Cecil Lawrence Hartt

Born Prahran, Victoria 16 July 1884
Died Moruya, New South Wales 21 May 1930

By Lindsay Foyle

Cyril Lawrence (after his mother) Hartt was born to James and Alice Caroline Hartt (nee Lawrence) on 16 July 1884, in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran. The formal sounding Cyril never stuck. He was always known as Cecil, or the very informal Cec, as his friends called him.

Not long after Cec was born, James Hartt took a job as a bookkeeper with the Billson’s Breweries in Beechworth. However, in 1906 the family moved back to Melbourne after James lost his job.

At first James Hartt’s decision to move to Melbourne seemed to be working well. Then things went downhill. On Wednesday morning 1 June 1908 he committed suicide. It was a gruesome death. Hartt deliberately put his head on the rail line as a train approached. His headless body was taken from under the rear carriage. A gold watch, two pence and some letters were found in his possession. The police to track down the family and Cecil Hartt was called to identify his father’s mutilated body.

At the time Hartt was working as freelance artist. He contributed cartoons to the Melbourne weekly Comments, The Clarion and the Sydney magazine The Comic Australian, published between 1911 and 1913. And he was also getting cartoons into The Bulletin where he specialised in drawings about offbeat characters and down-and-outs.

He soon moved to Sydney where he became good friends with Henry Lawson. The friendship was unusual, as Lawson did not normally take to artists, believing them to be inferior to literary types. However, Hartt did enjoy a drink or two and that may have given Lawson a reason to think kindly of him. Cec was also good friends with Billy Hughes who was prime minister from 1915 to 1923.

Hartt was living in Pittwater Road, Dee Why a Sydney seaside suburb north of Manly by 1910. It is about an hour from Sydney and back then the area was home for many artists. Hartt, along with the other artists enjoyed the bush setting and there where several active sketch clubs in the area. An added attraction was the tramline; completed in 1913 it ran along Pittwater Road and connected the northern beaches area to Manly where the ferry could be caught to Sydney.

In 1915 a group calling themselves the Newspaper Cartoonists’ Association published Sydneyites As We See ’em 1913-14-15. It was a cheeky production combining humours drawings with photographs of the heads of prominent Sydney people. The artists who contributed were Hugh McLean, Sydney Ure Smith, Harry Julius, Tom Ferry, Will Donald, Dettmer Palmer, Hugh McCrae and Cecil Hartt who was credited as being an artist on The Bulletin. A similar book, Queenslanders As We See ’em 1915 was also published and there might have been more but for the outbreak of war.

The First World War started in August 1914 and at the age of 31, Hartt joined the 18th Battalion of the New South Wales Australian Imperial Forces in March 1915 at Liverpool near Sydney. He embarked for Gallipoli on May 25. While in the army he regularly exchanged letters with Lawson, who delighted in reading excerpts to anyone who would listen. Hartt kept a copy of The Australian Soldiers Gift Book with the inscription “To my old pal Cecil Hartt from Henry Lawson” dated Sydney June 25, 1918.

Severely wounded in the right hip and ankle while on Hill 60, Suvla Bay Gallipoli in August 1915, Corporal Hartt was transferred via Alexandria to Harefield Hospital, England to convalesce. Some records say he was so severely wounded he was incapacitated for further active service. However, his official war records show he was discharged from hospital in September and returned to the front in France only to be wounded again in October 1915. He then returned to England and the Horseferry Road Barracks in London. There are no records of active service after that. While convalescing he contributed cartoons to Bystander, Passing Show, London Opinion and other papers. He was also working on a collection of cartoons about Australian soldiers in London. In 1917 he published Humorosities a book of these cartoons with over 60,000 copies being sold in Great Britain at a shilling a copy. Most of the drawings related to what could be described as larrikins and may represent the first time this Australian trait had been used on mass in one publication.

To Hartt’s surprise Humorosities brought him considerable notoriety and he was presented to King George V. In return Hartt presented to the King a copy of Humorosities. On February 15, 1918 the King’s librarian, J W Fortescue wrote to Hartt thanking him on behalf of the King for the book and asked, “Have you an original sketch or two that you could let me have for the King’s collection of drawings.” Hartt responded sending what he could.

