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William Henry (Will) Dyson (1880–1938)

by Vane Lindesay

This article was published:

Will Dyson, self-portrait, 1910

Will Dyson, self-portrait, 1910

National Library of Australia, 5263448

William Henry Dyson (1880-1938), political cartoonist, was born on 3 September 1880 at Ballarat, Victoria, ninth child of George Arthur Dyson, then a hawker, and his wife Jane, née Mayall. When he was very young the family moved to South Melbourne; by then the Dysons were almost entirely supported by Edward (Ted). Bill, or Will, as he later signed his work, attended Albert Park State School until 1892.

Although Will Dyson was to become one of the most influential satirists Australia has produced, he was known initially in Australia only by his illustrations to Edward's book Fact'ry 'ands (1906), and his caricatures of Commonwealth personalities published in the Bulletin and the Lone Hand. He first submitted his self-taught drawings to the Bulletin in 1897, struggling with both drawing style and making a living. At 18 he met Norman Lindsay, with whom he formed a close friendship. The two went about the streets of Melbourne following likely types to draw; both were concerned with technical efficiency of draughtsmanship and the close observation of human character.

In 1903 Will succeeded his elder brother Ambrose on the Adelaide Critic, contributing coloured caricatures. Although he specialized at this period in caricature, he was developing his own style of satire, drawing political cartoons in 1908 for the coloured covers of Randolph Bedford's Clarion. Black and white freelance work was badly paid and avenues for it were very few; the most Will Dyson ever received for a caricature in Australia was ten shillings. Naturally he longed for wider horizons.

In May 1909 an exhibition of his caricatures opened at Furlong's Studios in the Royal Arcade, Melbourne. On 30 September at Creswick, Dyson married Ruby Lindsay, sister of Norman, herself a talented black and white artist. In 1910 they left for London accompanied by Norman, but the friendship was soon broken, partly at Ruby's insistence.

Dyson's big chance came in 1912 when he was appointed cartoonist-in-chief at £5 a week to the new labour newspaper, the Daily Herald, whose editor gave him carte blanche to express his own ideas. His work, published full newspaper size, was sensational. A convinced socialist, with a humanist outlook generated in his youth when the conflict between labour and capital was emerging as the dominating theme in Australian politics, Dyson hacked into the pomposity and humbug of pre-war England, championing the working man boldly and without reserve. 'In British cartooning Before Dyson', his friend Vance Palmer wrote, 'the working man had been depicted as a pathetic figure, a depressed person lacking any human dignity. Will Dyson drew him young, militant, an image of hope with fist up-raised'. He at no time called for bloody revolution, but he was stronger in his demands for social justice than most progressive intellectuals of his day, fighting the slum landlords, courts, Labour renegades, the press, exploitation, and Tory reaction in all forms. His cartoons were graphically dramatic, and in tone bitter, attacking unemployment, hunger and suffering.

Dyson's cartoons were drawn in the 'grand manner', heavy with symbols. His devils represented war and destruction: he took the familiar labour symbol 'Fat', representing Capital, Finance and Power, a made a gross figure of large paunch, top hat, spats and a cigar, the image of greed in a world of ignoble advantages. Hackneyed now, the symbol was a notable creation in its day.

Like most supporters of the majority labour movements of Britain, France and Germany, Dyson accepted the war as just and necessary. In 1915 the most famous of his seven collected cartoons books was published: twenty large drawings titled Kultur Cartoons, with a foreword by H. G. Wells. In December 1916 he was commissioned by the Commonwealth as the first Australian war artist. While living with the Australian soldiers on the Western Front, Lieutenant Dyson was twice wounded but returned to continue producing his compassionate drawings of humanity under fire. A collection of these water-colour wash and crayon drawings, each with Dyson's interpretative text, was published in Australia at War (1918).

Back with the Daily Herald in 1919, Dyson drew what was to be his most celebrated and reprinted cartoon. Remarkable for its astonishing prophecy, it depicted Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George and Orlando of Italy leaving the Versailles peace treaty meeting with Clemenceau who is saying, 'Curious! I seem to hear a child weeping!'—the weeping child in the cartoon was labelled '1940 class'.

In 1919 Dyson lost his wife Ruby, aged only 32, when she became a victim of the influenza epidemic. The fire and sting went out of him from this time on. His utter grief was evident in his Poems: In Memory of a Wife (London, 1919). The next blow to his fortunes came in 1922 when the Daily Herald was taken over by the Trades Union Council: Dyson resigned, to become, in effect, unemployed for the next two years. For he was staunchly independent and would not work for a direct organ of a political party.

