State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 86 December 2010

131

Vane Lindesay
WEG: William Ellis Green (1923-2008)*

MORE THAN IN ANY other way, Australian humour has evolved and found its greatest expression not through the nation's writers, entertainers, or the creators of cinema, but by the means of cartoonists drawing for the Australian press. In the nation's relatively short history many highly talented cartoonists, both men and women, have not only distinguished Australian journalism but have commanded international notice. Among the many who have worked with distinction as comic illustrators, William Ellis Green, known to many thousands of Melbourne Herald readers as WEG, was an artist of exceptional talent and popularity.
To his many friends, he was Bill, the son of a master butcher, born in August 1923 in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. He grew up at Essendon where he was a choirboy at the local Methodist Church. Bill's art genesis started as a young boy seated in a highchair with his crayons. As a young lad, however, he had no interest in 'comics' although he collected in scrapbooks the half-page 'Flash Gordon' adventure strips published in the Sun News-Pictorial, better known as simply the Sun. Bill admitted to being impressed with the style and strong lines of the drawings. Much later in mid-career he stated 'as for cartooning in general I am not interested in "the message", but in the line, the competence. If a cartoonist's style does not excite me I don't take much interest in his or her work'.
After leaving school Bill enrolled in an architecture course at what is now the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology but his interest in architecture was more academic than vocational. Like many students, his studies were interrupted by the hostilities involving Australia in World War Two. At the age of eighteen Bill volunteered for service and became VX140268 Green. He was attached to the 15th Infantry Brigade Army Intelligence in New Guinea where he prepared and painted panoramas of the war zones.
Although art materials were not part of army issue or readily available in the jungles of New Guinea, Bill managed to draw some cartoons, one of which, probably drawn on YMCA 'Comforts Fund' note paper, was published in Army News. While stationed at Shaggy Ridge, Bill also submitted two drawings to the Sydney based Man magazine, receiving two pounds each, a small fortune for a soldier earning six shillings a day. More importantly for Bill was the rewarding confidence of having his work accepted for publication.
At the cessation of hostilities in the Pacific, Bill was discharged from the Army and resumed his architectural studies at RMIT. He abandoned his course in favour of a postwar rehabilitation art course at the National Gallery of Victoria. But here, it seems, he had little talent or interest in painting resulting in his tutor, William (later Sir William) Dargie, advising him to 'go and learn to draw'.
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WEG, 'My Goanna And I. . .', pen and ink, c.1980s. Archive of original artworks . . . for God Bless Goannas (198-). Picture Collection, H2009.164/1-70.

During the early post-war years Bill was submitting cartoons to the Melbourne Herald and some were published. His persistence was rewarded when the Herald editorial cartoonist, Stan Wells, took six weeks holiday leave and Bill was hired as a replacement to produce the daily cartoon. His work appealed to the editor-in-chief, John (later Sir John) Williams, and in 1947 Bill was invited to join the Herald staff. For the next thirty-nine years he produced editorial, topical news comment, humorous dinkus illustrations, sport cartoons and the two features that made his signature familiar to many, many thousands – perhaps a million readers over time – in Victoria with his 'Weg's Weekend', a series of witty cartoon comments on the week's happenings published over twelve inches (thirty centimetres) on page two of the Herald.
The other feature, unique at the time, was the introduction to Australian journalism of the daily 'pocket' cartoon, a single column topical comment humorously presented that appeared for the first time in 1949 and continued in the Herald front page for thirty-eight years. In a recorded interview Bill commented 'It seems I was the first Australian cartoonist to introduce the novelty to an Australian newspaper. The British cartoonist Osbert Lancaster did the same for the London press – he was eventually
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WEG, 'Goanna Flo', pen and ink, c.1980s. Archive of original artworks . . . for God Bless Goannas (198-). Picture Collection, H2009.164/1-70.

knighted -I was eventually sacked'. But this bitter event was in the future. In producing the 'Weg's Day' pocket cartoons, Bill remarked 'I got away with murder'. When snow fell in Melbourne, he simply drew a blank white square while in a period of electricity blackout, 'Weg's Day' appeared as a plain black square.
Bill's development as a cartoonist was astonishingly rapid. By the 1960s he had found his 'handwriting' mature, precise, original, distinctive, not a line out of place, and above all funny – a style which served him for the rest of his career. If WEG's characters have any weakness it could be in the drawing of the hands which are, in the main, loosely suggested. But he showed brilliance of technique in depicting hair and eyes. The eyes of Richmond Brownlow Medal footballer Roy Wright are each wonderfully stated in a simple line. Similarly, the eyes in the character of WEG's close friend Bruce Cavalier are each a half loop and a dot in a portrait caricature of great dash and spontaneity.
The caricaturists Bill admired most were David Levine, Al Hirshfeld, George Finey, Gerald Scarfe, Noel Counihan and David Low. For his pen drawings, he favoured 'Oriental' brand nibs on 170GSM white art board. And he had a great distain for the production of cartoons or caricatures by computer technology.
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WEG, 'Land Rights for Gay Goannas', pen and ink, c.1980s. Archive of original artworks . . . for God Bless Goannas (198-). Picture Collection, H2009.164/1-70.

