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^TOUXLNEVEIMdAKE AN ARTIST," THE MASTER TOLD GURNEY |
Hes the boss of Bluey and
By JOHN HETHERINGTON
7MT OST professional humorists .ATM. are pretty lugubrious ' fel- lows when off duly, hut there are exceptions to this rule. Alex Gur- ney, black-and-white artist creator of Bluey and Curley, is one of the exceptions.
Gurney not only likes to moke other people laugh, but also likes to laugh
Perhaps he acquired the gift of laughter in che day before Bluey and Gurley made him a national figure, and he was suffering more than a fair share of the kicks Fate delivers to artists struggling for recognition.
Anyway, Gurney, a generously built man, rarely seen wearing anything but a sports coat and slacks, whose brown eyes look out through horn-rimmed'glasses on a world which hardly ever fails to please him, can afford to laugh
It fa) Bluey and Curley, his pen-children, who have pvt him In this happy position. They have already performed for him in 3,129 dall* ?trips, the lateat of which appears on Page- ft today.
Since Gurney, who was 49 on March 15, should have at least another 20 years as an active black-and-white artist, there seems to be no good reason why Bluey and Curley should not perform another 7,000 times or so before they quit the daily newspaper stage.
It is improbable that Gurney foresaw the success he was one day to win when he launched himself on the precarious career of a commer- cial artist nearby 40 years ago.
He was a pupil at Hobart's Macquarie Street State School at the time, and by all accounts not strikingly different from the Gurney of today, though his frame was a thought less fleshy and his head did-have some hair on top.
Paid in marbles
However, the brain inside the head worked on identical lines with the Gurney brain .today, bidding him scorn such mundane things as mathematics, history, and spelling, and take his pencil in hand and draw his fellow-creatures.
It all started when he sketched one or two classmates in a casual way. Everybody else in I the class wanted Gurney to sketch him, too.
¡And suddenly Gurney realised that art could I be made to pay.
j He-embarked on a series of caricatures, usually
the subject's head balanced on a dashing figure in cowboy costume, for which each sitter paid a fee in marbles. There was no set fee. It varied according to the number of marbles the sitter owned.
\ "I made a lot 'of marbles that way," Gurney ! recalls. "But the other kids won them back ] from me Just a little faster than they rolled In.
Still, the experience did teach me that art could be made to pay-even if a man couldn't hold on to what he made by it."
However, serious-minded parents could hardly be expected to consider a gift for sketching a sufficiently stout craft to bear a healthy boy across the sea cf life. Gurney's parents were no exception.
His own heart was set on a black-and-white career, but Mr. and Mrs. James«Hursey, his step- father and his mother, decided he must have a more solid means of livelihood. When he left school at 13, he went unromantically to work in an ironmonger's shop.
He held several other equally non-artistic jobs in the next year or two, then joined the Tas- manian Hydro-Electric Commission as an en- gineer's junior assistant, with the idea of be- coming an electrical engineer. The prospects were good, but the nav was modest-7/6 a week
\Gave him the bird
After he had settled in' at the commission/
Gurney enrolled himself at Hobart Technical
College for night classes in subjects bearing on ' his chosen profession. Perhaps that was the turning point. For it was not long before Gurney's mind was straying from the classes on which he was engaged to the art classes carried on under the same roof.
He took a sudden decision. He retired more
or less gracefully from the studies which would ' have helped him to qualify as an electrical en- " gineer, and moved himself and his yearnings ' round the corridor into the art department,
i The art master was one Lucien Dechaineux. t
Gurney describes Dechaineux as one of the most versatile human beings he has ever known-a man who could teach art, mathematics, en-
gineering, or practically any other subject in . Hobart Tech's curriculum, almost without draw- ing breath.
"I don't think Dechaineux approved of the change I made," Gurney says. "Perhaps he' ; figured the world was going to lose a perfectly
good electrical engineer-and get a poor artist, in exchange. ??>
I « "Anyway, Ï think he started out to sicken me
of art. He sat me down in front of a cast of an eagle's head, and told me to draw it. He kept me drawing that eagle's head for weeks and weeks. I did it in crayon, pencil, ink, every known medium.
