Les Tanner Remembers

I first met Bill when I was a seventeen year old copy boy in the artist room at the Sydney Daily Telegraph in 1944. He had just returned from New Guinea and I was greatly in awe of him. I had seen his work long before (my father had worked in the publishing rooms of various papers and always brought copies home – the Telegraph, Smith’s Weekly, Women’s Weekly, etc) so I was familiar with his comic illustrations. What I now discovered was his immense versatility in the war paintings he did.

He was probably the first adult I was encouraged to call by his first name. At his insistence he was either Bill or Billy Wep or Bill Pidge. Everyone else was Mr. or Sir. He was very warm, friendly, encouraging and funny.

He had a reputation for heavy drinking being among those that appeared in the pub when they opened at 10a.m.. What very few knew was that he’d already worked six hours, rising at 4a.m.. Newspapers were pretty boozy places anyway so the reputation did him no harm.

I didn’t know Jess at all as she was very sick but I heard a lot about her from his friends and colleagues. I know he adored her and that she was strikingly good looking and that he adored her not only for that but for her spirit and all the qualities she had and shared with others. He nursed her until her tragic death.

He used to come to the Artist’s room to get pencils, ink, white poster colour and paper but would always look at what I was drawing and say things like ‘that’s very funny, do more like that’ or show me the books of the old masters. I remember him showing me a book of Hokusai the Japanese 18th century print maker and telling me that he signed his work ‘An old man mad about drawing’. Bill thought that was marvelous.

Bill would appear always wearing a pork pie hat, always well dressed in a casual way. He had a soft voice, workman like hands with solid blunt fingers (as I well remember, from having one of them down my throat to make me up-chuck some of the excess liquor I’d consumed at the Artists’ Ball so I’d be sober enough to drive home.)

He was great encourager of young talent, Brett Whiteley, Peter Harrigan and me. He even set up a travelling scholarship which I was told later he meant for me but I was in the Army in Japan and madly in love with an American girl and didn’t enter. Peter Harrigan did and deservedly won a year in London. I think he was so in love with drawing and painting and just creating with his hands that when he saw talent in others he couldn’t help but foster and encourage. I remember him showing me a short flight of concrete steps at Northwood. He was so proud of having made them that he signed them Wep.

His friends Geoff Turton, George Finey, Bill Mahony and others told me stories about him shocking a posh dinner party with an oyster stuck in his nostril waggling about. About him taking Lennie Lower away to the Snowy Mountains with instructions not to give Lower any more money than two shillings (20c). Lower went to Cooma with his two shillings and came back rotten drunk with seven and sixpence change. He’d gone into Cooma, told everyone who he was and that he was there with Wep so no-one would let him pay for a drink and actually pressed money on him thus defeating the other instruction ‘sober him up and keep him sober’.

I saw a lot of your father when he was cartooning for the ‘Sunday Tele’ as I was rostered on on Saturdays. We used to drink in the Windsor hotel in Castlereagh St. He had his paper on the bar marking stories that might give him an idea for a cartoon. We’d go back to the canteen for a cold pork sandwich and he’d buy a bottle of dry sherry to share with the women in the Social dept. next door to our rooms.

Ure Smith the publisher got me to design the cover for ‘They’re A Weird Mob’ which I did but came down with appendicitis. Ure Smith asked Bill to illustrate it which was a bit much as he was trying to break away from illustration for serious portraiture and in fact had won his first Archibald [not at that time – 1957]. I think it was when he and your mother were either courting or had just married. I know he visited me in hospital to tell me he would do it. I only mention it because when the book launch was held, the author John O’Grady, a XXXX man at best, made his speech he hoped “You all made enough out of my talents to buy a new suit of clothes.” This was greeted by us all in stunned silence until someone announced that Bill had won his second [actually his first] Archibald. O’Grady was lost in the cheers that went up. O’Grady was very put out.

I met your mother several times both before and after marriage and have fond memories of her.

– Les Tanner, Feb. 2000

Caravanning with Wep – 1938 Jindabyne; Grimm Tale of Man IN Snowy River

Grimm Tale of Man IN Snowy River

By L. W. LOWER

JINDABYNE, Monday.

I, myself, personally, alone, and unaided, have crossed the Snowy River on foot in my downy underpants.

This, so far as I know, has never been done before.

As for me, it will not be done again within living memory.

