Wasantha Siriwardena, courtesy of Sunday Observer, 15 May 2016, where the title is “Aubrey Collette: Drawing the best out of political caricature”
Born in 1920 as the youngest son of renowned photographer Jos Collette, Aubrey spent his childhood drawing. After completing his education at Royal College, he was appointed as an art master in the same school. Collette joined the ’43 Group, which was Sri Lanka’s (then Ceylon) prominent and internationally recognised Modern Art movement at that time. He exhibited his paintings alongside George Keyt, Justin Deraniyagala, Lionel Wendt, Geoffrey Beling, Harry Pieris, Richard Gabriel, L.T.P. Manjusri and George Classen. Collette was a fine painter like the rest but it was for his incisive satirical cartoons that he became famous.
In 1946, his talent for caricature was recognised by the Times of Ceylon and he became their chief political cartoonist. He established himself as Ceylon’s leading political cartoonist in no time. His political cartoon was something that the readers look forward to.
Frank Moraes, Editor-in-Chief of The Times of Ceylon commented that Collette’s cartoons “constitute, by universal acclaim, this paper’s most popular feature.” He was writing a foreword to the Ceylon since Soulbury collection of Collette’s cartoons, which appeared in The Times.
Referring to Collette, who by then had drawn cartoons for The Times for over two years, he wrote: “Collette’s pointed darts are rarely barbed with malice, and if politicians sometimes squirm they more often share the public’s delight in seeing themselves so titillating pilloried.” He identified the one time Royal College art teacher as “a spry cartoonist.”Collette was the creator of the harassed, harried, hapless ‘Citizen Per-r-ra’, victim of politics, politicians and even an often unfriendly Providence; Citizen Per-r-ra lives on to this day in political cartoons and pocket cartoons.
“Political cartoonists need more than the usual modicum of competent draftsmanship and the gift of seeing politicians as their world, large or little, sees them, is not given to every caricaturist. It has been said that a good cartoonist can kill a political reputation with a drop of ink,” he wrote.
Collette met his wife Joan Gratiaen, a journalist, of the Times of Ceylon and got married in 1947. His first book of cartoons Ceylon since Soulbury was published in 1948, and later the couple moved to Lake House where the celebrated Tarzie Vittachi was editor of The Observer. Their witty collaboration documented the political trajectory of the country from a British colony to an independent nation, in The Observer and the Daily News. For over a decade and a half he amused the Sri Lankan English readership with his brilliant wit.
“His cartoons are a sharp, visual comment on the social and political landscape of the time. Specific issues of the moment, the political developments after Sri Lanka’s independence and the far-reaching social and cultural changes or ‘perali’ in the 1950s found expression in the incisive, biting humour of his brilliant line-work. In everything the essential human aspect dominates”, as Vittachi, his editor once wrote, “political parties may come and go, but human nature goes on forever”.
There were few political figures who escaped Collette’s pen and Prime Ministers, political leaders and ordinary people all valued his wit and humour, scathing attacks though they may have been.
Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawela loved Collette’s cartoons and demanded that he be sent the original drawings of some of the cartoons that featured him, for his personal collection.
But after a change in government in 1960 and due to the volatile political scene he became persona non grata and was forced to take a decision on leaving the country with his family.
Collette moved into England in 1961, before settling permanently in Australia. His masterclass accuracy of line and humor work was happily received in Australia. His cartoons were first used in The Bulletin. Later, he joined The Australian as its editorial cartoonist in 1965.
There, he used to arrive in the office early and be gone by 11 a.m., saying if he hadn’t had a good idea by then he was not going to. He won the Walkley Award for the Best Cartoon in 1970. He moved to The Herald in Melbourne in 1971.
Collette never lost touch with Asia, and contributed regularly to the Asia Magazine, followed by ‘The Straits Times’ in Singapore in 1984. His strip cartoon Sun Tan ran for many years. His work has also appeared in The New York Times and the Saturday Evening Post.
Sir Jon Kotelawela