Promoted to sergeant in 1917, Hartt returned to Australia in April 1918. Discharged medically unfit in July and returned to work contributing cartoons to The Bulletin. Hartt was lured by the flash of a chequebook to become the first artist to work on Smith’s Weekly, when it started in March 1919. The founding editors Claude McKay and Robert Packer, where keen to make the most of Hartt’s popularity, gained from his larrikin cartoons in Humorosities. He too did not let his success with ‘Humorosities’ remain history and published in 1919 a book of his cartoons from Smith’s Weekly called Diggerettes, which was a collection of Digger cartoons. He then followed it up in 1920 with a second book called More Diggerettes.

The second artist to join Smith’s was Stan Cross and he and Hartt shared a studio in Somerset House where Smith’s Weekly was briefly produced. Lawson was a frequent visitor looking for a chat and a sixpence for refreshment. Hartt was always ready with both. The third artist to join the paper was Melbourne cartoonist Alex Sass. He was 14 years older than Hartt far more experienced in newspaper production than him or Cross and was appointed art director.

Sass’s real name was Williams but for some obscure reason always went by the name of Sass. He’d worked on Melbourne Punch 1890-1912 and then headed to New York to work on The Globe and New York World; returning to Australia after two years he worked in advertising before joining Smith’s Weekly. He always took particular care to keep his drawings clean and neat. Hartt and Cross took a special note of this. One day on the way back to the studio from having a drink or two at lunch they saw a workman drop a thin splotch of solder onto the footpath. They took it back to the studio and painted it black so it looked like an ink blotch. When dry they placed it on an unfinished drawing Sass had been working on. With the addition of an upturned empty inkbottle it looked as if the drawing had been ruined. When Sass retuned to the studio he saw what he thought was several hours of hard work destroyed by spilt ink. He didn’t see the funny side of the prank till he tried to clean up the mess with blotting paper. Instead of the ink being soaked-up it just slid across the drawing leaving no trace of damage.

For Smith’s Weekly Hartt drew caricatures along with Digger style and political cartoons and for a short time, a comic ‘Ask Bill, He Knows Everything’. It was said of Hartt that, if there is such a thing as an Australian face then he drew it. He also seemed to be friends with almost every soldier who had been in the AIF. On being discharged many called at Smith’s Weekly seeking out their good old mate Cec Hartt to share a drink or two with. Hartt, who was considered as good with a glass as he was with a pen was happy oblige.

Hartt became art director of Smith’s Weekly in 1922 following the death of Alex Sass. Soon after Hartt married Iris Katherine Brewer, known to everyone since early childhood as “Biddy”. As she grew-up the name was shortened to Bid. She was a keen ballroom dancer and would not let an opportunity to go dancing slip by. Cec had a problem dancing as the injuries he received to his ankle in the war had left him with a limp. However, Bid did not let that stop her from teaching him to dance and from then on nobody seemed to notice the limp.

Cec brought into the marriage his love of hunting and when he was not drawing, dancing or having a drink or two liked to take the family camping. Without a good sense of direction, he often took a wrong turn. Bid always knew where she was going and would tell him he’d gone the wrong way. He would invariably reply saying “No” but an hour or so later he would have to admit he had got it wrong and they had have-to back track. On one trip away Cec and Bid walked into a hotel to find the walls covered in Cec’s drawings from Smith’s Weekly. Cec was reluctant to let anyone know he was the artist who had drawn the cartoons. But Bid let the cat out of the bag and they became instant celebrities, spending the rest of the day having a drink or two, while being entertained by the people in the pub.

On July 17, 1924 the Australian Society of Black and White Artists was formed in Sydney and Hartt became the founding president. The concept for the club had been discussed in Gayfield Shaw’s studio, and soon after the newly formed body met in a room in the Royal Arcade between George and Pitt Street. It was not far from the Sydney Town Hall and only a block away from the Imperial Arcade where Smith’s Weekly had its office. Most of the other newspaper offices in Sydney would have only been a ten to 15 minutes stroll away at most. It was the first artists’ association for newspaper artists in Australia and possibly the world. And like most other artists’ association it operated a sketch club too.

