Award-winning Herald cartoonist Rod Emmerson drew his first caricatures on the back of beer coasters at the pub on a Friday night.

Then a design draughtsman for a Queensland local authority, Emmerson would go to the pub with fellow surveyors, engineers and their partners. One was a journalist who persuaded him to do a drawing which she presented to her editor.

Emmerson was promptly offered a regular gig drawing a weekly cartoon but resisted attempts to employ him full-time. He had a good job in a brand spanking new office with a view across the water where he and his colleagues could see dolphins swimming.

When the newspaper offered to double his salary, he agreed to give it six months. Some 30 years later, he's still drawing editorial cartoons and caricatures - at least one a day - and is reluctant to take a holiday lest he miss out on a big news event.

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"I love it; it's a passion and when I think about taking a holiday, I do get nervous because you know something big will happen while you're away," Emmerson says.

‘You’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata’, 1993 Christopher Houlton Slane
‘You’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata’, 1993 Christopher Houlton Slane

"You live for the big stories."

Viewing his work as social commentary, he's raked up many politicians and public figures including Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, who he last year portrayed as an angry clown, complete with red nose. In a seething response to the caricature, Cheika labelled New Zealand "disrespectful".

"I thought it was hilarious because what they [the Wallabies] were doing was creating a smokescreen for the fact they had lost again at Eden Park - having not broken the curse - and were deflecting their anger and disappointment on to me," Emmerson says.

A Queenslander, he acknowledges he doesn't really follow rugby. But it turns out he is one of the latest in a long line of creatives keeping alive an art-form with a lengthy history of satirising, parodying, lampooning and ridiculing the so-called great and good.

Now an exhibition at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington will show just how extensive that history is. Ludicrous Likenesses: The Fine Art of Caricature features more than 100 images from the Alexander Turnbull Library collections and highlights 300 years of cartooning.

It includes original work by world-famous NZ cartoonists such as Sir David Low, Les Gibbard, Alan Reeve and Murray Ball as well as newspaper cartoonists such as Emmerson, Guy Body, Sir Gordon Minhinnick, Malcolm Evans and Peter Bromhead and tongue-in-cheek portraits of local celebrities by contemporary artists Sharon Murdoch and Chris Slane.

Curators Dr Oliver Stead, curator of drawings, paintings and prints at the Turnbull Library, and Hannah Benbow, Turnbull's research librarian, cartoons, say the emphasis is on caricature art in styles from traditional paintings and drawings to contemporary digital media. They describe Ludicrous Likenesses as a celebration of cartoonists as artists.

"Their ability to draw a striking likeness is an unusual and admirable skill; it is also a provocative one ... A perceptive cartoon portrait can render the essence of a person's presentation more effectively than a camera. It is no accident that caricature has been associated with the media since the media began," Stead says.

Indeed, cartooning may owe part of its development to one of the greatest artists of all time, Leonardo da Vinci. In the 1700s, enterprising Czech artist Wenceslaus Hollar discovered among the collection of nobleman and art collector Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel, an assortment of extraordinary distorted faces drawn by da Vinci.

Hollar published a series of etchings copied after Leonardo's grotesques which became widely admired and circulated throughout Britain and Europe. Their publication coincided with the first newspapers being produced in Europe which fuelled demand for illustrations.

Stead says these became increasingly satirical and political leading to "a derisive undercurrent of English wit" that came with European settlement to the South Pacific.

"By the time James Cook made his way across the Pacific Ocean, caricature was an established fixture in the British press."

He believes the number of newspapers printed in colonial New Zealand and Australia kept cartooning in rude health, saying the two complement one another. Emmerson's observation that cartoonists in this part of the world tend to pillory the left and the right in equal measure might explain why we've done so well internationally.

He says it is part of a news cartoonist's job to be almost one step ahead of the news, always knowing what's topical and being able to draw the threads of seemingly different events together.

"You have four to five seconds of someone's attention span and that's it for them to read a cartoon, understand it and then move on. It's very difficult in that short time to be able to entertain someone to point where you can make them laugh or cry into their breakfast."

Ludicrous Likenesses: The Fine Art of Caricature is at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, Shed 11 on Wellington's Queen's Wharf from August 3-October 23. The exhibition also celebrates the 25th anniversary of the New Zealand Cartoon Archive at the Turnbull Library.