Interview: Common Ground
Industrial: A Low Act
Unions: The Number of the Least
Politics: The Smoking Gun
Economics: Microcredit, Compulsory Superannuation and Inequality
Environment: Low Voltage
History: The Art of Social Justice
Review: Work’s Unhealthy Appetite
Culture: A Forgotten Poet
From Green House to Glass House
The Art of Social Justice
Unions NSW has a unique collection of the work of one of Australia's best black and white artists.
Tom's son, David told Unions NSW about his father's life and work.
"He made a living freelancing in the cartoon game for many years and his work appeared in all sorts of publications including The Bulletin, Smith's Weekly and Rydges the business magazine (later incorporated into Business Review Weekly).
Born to a coal mining family in the north of England Tom was soon to experience the horror of mining in these early days. Fortunately for him his father had the foresight to see that Australia offered a better future than Northumberland and realized his dream to educate his children here. Tom was, to say the least, a brilliant student and became Dux of his school but times were hard and it was necessary for him to experience work in the pits as his father had before him. His further studies qualified him as a Fitter and Turner and with the Great Depression he worked in various places including Weston and the Maitland Mines (he was there in the great Lockouts) and at the Lithgow Small Arms factory.
Tom learned art at the East Sydney Technical College where his abilities were soon recognized and appreciated. He loved cartoon work which earned him some money with works being accepted by such publications as The Bulletin and the Sunday Sun. With the miner's upbringing, Tom was always politically active and did many political cartoons for various union newspapers in Sydney. For this work and his outspoken beliefs he was widely respected in the union movement. His work for The Bulletin was never political. "
The work, currently the highlight of an exhibition in Broken Hill that includes union banners and scrolls of honour, highlights his central concerns. He was closely associated with the Communist Party of Australia, and his work appeared in The CPA paper Tribune, the Miners Federation Common Cause and the Australian Railways Union Railroad. The Labor Daily was another outlet. He also sold works to or gave images to various other union publications. His comic strip on the worker Billy Bloggs ran for some time in Common Cause.
Edgar Ross' history of the Miners Federation contains several of his cartoons. The passion for justice for the people in Australia and internationally is clear in the strong images on the Vietnam War and the conservative party and big business attacks on the workers. The themes ring true to this day.
The support for the unions, with some powerful work on the campaigns for shorter working hours, attacks on Billy McMahon and the "policy vacuum" of his government on issues such as child care, workers rights, inflation, unemployment. He saw the coming tide of the Whitlam era clearly in the cartoons on the failures of McMahon.
Unions NSW is privileged to be the custodian of this collection that amplifies many of the key concerns of those who seek a just Australia and have sought a better society for many years.
The Tradition of Political Cartooning
There is a long history of black and white political commentary in Australia. The power of the picture to cut through political word games to the heart of issues has long been appreciated, even if the results of the artists work is usually only preserved for a few weeks at most by the readers cutting out the cartoon and sticking it on the fridge.
Tom Martin's work is a strong part of this tradition. During his working life his most famous contemporary who also worked with trade unions was probably Noel Counihan.
Counihan too trained at Art School, this time in Melbourne, but his subject matter throughout his life was determined by his politics. The experiences he saw and was a part of during the 1930s stayed with him for his whole life. He joined the Young Communist League in 1931and was influenced by social realism and socialist realism. He was intellectually ready to learn and agitate for the Communist Party and the expression o this came through drawing, linocuts, charcoals and paint.
Barnard Smith, author of a brilliant biography of Counihan, relates the impact on Noel of a remark by Tom Wright, secretary of the Sheetmetal Workers Union. At the Workers Art Club in Melbourne he looked some of the drawings and said "Why don't you draw something beautiful?" Such comments are the bane of many artists but it gave Counihan pause.
He was from a middle class background and did have some experience of dole queues, but he had not lived and worked in a working class community and so perhaps his eye was capturing too much f the misery of the time rather than the pride of working class people.
His participation from then in anti-eviction campaigns, demonstrations and battles with authority certainly helped sharpen his perceptions and his art from this era still has great power.
As a prelude to their era we can look to the work of Claude Marquet (whose work is also part of the Unions NSW collection). Marquet savaged the ruling classes and the Labor Rats who advocated the conscription campaign in World War One (Premier Holman and Billy Hughes were the object of his ire) and the businesses who used the war as a prime opportunity for profiteering.
Herbert McClintock was very much in the Counihan tradition. Others more aligned to a specific ALP rather that radical point of view included George Finey and Will Dyson. The common factor for these men was the impact of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism on the rights of working people and the support of many in the ruling class for the fascist ideas. Counihan' s work, collected in a terrific book by the Melbourne CPA paper the Guardian (recently found in a bookshop by Unions NSW) reflects these issues squarely, as well as the role of the Soviet Union in the War and the importance of the anti-colonial movements following WWII. It also contains some terrific cartoons on workers rights
Unions NSW continues this tradition with the image donated by Reg Mombassa for use in the current Rights at Work campaign.
Good discussion of the work of cartoonists is in Andrew Reeves terrific book Another Day Another Dollar: Working Lives in Australian History
(Carlton, Vic: McCulloch Publishing,1988)
Bernard Smith (1993) Noel Counihan: Artist and Revolutionary (Melbourne: Oxford Uni Press)
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