Asked by an interested bystander why I did this, I told him in my simple, forthright way that I wanted to see what was on the other side.

This seemed pretty weird to him.

Halfway across I became bunkered in the rapids, but the indomitable Lower spirit triumphed, and nature took a dirty slap to the face.

Innumerable turkeys roam around our caravan.

I missed eight with various-sized rocks, and had just drawn a fine sight on the ninth, with every chance of bringing him down, when a man in dirty khaki trousers came and said: “Waddger thinkyer trianterdo?”

It seems that they were his turkeys.

“I was just teaching your turkeys how to duck,” I replied.

I thought that was rather bright, considering. He didn’t.

Un-palette-able!

My artist companion, Wep, is becoming more tiring every hour.

Today he was squinting at a little church built on the top of a bare rock-strewn hill.

He walked me up and down for miles saying, “It looks better from here, don’t you think. Do you think I’d get the light better from over there?”

I said that it would probably look swell from the verandah of Straw Weston’s pub.

He became temperamental about it, and said I had no eye for beauty, no sense of balance and proportion, and no soul.

I got into my huff and walked off.

I beat him to the hotel by only four minutes.

Caravanning with Wep – Jindabyne 1938; Quavering Made Them Crotchety

Quavering Made Them Crotchety

By L. W. LOWER

JINDABYNE, Sunday.

Pity you weren’t at the dance last night.

All the girls in this town have been mooning around with cast-iron hair-wavers all over them for days and days.

I sang.

The policeman who put me out told me that he was a great lover of music, but there were a lot of narrow-minded people in the town who had no ear for music.

One of our main storekeepers has been fined 28 shillings for fishing for trout out of season.

He didn’t catch any trout, either.

Ain’t he lucky?

If at any time the Government thinks of dredging the river up around these parts, they may come across a safety razor.

That will be mine.

Cows, But No Milkmen

I have now the perfect excuse for not shaving.

When I think of the hot towels, bay rum, and cold cream and talcum powder shaves I had before I went bush, I blush.

That dance I mentioned was in aid of the Bush Nurses’ Association.

What I need mostly now is a bush nurse.

Almost any kind of nurse will do, but I think a bush nurse would be more appropriate.

Little did I know when I left town that I would wake one morning frozen to death and entirely surrounded by munching cows.

“Will you go for the milk?”

“Certainly. Where do I go?”

“See that hill over there, well you keep that on your right shoulder till you come to a creek. You go across there and take to the left track past the bull paddock.”

“Pardon, but do you really think we need any milk? They tell me that the stuff is full of tubercular germs and things. I think we’d be safer without milk.”

Not Much Remains …

There will come a day, I suppose when I’ll just have to go for the milk.

When black-trackers find my remains, people will say, “Poor Lennie. Cut off in the bloom of youth. A winsome lad. How we all loved him.”

Make my wreath of Iceland poppies, freesias, and snowdrops.

Wep is lying on his back, covered with blankets and inertia.

He has gathered sufficient strength to tell me to make the fire and put the chops on.

I wish I had a shilling.

Any of you lads who contemplate having a hot rum about now, please think of me, and breathe in a southerly direction.

Caravanning with WEP – Winter, 1938; a week at Jindabyne with Lennie Lower

 

In the 1930s, Lennie Lower was considered one of Australia’s foremost humorists. His novel, Here’s Luck was first published in 1930 and is considered a classic of Australian humour.  It has been reprinted many times since and was illustrated by his good friend and colleague, Wep with the 1955 edition.  Wep and Lower were closely associated from the time Wep first started illustrating his column at the Daily Guardian in Sydney and later at The Australian Women’s Weekly when that publication commenced in 1933 cementing their notoriety throughout Australia.

Lower was reknowned for his drinking and in the winter of 1938, Wep and his wife Jess were accompanied by Lower for a week’s sojourn in the Snowy Mountains region around Jindabyne and Cooma.  Lower was to write a series of columns for the Daily Telegraph and Wep was under instructions not to give Lower any more money than 2 shillings.  Lower went to Cooma with his two shillings and returned rotten drunk with seven and sixpence change. He’d gone into Cooma and told everyone who he was, and that he was there with Wep. No one would let him pay for a drink and actually pressed money on him thus defeating the other instruction to Wep to “sober him up and keep him sober.”