For six days of the week, Monday to Saturday, Bill rose at 5am, had a quick-shower and shave, then a thirty kilometre drive to the city, a hasty over-the-road café breakfast, perused the morning papers and was seated at his Herald desk by six o'clock, with the deadline for his cartoon being nine-o'clock. Bill also did illustrations for books including several humorous ones for his friend, the test cricketer Max Walker.
Combined with Bill's heavy workload was the annual production of the Victorian (later Australian) Football League Grand Final posters. During a 1993 interview he was asked what did he consider his major achievement to which replied 'I look back with pride in having for thirty-nine years, drawn the Victorian Football League Premiership posters depicting a cartoon symbol of the winners. These posters are sold to the public and the proceeds given to the Royal Children's Hospital – a great cause. But of course I had to draw two posters – one for each team playing and these were printed before the game in readiness for sale that afternoon'. The sale of these posters raised over two million dollars.
The first poster, done in 1954 and depicting the bulldog emblem of the winning Footscray team has become a collector's item. One of the most memorable posters was the 1970 one where Bill gave Ron Barassi, the winning Carlton coach, five fingers and a
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WEG, 'No Slack Members', pen and ink, c.1980s. Archive of original artworks . . . for God Bless Goannas (198-). Picture Collection, H2009.164/1-70.

thumb. The 1990 Collingwood winning poster sold 100,000 copies. Bill had to redraw this one, much to his annoyance, as some tom fool at the Herald where the posters were printed, had filled in the white beak of the magpie art work in solid black, thus making the magpie a crow, the club emblem of the Adelaide Football Club. Bill rightly insisted that the entire original print run be destroyed, at a cost to the Herald of twenty-five thousand dollars.
When the Melbourne Age of 1 April 1986 ran the headline 'WEG told he has had his day', readers were incredulous. Many thought it was an April Fool's joke. But the story under the headline showed it to be true.
The Herald editor, Mr Neil Mitchell, said yesterday that it was a difficult decision to let 'Bill' go because he had done a great deal for 'The Herald' over the years, and had become quite an institution. However, Mr Mitchell said WEG was unhappy that his cartoons were not appearing often in 'The Herald'.
He (WEG) felt that the cartoons he considered funny weren't being used. I felt his style of cartoon was no longer applicable to 'The Herald', Mr Mitchell said.
In a show of respect and loyalty the Age cartoonists (Michael Leunig, John Spooner, Peter Nicholson, Les tanner and Ron Tandberg) sent a letter of support written
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by Leunig to the Herald management. But it was to no avail and WEG's dismissal stood. As a result he was left stunned and in poor mental condition, unable to sleep, finally seeking psychiatric treatment over eighteen months.
Recovery was slow but achieved. Constant requests for his cartoon illustrations, many for books, kept Bill busy together with circuit engagements to draw caricatures at corporate functions, birthdays and the many charity functions he supported. Although no longer associated with the Herald and Weekly Times, he continued his unbroken custom of producing the football Grand Final posters. The last of these was done for the 2008 Geelong versus Hawthorn final, drawn during his terminal illness.
Much has been made of Bill's talent and skill at drawing a portrait caricature in under two minutes. Remarkably, in January 2006 whilst Bill was home preparing breakfast, he heard someone outside his Heathmont home. In his dressing-gown he confronted 'this bloke ranting and raving coming through the carport, and tearing all the clothes off my wife's clothesline'. The invader escaped by stealing Bill's grandson's racing bike. The incident took, according to Bill, only ten seconds or less, but when the police arrived Bill drew a caricature of the thief. Half and hour later, the culprit was arrested, recognized by Bill's drawing. The arresting officer remarked 'It was amazing, the likeness was just fantastic. The sketch took him three or four seconds'. Bill's speed and drawing skill was legendary: this event made headlines the world over.
WEG or WEGGIE was a popular member of the Australian Cartoonists' Association and the first Victorian member to be 'smocked'. In this custom, initiated in 1938, an artist's smock complete with flowing black bow is smothered with drawings, signatures, and messages of congratulation and presented to a member admired and fondly regarded by his or her peers.
Many other honours were bestowed on Bill. In addition to being mentioned in despatches during his war service, he was made an Officer of the St John's Ambulance Medal for services to that organization, and received an award from the Australian Football League in 'recognition of an outstanding contribution to the game of Australian football'. In 2001 he was awarded an Order of Australia medal and two years later received the 'Jim Russell Award' from the Australian Cartoonists Association in acknowledgement of his life-long contribution to the profession of cartooning.
WEG died in December 2008. The Melbourne Press Club posthumously bestowed on him the Quill Award (a quill feather set in a thirty-centimetre high glasslike plastic block) for 'Lifetime Achievement'. William Ellis Green brought distinction to his profession and at his passing, Australia lost another exceptional talent.
Editor's note: This short biography of WEG is an abbreviated version of the introduction by Vane Lindesay to his recently edited WEG: the life and art of cartoonist William Ellis Green, Ripponlea, Vic: Trojan Press, 2010. The caricatures of Roy Wright and Bruce Cavalier mentioned on page 133 along with numerous other examples of WEG's cartoons and drawings are featured in the book, the proceeds of which are being directed to the Royal Children's Hospital, a cause long supported by WEG.