Although the club had high expectations, it struggled to achieve most of them. The members did manage to put out a 48-page souvenir magazine to commemorate the visit of the American fleet to Australia in July 1925. It contained cartoons by 25 cartoonists then working in Sydney and selling for a shilling, made a profit for the club. The publication also promoted the Black and White Ball to be held in the Town Hall. It was to be similar to what had been held in Melbourne in the 1890s and an earlier Bohemian style Artists Ball held in Sydney before the war. The venue for that ball had been the Sydney Town Hall and proceeds went to the Children’s Hospital. The hall was decorated with paintings and posters produced by artists which included Norman Lindsay, D H Souter, Fred Leist and Taylor. The ball didn’t conclude till daybreak with most of those who had attended walking home in full fancy dress. On the way a coffee shop in Elizabeth Street was invaded by a huge cat, several tubes of paint, the Czar of Russia and the aboriginal King Billy of Mucketybudgereenorah all demanding coffee. There was also a small problem when a policeman in Oxford Street who considered the procession of fancy dressed revelers trying to walk home where in breach of the peace. He attempted to arrest the Czar of Russia and was in the process of leading him away when the other members of the procession persuaded him it was not in his interests to do so. Nobody ever explained whether it was logic, force of numbers or financial inducement that won the day.

The events relating to that ball seemed to be forgotten by August 1922 because an Artists’ Ball also held in the Sydney Town Hall was promoted as ‘inaugural.’ 2000 tickets were sold and the event netted around 3,000 pounds. Cross is said to have attended as a toreador, Finey as a convict and Cec as a dummy with a long-pointed head. May Gibbs attended, along with her husband J O Kelly who had taken dancing lessons so the two of them could step out on the night. But the 1923 Ball caused some problems and Kelly described it as “a disgusting affair.” He and May resolved not to attend the 1924 event. Sydney Lord Mayor Orderly said he knew the 1924 Ball would be a humdinger especially as many staff members had work overtime in order to allow it to be held. Shirley Fitzgerald in her book Sydney 1842-1992 wrote, “In the end though, it was all the staff could do to assist the police in clearing the halls and getting the wounded to hospital as bacchanalian revels turned to riot. The event generated widespread community condemnation of the disgraceful widespread scenes of drunken riot and licentiousness.” That might explain why there was no ball in 1925.

Somehow all was forgiven because the 1926 The Black and White Ball was conducted in the Sydney Town Hall as had the others. And again, it was promoted as ‘inaugural.’ As before the walls decorated by posters drawn by the members of the Society of Black and White Artists and it was fancy dress. Bid was due to give birth the following day. But she attended dressed in a spiffy ball gown with a crinoline over her baby and much to Cec’s consternation danced all night. He spent the night following her around. Their daughter, Diana Cecillie (after her father) was born on August 15, 1926. From her father she inherited his height, good looks and strong nose. From her mother she inherited her love of dancing. Diana grew-up to work in the theatre and on September 1, 1945 she and two other showgirls were survey burnt in a fire at the Tivoli theatre in Sydney. June McKenzie died on September 5 and Phyllis Haynes on Sept 9. Diana was also not expected to live and remained in hospital for 61/2 months. It was a very big story in Sydney and she had 7/8th of her body burnt. The newspapers followed to story and she was the only person - besides King George VI - to have a daily report on her health published. She recovered, married and moved to California.

Those who attended the 1926 ball considered the event a success and it even showed a profit. Money was raised at an auction and was donated to the Red Cross, and Francis De Groot was the auctioneer. But the authorities at the Town Hall didn’t look kindly upon the evening and the club was banned from having further events there. One of the reasons might have been the near nude journalist Dulcie Deamer - also known as the Queen of Bohemia - who came in a leopard skin only just covering her all but naked body. Then it might have been the advertising executive from Smith’s Weekly, he arrived with nothing but a ribbon around his protruding stomach tied in a bow at the front. It might have been that some of the guests were said to have danced naked on the tables. Two of them got as close and personal as two naked people can get. Then it might have been that the ball did not conclude till daybreak. But the authorities said it was to do with the profligacy and debauchery among those who attended. Hard to imagine how they could say that.