In this mood Dyson accepted the offer of a substantial salary to come back and work for the Melbourne Herald group; its weekly magazine Punch had secured the talents of the poet and journalist Kenneth Slessor, the writers Vance Palmer and Myra Morris, the artists Percy Leason and 'Unk' White, the lyric poet Hugh McCrae and his firm friend to be, Jim Bancks. In 1925 and for the next five years Dyson's cartoons appeared in the Herald and in Punch and its successor Table Talk. His original misgivings were realized, for he and (Sir) Keith Murdoch quarrelled incessantly. Murdoch insisted on a 'read-as-you-run' cartoon comment on local affairs, while Dyson preferred to take a god's-eye view of the broader international scene. But he was soon edged from his special field into turning out pleasant comic drawings of theatrical personalities, in addition to cartoon comment on local matters. Even so, his Punch work was distinguished from time to time by his typical admonishing satire on such issues as unemployment, the political neglect of education and science, and rearmament for war. Perhaps from frustration, he became interested in etching and dry-points, an exacting skill which he mastered brilliantly under the expert tuition of the Melbourne etcher Cyril Dillon.

In 1930, his Herald contract finished, Dyson returned to England via the United States of America, where he exhibited his satires of manners in a series of etchings and dry-points in several major cities, and then again in London. These satires demonstrated again that whatever Dyson did he did well. They were acclaimed, and were seemingly his last triumph.

In 1933 he published Artist Among the Bankers, a hostile judgment upon the economic conduct of the world and of 'banker-business'. He had rejoined the vastly changed Daily Herald, a paper now shy of socialism, with an eye towards advertisers.

Dyson's sudden death on 21 January 1938 at Chelsea from a long-standing heart condition made newspaper headlines around the world. His last cartoon, published on the day of his death, showed—despite an enforced editorial alteration—the old Dyson fire. He had drawn two vultures perched on a crag watching Franco planes bombing defenceless Barcelona. His caption read: 'Once we were the most loathsome things that flew!'

Will Dyson, pessimistic, often darkly depressed, concealing his inner feelings behind a sardonic mask, had a mordant wit that could be used with withering effect particularly in his brilliant after-dinner speeches; he was one of the robust minds of his time. In his irony and force he has not been approached as a cartoonist by any Australian, then or since. Most State and many regional galleries in Australia hold examples of his wartime drawings and lithographs. The largest collection of about 500 Dyson Daily Herald cartoons are preserved at the Cartoon Research Centre at the University of Kent at Canterbury, England.

Will's elder brother Ambrose Arthur Dyson (1876-1913) was born on 13 April 1876 at Ballarat and like Will had no formal art training, developing his skills by sketching in the streets. Some of the rudiments were acquired from fellow artist Tom Durkin. In his teens Amb Dyson had his drawings published in Melbourne Punch, and later in the Bulletin while cartooning in 1898 for the Adelaide Critic. He went to Adelaide next year as the Critic's chief artist and worked there until 1903 when he returned to Melbourne to accept a staff position with the Bulletin, producing a full page of cartoons and comment on Victorian politics. Between 1906 and 1909 with Will and Ruby Lindsay, Ambrose contributed joke drawings to the Gadfly (Adelaide). Other work by him appeared in Table Talk, the Clarion and the Sydney Worker. His drawings are of important documentary interest in portraying the first indigenous Australian city type—the larrikin.

On 14 December 1912 Dyson married Mabel Norah Frazer; their son Edward Ambrose (1908-1952) was also a capable artist. Ambrose senior died on 3 June 1913 in a mental hospital at Kew. Although his pen drawing of the tonal school was orthodox in technique—and skilful at that—his individual, original, decidedly comic style presented a subsequent breakaway from the straight illustration-type drawing that went with a joke or political caption. It was his feeling for intelligent distortion—the problem for all true humorous draughtsmen—that places him not so much among the great, as among innovators.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Lindsay, My Mask (Syd, 1970)
  • V. Lindesay, The Inked-In Image (Melb, 1970)
  • Lone Hand, Sept, Oct 1908
  • 20th Century Studies, Dec 1975
  • Worker (Sydney), 10 Dec 1908
  • Punch (Melbourne), 15 Jan 1925
  • Daily Herald (London), 21 Jan 1938
  • Herald (Melbourne), 22 Jan 1938
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Jan 1938
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Jan 1938
  • Record (South Melbourne), 28 Apr 1955
  • N. Lindsay letters to author, 1961 (privately held).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Vane Lindesay, 'Dyson, William Henry (Will) (1880–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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