Tony Rafty: The black and white artist who led a very colourful life

Robert Menzies once referred to him as the ‘lovable rascal.’

And it has always been Tony Rafty’s charismatic charm and zest for life that made him well liked by everyone he met.

The former Fairfax cartoonist and war correspondent sadly passed away on Friday, just three days shy of his 100th birthday.

The nationally celebrated caricaturist has sketched just about every remarkable figure in his time from Louis Armstrong, Alfred Hitchcock, Bette Davies, Sammy Davis Jnr, to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

But to an extent Rafty became almost as legendary as the faces he drew – having been accepted amongst the most inner circles of the rich and famous.

Until his recent passing, Rafty resided in nursing home in Daceyville Sydney, which he previously shared with Shirley, his wife of 80 years before she passed away.

When I visited Rafty not long ago, the walls of his room were covered in a selection of his drawings, the overly charismatic faces glaring down at you with such lifelikeness they could almost jump off the paper.

Yet speaking with Rafty, it was easy to tell that the captivating expressions of his subjects only reveal half the tale – It was the conversations he remembered having with each of his subjects, which brought his artworks to life.

For example his meeting with Australian Opera icon Dame Joan Sutherland he told me:

‘I went to the theatre backstage, and a couple of old ladies sitting there with her, they were well to do, diamonds, etcetera, etcetera.

‘I said to her, “Would you be so kind to sign it?” And she looked at it and said “Oh yes.”

‘Then one of the ladies said, “Oh dear Joan, I think you’re much nicer than that, I wouldn’t sign it!”

‘And she turned around and said, “I am going to sign it thank you!”

‘So I give her great credit, she just told her friends to jump in the lake in other words,’ he laughed.

Rafty’s memories were etched so deep in his mind, that he was able to retell them in microscopic detail even decades later– and it is this attention to detail that made the artist so famous.

He told me that meeting his subjects to draw them is a must in order to capture their true essence.

‘Any artist who doesn’t meet their subject, as good an artist they are, will never get a likeness, because if you haven’t met the person how do you know what they are really like from a photograph?’ he explained.

When you asked Rafty a question, you would rarely be given a direct answer.

What you would get instead, was a more than colourful first hand account of one of these many interesting meetings.

When I asked Rafty what it was like to represent Australia, carrying the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games Torch on a leg through Forbes, he responded with an elaborate anecdote of the time he played golf with Nat King Cole.

‘I sat with Nat King Cole up at Rushcutters Bay… and I played golf with him and his drummer… I’m trying to remember his name… but anyway he was a wonderful man, I suppose I sat with him for close to an hour, having a cup of coffee…’ he recalled.

Rafty was born in Paddington on October 12, 1915, the eldest of seven children born to Greek Migrants.

His undeniable artistic flare was discovered while he caddied and drew part time as a cartoonist for The Sydney Morning Herald during the Depression.

Like a lot of men his age Rafty hurried to enlist when the Second World War broke out in 1939.

His creative potential was soon realised and he was selected by the Australian Government to travel to New Guinea, to carry on work as an official war artist.

There he met fellow artist and Archibald Prize Winner, William Dargie.

The two men were sent on a number of excursions together in search of Japanese troops and Rafty claims to have been nearly killed twice during his time serving as a war artist in the Australian Army.

The first time was just after arriving in New Guinea, where the Japanese ambushed him within a few days.

‘Myself and Dargie were the only two non-combatant men in the army to use arms against the enemy… I told him afterwards, that I killed 6 Japs that day.

‘He said “How could you?” and I said, “I did they are all dead – look over there!”

‘So we made a big joke about the whole thing and we became good friends,’ he recalled.

Rafty also covered the Indonesian War of Independence.

He sketched the surrender of the Japanese in Singapore, covered the release of the prisoners of war and completed sketches of first hand war action including one of Lord Mountbatten, which he also signed.

Rafty also befriended the first president of Indonesia, Sukarno, and used his charm to help negotiate the release of two Australian journalists, Ray Olsen and Ian Flemming, from the Indonesian rebels.

Rafty has had a truly prolific career, becoming one of Australia’s most prominent artists to date.

He has been employed by a number of highly reputed newspapers and was the world’s first caricaturist to have subjects appear on national stamps issued by Australian Post.

