Bill Leak sadly passed away in Gosford hospital from a suspected heart attack at the age of 61, leaving behind a big blank space to fill in the political cartoon industry. It is still a shock and a tremendous loss, Bill had so many more cartoons to draw. Last Friday it had just been moments after l called Dymocks to put a copy of Bill Leak’s latest book aside Trigger Warning aside and l received a text message from my aunty alerting me to the news Bill had passed.
I first met Bill Leak back in the early ‘80s. In 1983 Bill had started drawing cartoons for The Bulletin before moving over to Fairfax. It was a year later l started freelancing for The Bulletin. I then joined the Black And White Artist Club, known today as the Australian Cartoonist Association. I was young and attending my first Stanley Awards (The Oscars for Australian cartoonist) and visiting Melbourne for the first time. I travelled down by car with the cartoonist of Australia’s longest-running cartoon strip series The Potts, the late Jim Russell and his brother Dan. That in itself was an experience l will never forget.
The few days we were in Melbourne the club had organized different outings and functions for its members and l will never forget Bill, always making sure l was never left out. He included me in everything even making sure l was sitting at his table and bringing me into conversations. Bill enjoyed hearing my stories of the journey from Wollongong to Melbourne with the Russell brothers. He thought they were hilarious and looking back they were. There was always plenty of paper being handed around and l was in constant awe watching every time Bill, pick up a pen and started sketching. His cartoons were drawn fast and so expressive and would simply just come to life.
Bill was very intellectual, funny and brilliant at making conversation and his views on politics was sophisticated. I could listen to Bill talk for hours. Bill was also one of the artists who donated his time painting the jeans of celebrities for Jeans 4 Genes and I always enjoyed opportunities to be in Bill’s company. I remember being on the same table at one of the Gala Auction nights with Bill and former Illawarra Mercury cartoonist Warren Brown. Those two were great mates and absolutely hilarious together. Bill always made you feel special. Whenever l have been asked, if l had the opportunity having any three people in the world to have at a dinner party my first person picked was always Bill Leak.
Satire certainly has the potential to shock when it touches cultural or religious issues. I agree with Bill, he said, “when someone complains about a cartoon, you may have never met them but it’s amazing how they think that they know you so well, that they are able to say what you, as a cartoonist, were thinking when you were drawing the cartoon”. The thing is, whether you’re a comedian or a cartoonist, satire always has the potential to make us feel uncomfortable. Sometimes knowing the truth also makes us feel uncomfortable. Bill was always, just doing his job as a cartoonist.
I might be a cartoonist that stays away from the permissible limits of the right to freedom of expression, Bill was the bravest, Australia’s fearless political and cultural satirist. Being funny is a serious business and to my mind and so many, Bill was magnificent, the very best. Bill would tell you about the pressures of creating a daily cartoon, but he was the best at his craft. His courageous cartoons told the truth and always captured the point perfectly. Bill often attracted controversy, battled public opinion and was criticised for just doing his job. A good cartoon would become a platform and an excuse for minorities to express their outrage.
Bill was an accomplished artist, technically the best whether it was in oils or inks. He was also a genius at caricaturing and portraiture. If you ever visit parliament house in Canberra, there are portraits of Australian Prime Ministers displayed, Bill has painted Bob Hawke.
Bill Leak was a true Australian larrikin at his desk and a really loveable guy. Cartooning in Australia won’t be the same without this witty Larrikin. I admired Bill as a person and artist so much and will miss admiring his brilliance and laughing everyday at his cartoons.
*Bill Leak will be farewelled at a public service at the Sydney Town Hall on Friday. Paul Dorin, who is an Illawarra cartoonist and a friend of Bill, wrote this tribute.