State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 82 Spring 2008

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Vane Lindesay
Alex Gurney: creator of Bluey and Curley

Bluey and Curley celebrating or having over celebrated the festive season. Brush and ink watercolour sketch by Alex Gurney, no date. Alex Gurney Papers, MS 13561,

The State Library of Victoria has an impressive collection of original art work of Australian cartoonists. Its holdings include a unique collection of cartoons by David Low, acquired in 1987. The significance of these is that the greater part of the cartoons were drawn in Melbourne before Low left his Collins Street studio in 1919 to sail for London and there to earn a reputation as 'the dominant cartoonist of the Western World'.
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Early war-time studio portrait of Alex Gurney introducing 'Bluey and Curley' as soldiers, the waste paper around his feet deliberately left to indicate the time and care he took with his drawings.

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In March 2007, the archive of another important Melbourne cartoonist was acquired by the Library. This latest acquisition comprises the papers and works of Alexander George Gurney (1902–1955). Among the collection, acquired with the assistance of the State Library Foundation from Gurney's daughter Margaret, are bound volumes of complete sets of his Bluey and Curley Annuals published during the Second World War, sketchbooks packed with ideas for his daily strip feature, scrapbooks of press cuttings with letters of praise from both editorial, management and his wide, admiring public, and more than one hundred items of Gurney's sketches, original art for Christmas card gifts, together with original peace-time Bluey and Curley comic strips.1 Regrettably, no original wartime strips have survived, except for a few held in private hands, as Alex was extremely generous in presenting his cartoons to those who asked.
The archive also contains a copy of the extremely rare publication of Gurney's collected caricatures of leading personalities, Tasmanians Today (1926), which had first appeared in the Illustrated Tasmanian Mail. These caricatures show remarkable talent for a twenty-four year old youth. It is recognized, of course, that no artist can create in a vacuum, therefore it is not surprising that Gurney's influences came from the strong line work of both Alf Vincent and David Low. Over time, of course, he found his own style of graphic humour.
A curious item among the acquisitions is a fancy dress shirt worn by Gurney during the 1948 Journalists' Ball, smothered back and front with drawings of characters from Gurney strips—portraits of Bluey and Curley with a Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angel (New Guinea native), a very whiskery swaggy, a large moustached pukka airforce officer, Roy (Mo) Rene from Gurney's first humour strip of 1927, Stiffy and Mo, and caricatures of politicians Ben Chifley, Arthur Caldwell and Billy Hughes. Another curious item is an accurate drawing of a Second World War A.I.F. 'double diamond' colour patch, the insignia of the Australian 5th Independent Company commandos correctly positioned on the right sleeve of the shirt, suggesting that Gurney had been with these troops during his service as an official war artist in New Guinea.
When Australian soldiers fought again in the Second World War, without any doubt the most popular and typical characters of the period were the two mates of the soldier comic strip Bluey and Curley. These inseparable privates of the AIF became an Australian institution, as authentically a part of the popular Australian legend as Ned Kelly or Phar Lap. They were so representative in looks, attitude and language as to be perfectly acceptable to the Australian soldier.
This comic strip, drawn by Alex Gurney, first appeared briefly in the magazine Picture-News in 1939, but was then transferred to the Melbourne Sun, from where it was syndicated to newspapers all over Australia, appearing also in Canada, New Zealand, and in New Guinea for the serviceman's paper, Guinea Gold. Every load of Army mail to the Middle East, Malaya and to New Guinea outposts during the Second World War
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contained Bluey and Curley comic strips cut from the newspapers and included in letters from home to the troops.
In one recorded instance, a woman from Coburg, Victoria, had a remarkable collection of 2,300 Bluey and Curley strips clipped from the Melbourne Sun and kept for the return of her prisoner-of-war relative.
The creator of this lively pair was born in Portsmouth, England, but came to Tasmania when he was only a few months old. In his teens Gurney lived in Hobart, where he served a seven-year apprenticeship with the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission. His art training was through night-school classes at the Hobart Technical School. Gurney was attracted to cartooning for the press whilst still an electrical apprentice, freelancing with encouraging success, selling work here and there, some to the Tasmanian Mail, Melbourne Punch, the Bulletin and Smith's Weekly.
Gurney's early career was difficult and unsettled. After the publication of Tasmanians Today he came to Melbourne, where in 1926 he served for a short time on the Morning Post, a long-extinct newspaper that was published from the site where the Forum Cinema in Flinders Street now stands. But the Morning Post was in financial difficulties and Gurney was soon out of a job. He moved on to Sydney, where ill-luck
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An original 'Bluey and Curley' block comic-strip. No date, probably early nineteen-fifties. Alex Gurney Papers, MS 13561, Australian Manuscripts Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Margaret Gurney.

