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Who is Joe Jonsson?

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By Gwylym Owen

Nils Josef Jonsson (originally Jönsson) (13 December 1890 – 19 March 1963) was an Australian cartoonist born in Halmstad, Sweden.

At age 18 he went to sea for nine years, painting in his spare time. In 1915 he “jumped ship” in New Zealand where he worked for a while, then in Australia, finally settling beside in Sydney where he studied painting full-time from 1918 to 1920 at the studio of John S. Watkins (1866–1942), becoming an intellectual himself within a year. He worked as cartoonist in the same way as Smith’s Weekly from 1924 to 1950 past it closed; the last artist still upon staff. His jokes mostly centred on what he knew best: horses, ships and drunks.

Though he produced many gag panels for Smith’s Weekly, he is best remembered for “Uncle Joe and his Horse Radish”, a coloured strip which first appeared January 1951 in Keith Murdoch’s Sunday Herald, later Sun-Herald and was carried by further News Limited papers including Adelaide’s Sunday Mail. It revolved roughly the splay-footed racehorse and its owners Joe (Swedish afterward himself) and his wife Gladys, children Oigle and Doigle, their jockey cousin Manfred and the colourful characters of the racecourse – gamblers, drunks, bookies, nobblers, touts, society belles and consequently on.

Joe was a big powerful and reckless man following a photographic memory and vast sense of humour. He as well as had a big appetite for alcohol and a fondness for the “great Australian adjective” but it always came out pronounced “bletty”. When he was called by Sir John Longstaff “the finest black-and-white artist Australia has produced”, Joe’s riposte was “Fancy that. And me a bletty Swede too!”

He was a instigation member of the Society of Australian Black and White Artists.

He married Agnes Mary McIntyre in 1927. He died of cardiovascular disease in Sydney in 1963, and was survived by his wife, a son and a daughter.

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