Back In March this year, a planned catch-up with visiting Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell had to be suddenly shelved.

Instead, I found myself sitting with family and friends at Sydney's Town Hall for the funeral of Australia's most disruptive and polarising cartoonist and artist, the Australian's Bill Leak.

Struck down by a massive heart attack, Bill had finally succumbed to the pressures of the endless bickering over the 18C debate - the section of Australia's Racial Discrimination Act which says it is unlawful for a person to do an act in public which is "reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" another person or a group of people.

David Bowie eyes. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
David Bowie eyes. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

The lower chamber of the Town Hall was at capacity with a heavy mix of federal politicians, current and former Prime Minsters, thespians, artists, journalists and cartoonists.


Despite the 18C storm, Bill still commanded enormous respect. My sister had flown down from Brisbane and both my boys now living in Sydney were there.

Our connection went back almost 30 years. A man of immense talent, Bill had touched a lot of people - some for all the wrong reasons.

But his sudden death had caught anyone who knew him completely out. He had survived a dreadful balcony fall some years earlier, that would surely have killed anyone else. The recovery would take years but he remarkably bounced back.

Bill still had years of incisive cartoons and brilliant portraits ahead of him. As Barry Humphries said in his eulogy, he deserved to live a long and fruitful life as an immensely talented ratbag.

Suddenly - it was over. The deadline had come and taken him. The sense of loss was dreadful for so many.

Tim Finn. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Tim Finn. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

For me, my trips to Sydney for years had either started or finished with a visit to him. The door was always open and laughs were guaranteed.

We both painted, yet were political cartoonists - a common thread among scribblers.

His work was simply devastating, but the ever-pompous art world only ever saw him as a cartoonist.


In more recent years - post recovery of the balcony fall - he had moved from Sydney to Woy Woy, but that wasn't far enough. A decreed fatwa from some far-flung radical cleric was taken seriously by both Australian intelligence and Rupert Murdoch's personal security.

Bill had to sell the house and live off-radar, eventually becoming somewhat of a recluse.

The memorial service was both a fabulous celebration for his family and a farewell usually reserved for the very pointy end of News Ltd.

Murdoch's wonderful message of condolence gave an insight to the extraordinary respect extended to this immensely talented street fighter.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gave a personal reflection, which included early portraits Bill had done of him in boardshorts and T-Shirt.

Humphries, clearly devastated, spoke of the paintings and times they had shared, including a book launch only days beforehand.


As the various speeches flowed, Bill was described many times as the quintessential Aussie larrikin. In the other ear, I could easily hear Bill saying, "Well that's bullshit. I'm a shit-stirrer".

I mention all this for good reason.

Upstairs at the post-memorial drinks, Tony Abbott was working the room and eventually joined our group.

The conversation continued on from the night before at Pier One Hotel (drinks for mates and family). Tony was decidedly disappointed he hadn't been the subject of one of Bill's portraits. He hadn't been in power long enough.

I immediately reminded him that there were enough of us in the room, we could easily zip across the road and buy a canvas, and collectively do one now.

As we laughed nervously, hoping Tony wouldn't actually agree to this, I had a sudden sinking realisation that in the 14 years I've been living in NZ, I hadn't picked up a paint brush for the sake of art.

Nick Cave. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Nick Cave. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

That night and over the following days, both my boys boxed my ears for the same reason: "About time you started painting again, old man."

So here it is. From the ashes of loss comes rejuvenation.

My last soiree was a three-man exhibition at Raffles Hotel in Singapore back in 2000. Up to that point, I had been painting in Japan for more than seven years.

This is a low-level re-entry on a short notice invitation from Railway Street Gallery. It's not 12 months of preparation, so I've not planned this - just sat down and started frantically producing work - something I do daily at the Herald.

For every one that's on show, there's probably three in the bin somewhere. There's the odd watercolour sketch, caricatures and one large painting I'm ever hopeful of finishing on time.

I've spent half my life working in black and white, but hadn't taken that to the canvas.


I'm a huge fan of Ralph Steadman and in awe of Chuck Close. That said, of the galleries I've visited from New York to Japan, Sydney London and Paris, I still think New Zealand's Goldie is by far the best portrait artist.

I don't see myself ever in this league, but that's the seed of my inspiration.

In the meantime, a pic of Bill lives permanently on my desk at work. This is for you Bill - but a hell of a way to get me to pick up the brushes again.


Emmerson in sketches, cartoons, caricatures and paintings.
September 9-28.
Preview and meet the artist from 5.30pm Saturday, September 9. Railway Street Studios, 8 Railway St, Newmarket.