continued to dog him. The tough depression years wiped out three of the papers he worked for. In 1927, he was drawing for Beckett's Budget, then for the Sunday Times in 1928–9, the Sydney Daily Guardian and also the World in 1931, followed by one year in Adelaide for the News in 1932. Finally, he was to join the staff of the Melbourne Herald in 1933, where he was the leader-page cartoonist, afterwards becoming a nationally admired figure in his field of humour until his sudden death on 4 December 1955.
Alex Gurney's tremendous following and popularity was no accident, nor was it based on the public's whims. He took immense pains over both his jokes and his drawings. A single comic-strip of three frames with joke often took him six hours to draw to his satisfaction. His thoroughness was amazing when compared to the high standard of humour and to the obligation of drawing six of these strips every week for over fourteen years. Gurney was not content with short-cuts in draughtsmanship. While pencilling-in his drawings, even if only half a figure was shown in the frame, he would draw the other portion outside the frame to give the figure its correct balance, movement and bodily expression.
Gurney's Bluey and Curley comic-strip was not the first of its kind in Australia. Frank Dunne drew the original, although untitled, Australian soldier comic-strip for
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Christmas card by Alex Gurney. Brush and ink, no date. Alex Gurney Papers, MS 13561,

Smith's Weekly during the 1930s. Like a lot of this paper's humour, the language of Dunne's strip was idiomatic and slangy, speech of a kind still heard every day, but quite oddly something that has now almost completely disappeared from contemporary comic art in this country. However a good measure of Gurney's great popularity was due to his use of the natural flavour and colour of the Australian language.
A revealing fact in a comparison of the Digger humour of both wars is the marked
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similarity in outlook of the soldiers; the attitudes and behaviour patterns were virtually identical. But Alex Gurney was not applying a formula, or rehashing the myths of the 1914–18 soldier for his humour. To gather material and observe Australian soldiers in training and action, Gurney travelled with them on many occasions. With his superb use of Australian idiom and slang, his instinctive understanding and interpretation of the Australian male, Gurney must have first claim as the most Australian of our comic artists.
At first glance, there is a naïve simplicity about Gurney's army humour, which never relied on obscure allusion or subtle wit. Consistently underlying his humour were the basic Australianisms which made his work so typical and traditional. Let us examine one Australianism—the lack of dignity associated with being one of the servant community, wherein there is no shame in being a waiter, a garbage man, or in carting night soil, but a man who is a man cannot be on equal terms serving people's whims. In a 1945 Bluey and Curley comic-strip, a sergeant is addressing Curley:
'Did you wipe up the dishes and sweep out the mess, like I told you?'
'Yes, sir!'
'… and make the Colonel's bed and take his shirts off the line, like I told you?'
'Yes, sir! Will it be all right for me to go on with my knitting now, sir?'
Often in the Bluey and Curley humour several Australianisms and attitudes are subtly present in two or three pictures and a few words. There are three such in the example cited: the masculine attitude to the indignity of the job; the mock servility in the word 'sir'; and the rebellious disrespect to authority in the last retort.
These were persistent attitudes characteristic of Diggers, for as the war historian C. E. W. Bean said of the Australian soldier in France in 1918: 'In Australia the distinction into social classes was so resented that it was difficult to get Australians to serve as officers' batmen and grooms, who by English tradition were servants'.
At the cessation of hostilities, the Bluey and Curley strip continued in 'civvy street' drawn by Gurney for a further ten years until the death of its creator. The cartoon strips of this collection date from this period.
In both periods of war and peace Alex Gurney's humour was basic; it had no pretensions, it was not influenced by fashionable, ephemeral concepts, and above all, it was funny, because, like all classical humour, whether low comedy or sophisticated wit, it was observed from life.

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The acquisition is described in Sandra Burt, 'Mischievous Spirit', State Library of Victoria News, July-October, 2007, pp.6–7. Some material relating to Gurney's daughter Margaret and her work as an artist is also included.