Reprint: The Art and Humor of Hal Gye by C. J. Dennis

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In this article Mr. C. J. Dennis, the well-known author, pays a tribute of friendship to Mr. Hal Gye the noted "Bulletin" artist and cartoonist, whose work helped to make"'The Sentimental Bloke" famous throughout Australia. The services of Mr. Gye have been secured by News Limited, and he will arrive in Adelaide next week.

"A philosopher is a man who sits in an easy chair and lectures upon how to sit in easy chairs to a man who hasn't one."-- Hal Gye.

This remark, flung casually at a self-satisfied friend who had been deploring at length the strange unrest of the masses, illustrates one phase of Hal Gye's many-sided nature. He is something of a philosopher himself, but an easy chair is certainly not his native habitat.        

Rather, calling to mind his work in a dozen Australian papers, one is led to picture him as a restless spirit, skipping from point to point, cracking jokes and tickling ribs till the gravest cannot forbear to smile. Then he pauses to deliver a mock-serious epigram upon the folly of laughter, and departs with a chuckle to spread merriment elsewhere. Puck is his playmate. And, without malice, they whisper together in odd corners and devise fresh japes for the entertainment of a weary world.

Had he lived in earlier years I can imagine Hal Gye only as a brilliant court jester who died suddenly at a very early age after having caricatured the King, made an epigram about the Prime Minister, and written fantastic verse upon the manners of the court. Even the dainty watercolor, done to please the beautiful princess, would not have saved him. Kings are notoriously humorless.                                

Fortunately for Hal, the average Australian has a keen sense of humor, and it is mainly as a humorous artist in black-and-white that he has won an enviable reputation in this country and beyond.  

South Australia Gains Great Artist.

When he goes to Adelaide to take his new position as chief artist on "The News" South Australia may congratulate itself upon having gained at the expense of the rest of the Commonwealth. 

For many years his pictures have appeared regularly in "The Bulletin" and other Australian journals. His work as a book illustrator is widely known, and if his watercolors and colored-drawings have not won equal recognition it is because of a queer modesty that will not permit the humorist to display the work of his more serious moments. Even his most intimate friends have seen but few of these dainty pictures which possess a poetic feeling rare even in the work of much better known colorists. Some of his colored book illustrations (those done for "The Glugs of Gosh") are hung in the Sydney National Gallery; a few private collectors possess examples of his work, but otherwise Gye the artist in color has yet to arrive.

It is as an artist in black-and- white that he is best known, and in this class of work his caricatures and cartoons are the most popular. His gift for swift caricature is indeed remarkable. Never deliberately cruel or offensive (except maybe to the super-sensitive or the ultra-vain), they manage to catch so much of the subjects' real character -- that indefinite "some- thing" which is so elusive to the average painstaking artist -- that they become not merely distorted portraits, but true character studies achieved in a spirit of pure fun. I doubt if there is another artist in Australia to-day who can accom- plish this quite so well as Hal Gye.

His cartoons -- political, sporting, and whatnot -- have much of the same spirit. Never labored and certainly never dull, they express a light-hearted gaiety that is too often lacking in the work of many another artist who designedly sets out to be mechanically humorous.

Spontaneity is their keynote; he catches humor as it flies, and emeshes it in quaint lines before it has time to escape.

Hal Gye began work in-- of all places on earth -- a solicitor's office in Melbourne. The Law of Torts and the artistic temperament failed, however, to find much in common, and soon after Gye's employer and the head clerk and the most important client had been crudely caricatured on blotting pads relations became strained. Harold Neville Gye the law clerk was a lamentable failure, but after a year or two of study under the late Alec Sass, Hal Gye the artist began to be talked about. His quaint pictures appeared in various Australian papers, and when Will Dyson went to England Gye was naturally chosen to take his place as "The Bulletin's" theatrical caricaturist in Melbourne.

Publishing "The Sentimental Bloke."

