Les Tanner (source unknown)

by Lyn Collingwood, August 2013

One of Australia’s best-known Press cartoonists for over 40 years, Leslie Mervyn Tanner was born on 15 June 1927 when his parents were living at 12 Reuss Street Glebe.  Suffering from dysentery, he was not expected to survive longer than six months.  During the Depression years he was educated at Glebe Public School.  He then attended demonstration school North Newtown Intermediate and Randwick High. (‘I was known as a bit of a show-off.  I would illustrate my compositions.’) *  Les’s mother was a cousin of comedian George Wallace and his ‘Uncle Billy’ a props maker for Cinesound. 

Aged 12, Les was an extra in the Wallace/Cinesound feature Gone to the Dogs.  He also appeared in Our Gang and Forty Thousand Horsemen.

From the age of five Les drew caricatures of his parents and visitors.  His parents had no artistic ability but he was encouraged to draw by Uncle Billy and there were always papers and journals in the Tanner household: Smith’s Weekly, Women’s Weekly, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Sun.  Second cousin George Wallace was a talented caricaturist and landscape painter.

Les left school at age 15 and had several odd jobs including packing at Woolworths and making lavatory seats (‘I wasn’t too keen on that because a number of men had fingers missing’) before joining the Daily Telegraph as a printer’s devil in 1942.  He was transferred to the art department and began studying at the Julian Ashton School. (‘I’d never seen a naked model, but my first life class turned out to be an Indonesian seaman fully dressed’). At age 18 he was sent to Japan to work on the occupation force’s newspaper BCON as a cartoonist.  On returning to Australia he illustrated for the magazine AM and the Daily and Sunday Telegraph.  He also joined the Communist Party and acted and designed for Sydney’s New Theatre (ASIO agents recorded his activities) until 1956.  He was a talented actor, particularly in comedy.  In 1949 he married Margaret Florence King (‘Peg’) who taught acting at the New.  In 1952 Peg was wardrobe mistress and Les designer and actor in The Candy Store which played underground to an audience of striking oil shale miners at Glen Davis.

After spending 1960 in London as a ‘joke artist’ on the Daily Sketch, Tanner joined the Bulletin as art director.  In 1967 Sir Frank Packer took umbrage against Tanner’s depiction of Victorian Premier Sir Henry Bolte in an article on capital punishment and pulped the entire issue.  Tanner then moved to Melbourne to work as chief political cartoonist on the Age, a position he held until his retirement in 1997.  He wrote a popular weekly column Tanner With Words.  Among the illustrators he most admired were the Australian Wep (Bill Pidgeon) and the Englishman Ronald Searle.

Tanner’s awards included 1960 ‘Cartoonist of the Year’, Walkleys in 1962 and 1965, and a Golden Quill in 1999 for lifetime achievement in the arts.  A 60-a-day smoker, he had a laryngectomy (‘Weary Dunlop cut my throat’) and a heart transplant.  He died on 23 July 2001.

Les’s parents were Lilian and ‘Jack’ (John Cecil 1900-55) Tanner who met while working in a Leeton canning factory (where Lilian led a strike) and who married at Narrandera in 1923.  His paternal grandparents were Mary Ann née Guest and William Edwin Tanner, Protestants who wed at Blayney in 1900.  (Jack’s siblings were Doris Edith (1898-1970) and Arthur Leslie (1903-59).  A sister Gladys died at birth in 1902.)  Putting up his age to 18 and giving his occupation as a carter, Jack enlisted in World War 1.  He embarked in July 1917 on the Port Melbourne but was diagnosed with a hernia in Cairo and shipped back home three months later.  Before moving to Glebe the married couple lived with John’s widowed mother who ran a boarding house at 105 Pitt Street Redfern.  Les’s father described himself as a ‘newspaper publisher’ but in reality he was a permanent casual labourer who bundled up newspapers and threw them onto trucks for delivery to newsagents.  In 1940 he enlisted in the army, served in the Middle East and was discharged a lance corporal in June 1945.  At the time of his death he was living at Bondi.

Les’s mother Lilian Iris (1904– ca 96) was born in Sydney to John Patrick Rogan and Ethel née Scott who had married in 1898.  Ethel’s sister Catherine married George Stephenson Wallace; by the 1920s their son George was one of Australia’s best known and highest paid vaudevillians.  Convent educated and a ‘lapsed Catholic’, Lilian was, like her husband, strongly pro-Labor and a fervent supporter of Jack Lang.  A voracious reader, she belonged to the Grace Brothers Lending Library and the Glebe School of Arts Library (a favourite book was Patrick White’s first novel Happy Valley).  During her husband’s wartime absence she worked as a caterer’s waitress: ‘she’d do anything to get out of the house’.

Les’s heritage on his father’s side was Irish.  Great-great grandfather William Tanner (1827-1900) from Bandon, County Cork, was a member of the 11th (North Devonshire) Regiment of Foot, the first occupiers of Sydney’s Victoria Barracks.  He arrived on the Castle Eden in 1845 and remained in Sydney after the regiment returned home in 1857.  He married twice and had 15 children.  His eldest was William Edwin (1850-1928) born to first wife Ann née Goodfellow (183158), also Irish.  William senior, together with his sons, was licensee of several hotels in the Orange district and for a number of years a policeman at Blackheath.  The family’s pubs included ‘Tanner’s Telegraph Hotel’ in Orange, the Commercial Hotel in Guyong and the Club House Hotel in Orange.

Les’s great grandfather William Edwin, first mayor of Molong and in 1892 mayor of Orange, in 1871 married Catherine ‘Kate’ Archer (1843-1917) who had arrived in Sydney aboard the Agincourt in 1848.  Her parents Frederick Francis Archer and Mary née Marvin, like many of the ship’s assisted immigrants, were lacemakers from Calais fleeing revolutionary France.  Frederick Archer became police commissioner in the Bathurst district.  Kate and William Tanner had eight children whose births were registered at Orange, Molong and Carcoar: William Edwin (18721914), Alice Mary (born 1874), Bertram Frederick (1876-1917), Albert Edgar (1878-1955), Harold Victor (1881-1956), Ada Maud (1884-91), Cecil Alfred (1886-1962) and Hilda Kathleen (1888-1947).  William Edwin senior died on 7 May 1928, having outlived members of his immediate family.  His oldest child, Les’s grandfather, died aged 42 on 2 September 1914, his second son Bertram aged 41 in an English hospital from war wounds on 15 February 1917, and his wife aged 69 on 11 August the same year.

Australian Dictionary of Biography: George Wallace entry
Australian War Memorial online indexes
Leader (Orange) 20 + 22 August 1917
National Library of Australia TRC 3743: interview with Les Tanner
New Theatre Records: Mitchell Library ML MSS 6244
NSW Registry of Births, Deaths, Marriages
NSW State Records: publican’s licences (reel 1243)
Orange Family History Group Orange & District Pioneer Register to 1888 1999
Sands Directories
Sydney Morning Herald 1 August 2001
Western Advocate 23 January 1892
* First person quotes are from a 1998 interview with Les Tanner, recorded for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History Program.