! "But I survived the treatment. The only
lasting effect or 'A has been that even today I can draw a reasonable kind of eagle's head prac- tically with nu/ eyes shut."
A self-portrait ot Alex Gurney on the joh.
As a variant from the eagle's head, Gurney one evening drew a caricature of Dechaineux himself. Dechaineux, he says, had an emi- nently caricaturable face, with bristling whis- kers. Gurney still thinks the caricature was pretty good.
He took it to Dechaineux at the end of the lesson and laid it on the master's desk. De- chaineux studied it for a few moments, then grunted:
"You'll never make an artist as long as you .ive."
Gurney was undismayed. He -struggled on, doing his dally stint at the Hydro-Electrical Commission, studying nights at Hobart Tech, drawing anybody who would sit for him, in- cluding his half-brother, Max Hursey, whose services were to be had at 1/ an hour. .
He began to sell drawings nere and there. His work appeared in the Tasmanian "Mail," Melbourne "Punch," Sydney "Bulletin," "Aussie," .''Smith's Weekly." He scored some local success ftvith a series of caricatures illustrating a book lon leading Tasmanian personalities.
His share of the profits from the book was jnly £13, but the bulge of the money in, his pocket emboldened him. Feeling ready to con- quer the world, he crossed Bass Strait and landed in Melbourne.
The year was 1925, and the "Morning Post" had been publishing for a few weeks. .Gurney hammered on the editor's door until, largely oh the strength of a series of caricatures of Federal Parliamentarians, he was given a job at £6 a week.
It was hard, knockabout experience, but Gurney learned many tricks of the trade in the year that'followed. Then financial difficulties compelled the "Post" to shorten staff, and Gurney was among the fallen.
Year in Adelaide
At 24, he was jobless, with nothing between him and either starvation or a tail-between-legs withdrawal to Tasmania except his artistic skill. He decided to go to Sydney.
He stayed in Sydney about five years, free- lancing all the time, studying at the Black-and White Club, weathering the depression which put many competent artists on the beach.
He contrived to do this, although the depres- sion found him with a wife and young child to support. He began to make a name as a politi- cal cartoonist when public excitement about J. T. Lang's handling of New South Wales affairs was at its height
Then the breaks started to come his way. Ha was offered the cartoonist's post on "The News.'"i
After a year in Adelaide, he moved td Mel J bourne, where he founded the Ben Bowyang) strip, based on C. J. Dennis characters, for the "Herald."
He had hardly got Ben Bowyang afloat when the post of "Herald" cartoonist fell vacant) Gurney held it until early in the war, when; Bluey and Curley was (or, if you prefer it, were)]
At first they were not daily characters. They; saw the light in two or three issues of the de- funct "Picture News," whose editor had invited Gurney to fill a page now and then with any- thing he fancied.
Working over the characters for "Picture News," Gurney told himself: "These blokes would make a grand comic strip." After that, he pecked away at them whenever he had a spare few minutes.
Has 40-hour week 1
Gradually,, the conception took shape. Gurney, took his idea to the people who could say yes! or no. They said yes. , And on February 1J 1941, the first Bluey and Curley daily stria appeared. The rest is black-and-white history J
Gurney works something very elose io a ..4i-j
hour week In devising, rough-drawing, and lnklng-ln his strips. Some of his gags come, ready-made, from actual experience, bat he dreams up most of them out of the blue. I
He works in a studio at the back of his homo' In Elwood, which he shares with his wife'« sewing machine and a cupboard filled with toys belonging to his eight-year-old daughter, the youngest of his four children-all girls, except the oldest, a 22-year-old son.
He is not easily distracted. He can go on drawing without faltering even if his wife is machining, so long as she doesn't talk-which she never does when he is at work.
Gurney admits he still, doesn't know whether, a strip is good or bad until he has tried it on the public. His own, idea of a world-beating strip more often than notfalls rather flat, while a strip he thinks indifferent brings, him a big fan mail.
One oddity: This author of the most Aus- tralian comic strip published was born in Ports-
mouth, England. But since he left there when , he was six months old and has lived in Australia ever since he considers himself 100 per cent.