It was about then that I first met him, and some years later, when I had completed "The Sentimental Bloke," I decided promptly that he was the one man to do the quaint illustrations I had in mind.

We foregathered and talked things over in his studio. The book had been already refused by two Melbourne publishers, and our hopes were not bright. Finally, I decided that if we could induce some kind publisher to issue a subscription edition of a few hundred copies we might reap a profit of ten or even fifty pounds.  

Very carefully we planned an elaborate "make-up" of the book, even to the title-page and wrapper, and sent it to Messrs. Angus & Robertson, of Sydney, with our suggestion for a modest subscription issue. Their reply was prompt brief, and dignified.  

"Dear Sir," they wrote, "We are publishers, not printers and binders."

But they immediately applied balm to our wounded dignity by suggesting a regular market edition of 5,000 copies, and a scale of fees for the artist far beyond the wildest dreams in the little back-street studio. The book was published shortly after that, and sold, to our bewilderment and, as the good Pepys has it, to our great content. Since then Hal Gye has illustrated every book I have published, besides those of many other writers, including "Banjo" Paterson and Will Ogilvie.

Except, perhaps, those he did for "The Glugs of Gosh," I like best of all Gye's quaint and dainty illustrations to "The Bloke." They have been reproduced in many places since, and their next appearance will be upon crockery from the pottery works of Messrs. Grimwade & Co., historic potters, of Stoke-on-Trent, in England.    

Among other distinction, Hal Gye holds that of being the only artist who has, with the full knowledge and consent of the Prime Minister, held up the business of Australia, while he sketched.    

It happened during the reign of William Morris the First. The Prime Minister had agreed, none too willingly, to pose upon the floor of the House during a sitting while Gye sketched him from the pressbox. A nod from the artist was to be the signal that the sketch was completed.

Thrice during his speech, the Prime Minister glanced hopefully toward the pressbox, only to be greeted by a ruthless headshake and a commanding frown. Thrice he obediently spoke on, tackling his subject from another angle and indulging new oratorical flights. Finally a gracious nod from the artist gave him release; he wound up with a fiery peroration, and sat down. And none among the Federal members knew at the time that they had listened for five minutes to that flowing Welsh oratory solely that an autocratic artist might be served.

I never have, though I should like to have, heard what Mr. Hughes thought of that caricature when it appeared. He, too, has a quaint sense of humor.

Gye's Quaint Philosophy.  

"The average man," says Hal Gye, "goes to work to earn money to buy his wife hats and dresses to keep her quiet while he goes to work to earn more money to buy her hats and dresses."    

Gye never goes to work. The result of his alleged labor too obviously bears evidence that he has had a thoroughly good time in its accomplishment. He would have you smile with him or at him, as you please, so long as you do smile. And the average man aforesaid may find in those drawings respite from that vicious circle and a bright spot in a workaday world.

On occasions, when drawing fails to carry on the fun, Gye has been known to break into verse. But rarely, and only when Puck suggests it. That airy trifle "Hot Summer Nights," published to "The Bulletin" some time ago, has by now become almost a classic. And there are others.

Adelaide is fortunate in securing the services of such a jester at her court. I feel that the queen will find no cause to frown, nor the Prime Minister any need to grow uneasy. Even the pageboys may. be permitted to titter, and the King, I hope, will never consider it expedient to order anything with boiling oil in it.

Still, if it be possible that there exists in Adelaide a citizen so seized with his own importance in the scheme of things, so obsessed with his own great work, with abnormal vanity that friendly advice cannot lessen nor gentle banter repress. I fear that he will have to submit to a measure -- a very mild measure, really -- of (what shall we say?) chastening candor.  Self-revelation is made easy when assisted by a Gye. I know. He has caricatured me.  

Still, he is ever gentle in his methods, and always prefaces the operation with the comforting remark, "Now, this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you." 

First published in The Mail, 16 June 1923

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on December 23, 2011 6:58 AM.

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