The Black and White Artists’ Club returned to the Sydney Town Hall to conduct the 1994 Stanley Awards. Lord Mayor Frank Sartor attended, enjoyed the evening and assured everyone the club was welcome and the activities of the previous events had been forgotten. Diana Hartt (or deBring to give her married name), was there too.

Hartt stayed president of the Black and White Artists’ Club until his death. He had been missing for several days and his body was found in his car on May 21, 1930 on a mountain near Moruya on the south coast of New South Wales. He had a wound to the head and a shotgun beside him. The tragedy was never explained and it came as a shock to friends, family and the public. Most likely it was the result of post-traumatic stress brought on by his war injuries. Cross took over Hartt’s rolls of art director of Smith’s Weekly and as president of the Black and White Artists’ Club.

Hartt had been a popular member of the staff at Smith’s Weekly and many did not want to believe he was dead. There was no note or explanation as to why he had taken his own life, while there was some speculation but nobody said they knew the reason. Hartt had been to the doctor shortly before, but never explained why or what had been said. He was also privately worried he was losing his drawing skills, but that was a personal demon and not one anyone else had seen any evidence of. He had always taken cartooning seriously and as soon as one cartoon had been passed for publication he would immediately start thought hunting for a new idea. “Oh, Gawd” he would say “A bloke has missed his calling - should have been a tin whistle.” Cec and Bid had shared a loving marriage and whatever the reasons Cec had to take his own life remained a mystery to Bid.

Adam McCay wrote in an obituary that he was not dead, just missing and added “Perhaps he has just slipped across the road to see his old mate Henry Lawson about something.” Lawson had been dead eight years by then. Cross said “He was nearest of all his contemporaries to the Australian tradition, as far as humorous art can expound it, and we practitioners, as well as Australian comic art in the abstract, owe him a lot.” Finey said, “A big slice of humour had gone with him, never to be replaced.”

There are several stories about Hartt’s ashes and for reasons that are long forgotten the funeral urn containing Cec’s ashes, were said to have been kept at Smith’s Weekly. One story goes on about them being placed on a ledge in the art department. Whenever the artists headed to the pub for a drink or two they took Hartt’s ashes with them. The urn would be placed on the bar and every time a round of drinks was bought, a drink would be placed next to the urn. After all the artists had bought a round there would be a line of drinks next to Hartt’s urn. As it was by then Hartt’s turn to buy a round, those in the group would pick up the drinks next to the urn and toast Hartt. This happy ritual was played out many times until one afternoon after they had returned to the office (probably after one round too many) someone noticed the urn was not on its ledge. They had comeback from the pub leaving it on the bar. Everyone rushed back to retrieve the urn, but it was too late it was gone. Nobody ever found out what happened the ashes and the urn.

Jim Russell who was a cartoonist and worked on Smith’s Weekly, was good friends with Hartt said the story was true. Cross also a good friend said it was not. He contended the urn in the office, which was believed to contain Hartt’s ashes, had never been taken to the pub. But had been taken by some of the artists who left in 1935 to work at the Australian Women’s Weekly. However, there was never a rumour about the urn at the Women’s Weekly. So that story might not be true. There was a third story about Hartt’s ashes being kept at Smith’s Weekly. This rumour had the ashes in the urn, being kept by the literary editor Reg Moses in his office. On one occasion when he was on holidays a woman and her daughter called at the office and asked if they could see the urn. Moses’ office was searched, but the urn could not be found. Eventually it was assumed to be in a locked cupboard, and nobody could find the key. The woman and the girl then knelt in front of the cupboard and prayed and then headed off. When Moses returned from holidays he was told what had happened and he opened the locked cupboard and showed everyone the contents. A pile of dirty shirts. The minor problem with this story is that in 1930 Moses was editor, not literary editor of Smith’s Weekly. He left in 1935 to work at the Women’s Weekly.

The only thing about these stories is that true or not, Cecil Lawrence Hartt would have enjoyed telling them if he had lived.

Cec Hartt entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2020.

Further reading