

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