Tony Rafty: Caricaturist and Australian National Treasure

Tony Rafty: Caricaturist and Australian National Treasure
by Greg Tingle


Art Creative Arts Cartoons Australia Greece

Tony Rafty is getting prepared to make the trip to his parents’ birthplace, Greece, to pay homage to his remaining relatives from both sides of this family, while covering the 2004 Olympic Games, to be held in Athens.

This great Australia, Tony Rafty was born in Paddington, Sydney on the 12th October, 1915, and now resides at Little Bay in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

Tony got his start drawing caricatures while he caddied in his native Australia as a teenager, trying to help his family through the Depression.

He can rightfully boast that he is the only artist in the world to have recorded the Olympians and sketches of the Olympic Games from 1948 (London) to 1996 (Atlanta).

What is even more noteworthy is the fact that 95% of his drawings also have their subject’s autographs, making his collection unique and invaluable.

Tony specialises in caricatures of media types, entertainers, politicians, golfers, boxers, and cricketers, and has been described by industry experts and practitioners as “without peer”, in terms of the number of drawings and caricatures autographed, ever assembled in one artist’s lifetime.

Just a few of the notable politicians Tony has drawn in caricature include William McMahon, Gough Whitlam, Graham Richardson, Michael Photios and Tom Uren. Tony has also met and drawn many international political figures including U.S Presidents, Harold McMillan and Mrs Indira Ghandi.

"The Great Entertainers" is another work of art with the most famous piece being the signed caricature of The Beatles when they visited Australia in 1964.  John, Paul, George and Ringo all signed the drawing and it is said to be the only one of its kind in the world.  The rest of the collection includes over 150 signed drawings of such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jnr., Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Betty Davis, Alfred Hitchcock, Tony Bennett, Danny Kaye, Paul Robeson and even Mr. Lips himself, Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones.

Not surprisingly, Tony’s work has been showcased at art exhibitions around Australia, and he in currently in negations with Museums and art houses in Los Angeles.

One of the most prestigious exhibitions of Tony’s work, was at the Greek Ambassador’s residence in Canberra, which commemorated the anniversary of the Battle of Crete.

Tony Rafty has proved his talents over several decades and has been employed by highly reputed newspapers in the mainstream press.

Over the years more than 15.000 of his drawings have graced the pages of newspapers and magazines, as well as the walls of exhibition centres around the globe.  

During World War II Tony proved to be a most talented war artist, and journalist, while serving in the Australian Army in New Guinea, Borneo and Singapore, and a few years later he covered the Indonesian War of Independence.  His considerably works from that era are housed in the National Library and the Australian War Museum in Canberra.

Tony sketched the surrender of the Japanese in Singapore and the War Museum in Canberra has over 200 of his works during this time. He covered the release of the POWs from prison camps and completed many sketches of war action including a memorable one of Lord Mountbatten. He also experienced the Indonesian War of Independence and befriended President Suekarno of Indonesia.

“The Olympians” exhibitions at the Myers Emporium in Melbourne, (opened by Sir William Dargie) in 1959, three years after the Victorian capital staged the Olympic Games; at the Canberra National Press Club, (opened by Sir Robert Menzies) in 1965; the Adelaide Festival in 1966; Vathy (capital of Ithaca) in 1972; Manila Peninsula Hotel, Philippines (opened by Ambassador Richard Wollcott) in 1981.

In 1984 Tony Rafty has one exhibition at Squire House in Hong Kong while that same year examples of his court reportage were displayed at the Blaxland Galleries, in Sydney (and opened by Judge Cross); in 1987 his works were on show at the Sydney Town Hall as part of the City of Sydney Festival; in 1989 he exhibited at the David Jones store in Canberra and in 1993 his “Olympians in Caricature” exhibition was mounted at the Sydney Town Hall.

It must be noted that in 1981 Tony became the world’s first caricaturist to have subjects appear on national stamps for Australian Post.  To jog your memories, gracing that series of stamps were the caricatures of cricketer Victor Trumper, billiards champion Walter Lindrum, tennis star Sir Norman Brooks and jockey Darby Munroe.  Tony also undertook the first day cover designs of the same for Fleetway in the United States.

Not content with stamps, Tony forged another milestone by being the first artist commissioned to provide courtroom drawings for the Channel Seven News. His sketches were televised across the country and he still has a small collection of famous cases.

The cartoonist-caricaturist is also proud of the fact that he is one of the founding members of the Black and White Artists Club (having served as President); for 23 years he was on the Board of Directors of the Sydney Journalists Club (holding the position of President) and served the Australian War Correspondents’ Association.  Tony still leads the Anzac Day march at the head of the Australian War Correspondents Society.

Sir William Dargie, one of Australia’s great artists, winner of a number of Archibald Prizes and war artist with Rafty in WW11 says, “Tony Rafty is simply splendid. He not only brings an intellectual quality to his work, but he does it so well within a social context that he creates subjects which have a life of their own.”

In 1985 Tony was awarded the Gold Cross of Mount Athos, one of Greece’s highest honours, and in 1991 Tony was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for services to the media.  Tony acknowledged that he dedicated the Gold Cross to his parents.

Speaking to Media Man Australia, Tony explained his approach to his work, “I try to notice clothes, shoes, the way people stand,” he said.  “If you look at my drawings, I hope to capture the spirit.  A caricature is meant to be exaggerated to a certain extent, but if it’s too much, you lose the likeness. It all has to do with seeing the person.”

Tony’s artistic style flows from life itself, with quick first impressions committed to paper in bold outlines and later filled in with detail.  “I like to capture a personality when they are talking and moving about. A person’s face doesn’t come alive until they are mobile, talking or laughing.  I like to do two or three drawings at different angles then leave it until later when I can get a photograph to remember the small details that I may have forgotten”.

While his works could sell for millions around the world, what are they worth to Tony Rafty?

“Just to be near them and talk to them in the mornings is great”, he says.  “I remember little conversations I had with them (the subjects), and that is what’s so special to me”.

Tony Rafty is a true national treasure at 88 years of age and his caricatures trace a course in history. They will leave a visual image of the famous, and not so famous, people who came and went over his lifetime.

This extraordinary man’s ambition to go to Greece next year will surely be realised, as a man of such talent and passion wouldn’t have it any other way.


Caricaturist whose story began at the frontline - 25th April 2006

Interview: Tony Rafty