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JVÖW1 MEET THEIR MAKER
BY JOHN HETHERINGTON
Most professional humorists are pretty, lugu- brious fellows when off duty, but there are exceptions to this rule.
Alex Gurney, black-and-white art- ist creator of Bluey and Curley, is one of the exceptions.
Gurney not only likes to make other people laugh, hut also likes to laugh himself.
Perhaps he acquired the gift of laughter in the ? days before Bluey and
Curley made him a na- tional figure and he was suffering more than a fair share of the kicks Pate delivers to artists strug- gling for recognition.
Anyway, Gurney, a gen- erously 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 is Bluey and Curley, his pen-children, who have put him ' in this happy position. They have already performed for him in 3128 strips, the latest of which appears today in our comic sec-
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 rea- son why Bluey and Curley should not perform an- other 7000 times or so be- fore they quit the news- paper stage.
It is Improbable that Gurney foresaw the suc- cess he was one day to win when he launched himself upon the precari- ous , career of a commer
cia! artist nearly 40 years
He was a pupil at Ho- bart's Macquarie-st State School at the time, and by all accounts not strik- ingly different from the Gurney of today, though his frame was a thought less fleshy and his head did have some hair on top.
However, the brain in- side the head worked on identical lines with the Gurney brain today, bid- ding him scorn such mundane things as mathe- matics, history, and spell- ing, and take his pencil in hand and draw his fellow creatures.
It all started when he sketched one or two class- mates tn a casual way.
Everybody else in the class wanted Gurney to sketch him. too. And sud- denly Gurney realised that art could be made to pay.
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 1 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 roll- ed 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-mind- ed parents could hardly be expected to consider a gift for sketching a sufficiently stout craft to bear a healthy boy across the sea of life. Gurney's par- ents 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, de- cided he must have a more solid means of live- lihood.
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 Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commis- sion as an engineer's junior assistant, with the idea of becoming an elec- trical engineer. The pros-
pects were good, but the j pay was modest-7/6 a week.
After he had settled in at the Commission, Gur- ney enrolled himself at Hobart Technical College for night classes in sub- jects 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 de- cision. He retiréd more or less gracefully from the studies which would have helped him to qualify as an electrical engineer and
. As Gurney sees himself at work.
moved himself and his yearnings around the cor- ridor into the art depart-
The art master was one Lucien Dechaineux. Gur- ney describes Dechaineux as one of the most versa- tile human beings he has ever known-a man who could teach art. mathe- matics, engineering .or practically any subject.
"I don't think Dechai- neux approved of the change I made," Gurney says. "Perhaps he figured the world was going to lose a perfectly good elec- trical engineer-and get a poor artist in exchange.
^'Anyway, I 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 n*e drawing the eagle's head for weeks and weeks. I did it in crayon, pencil and ink.
"But I survived the treatment. The only last- ing effect of it has been trr.teven toda I can draw - reasonable lund of eagle's . head practically with my eyes shut."
As a variant from the eagle's head, Gurney one eveiiing drew a caricature of Dechaineux himself. Dechaineux, he says, had an eminently caricatur ablt face, with bristling whiskers. He still thinks the caricature was pretty good.
He took it up to Dechai- neux at the end of the lesson and laid it on the master's desk. Dechaineux studied it for a few mo- ments, then grunted:
.'ou'll never make an artist as long as you live."
Gurney was undismay- ed. Ile struggled on, doing his daily stint at the Hy- dro-Electric Commissioii. studying nights at Hobart Tech., drawing anybody who would sit for him. in- cluding his half-brother, .Max Hursey. whose ser- vices were to be had at 1/ an hour.
He began to sell draw- ings here and there. His work appeared in the vari- ous journals. and he scored some local success with a series of carica- tures illustrating a book on leading Tasmanian per- sonalities.
His share of the profits
from the book was only £13, but the bulge of the money in his pocket em- boldened him. Peeling ready to conquer the world, he crossed Bass. Strait and landed in Mel- bourne.
The year was 1325, and the "Morning Post" had been publishing for a few weeks. Gurney hammered on the editor's door until, largely on 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 fol- lowed. Then financial dif- ficulties compelled the "Post" to shorten staff, and Gurney was among the fallen.
AT 24 years he was job
less, with nothing be- tween him and either starvation or a tail-be tween-legs withdrawal to Tasmania except his ar- tistic skill. He decided to go to Sydney.
He stayed in Sydney about five years, free- lancing, studying at the Black-and-W hite Club, weathering the depres- sion.
He contrived to do this, although the depression found him with a wife and young child to sup- port. He began to make a name as a political car- toonist when public ex- citement about J. T. Lang's handling of NSW affairs was at its height.
Then the breaks started to come his way. He was offered the cartoonist's post on Adelaide "News." After a year in Adelaide, he moved to Melbourne, where he founded the Ben Bowyang strip, based on the C. J. Dennis charac- ters.
He had hardly -got Ben Bowyang afloat when the post of Melbourne- "Her- ald" cartoonist fell vacant.
Gurney held it until early in the war when Bluey and Curley was (or, if you prefer it. were)
Working over the char- acters Gurney told him- self. "These blokes would make a grand comic strip."
f Gradually the concep- tion took shape. Gurney took his idea to the peo- ple who could say yes or no. They said yes. And on February 1, 1941. the first Bluey and Curley strip
Gurney works something very close to a 40-hour | week in devising, rough drawing and inking-in his strips. Some of his,, gags come, ready-made, from actual experience, but he dreams up most of them out of tlie blue.
He works -in a studio at the back of his home in Merton-ave, Elwood, Vic- toria, which he shares with his wife's sewing machine and a cupboard filled with toys belonging to his e i g h t-year-old I daughter, youngest of his
four children-all girls, (except the oldest, a 22 year-old son.
He is not easily distract
[ed. 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 does not know whether a
! strip is good or bad until [he has tried it on the pub-
lic. His own idea qf a world-beating strip more often than not fails rather flat, while a strip he thinks indifferent brings him a big fan-mail.
One oddity: This author of the most Australian comic strip published was born in Portsmouth, Eng- land. But since he left there when he was six months old and has lived in Australia ever since he considers himself 100 per
cent Australian. '