He was also the first artist commissioned to provide courtroom sketches for an Australian television station.

Rafty is the only artist who has sketched the athletes from every Olympic Games, from 1948 to 2004, including Jesse Owens, Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps.

He has drawn many prominent politicians, his collection boasting the faces of William McMahon, Gough Whitlam, Graham Richardson, Harold McMillan and Mrs Indira Ghandi.

His compilation of entertainers is equally notable, with the faces of Katherine Hepburn, Mick Jagger, Liberace and Frank Sinatra depicted by Rafty.

However his biggest love is expressed by the sheer bulk of caricatures wielding golf clubs, including Jack Nicklaus, Baker Finch, Greg Norman and Tiger Woods.

‘The funny man of Golf, Carlos Franco… he said, “You make me good looking!” … And I think he said something about his nose… I only hope I didn’t exaggerate it,’ he chuckled.

Rafty’s impressive collection boasts well over 15,000 famous faces, but what makes his artwork unique, is the subjects’ autographs which accompanies every portrait, making his collection the only one of its kind.

‘All my drawings have the signature – Where there is a signature that would mean an important drawing. If I didn’t get the signature then it was just another drawing,” he explained.

Rafty recently put his Beatles caricature that he drew of the group on their first ever tour to Australia on the market, but didn’t end up selling it because he ‘Didn’t find the right buyer for it.’

The artist justified his decision to put the legendary painting on the market, as a way of guaranteeing that the memory of his work will live on.

‘I have had The Beatles for 60 odd years now, and I’ve never looked at it. It’s better if I can get someone to buy it and put it on display, so every Tom, Dick and Harry can see it… That’s the most important thing; for my memory to live on, and people can see my drawings and of course, The Beatles,’ he said.

But Rafty admits the Beatles picture isn’t his most famous picture, or the most important one.

‘They were just entertainers, but other people are greater,’ he said.

He then pointed to the mountain climber Sir Edmund Hillary, who is displayed prominently on the wall of his nursing home room.

When I asked him which picture was his favourite he looked at me slightly offended and confused and replied curtly, saying: ‘They are all the same. I couldn’t tell you, they are all important.’

Until his passing, the World War II veteran still led the annual Anzac Day march every year at the head of the Australian War Correspondents Society, which is something he always looked forward to.

The walls of Rafty’s small room in the Daceyville Nursing home were proudly adorned with memorabilia of some of his most honorable achievements and awards, such as his Order of Australia Medal and his Gold Cross of Athos.

And it is these memories that sustained him until the very end.

‘There is nobody alive except me – I’ve got all these stories about all these wonderful people I’ve been associated with,’ he reflected.

As he sat at his desk during out conversation, Rafty was almost engulfed by the layers of media clippings, golf balls, framed pictures and pages of famous faces distorted by the artist’s own hand.

Mess must be order as he finally found what he was looking for: a newspaper clipping dedicated to the late Nancy Wake; a heroic figure in the Second World War who helped many people escape from Germany.

Rafty told me she was a close friend of his and he remembered her as a vivid character.

‘She was a wonderful woman with a colourful life. Within half an hour she would be dancing with me and everyone else in the ballroom,’ he laughed.

Rafty had of course drawn her, and she recently visited him, being a guest speaker at the prestigious Sydney Journalist Club where Rafty was President for 25 years.

‘She was sitting down, and she said, “I haven’t got a bloody drink!” She loved gin. She came all the way down to see me. She was getting cranky, saying, “Where the bloody hell is he?” I turned around and said, “Here I am darling.” Then we both fell head over turkey on the ground,’ he laughed.

The hands that have made Rafty so famous ironically remained stationary whilst he spoke, folded firmly in his lap and rarely initiating gestures of any kind.

Instead, Rafty told his many stories through his impenetrable blue eyes – a stare that you don’t want to hold contact with for too long, for fear that he is reading straight through to your deepest, most inner thoughts – and just maybe he is.

Rafty then begins to tell me of the time he met the legendary Frank Sinatra who peered down at me from the wall with one of Rafty’s overly melodramatic trademark smiles.

I realised in that moment that it was in fact not Tony Rafty who was telling the stories of his drawings, but rather the drawings telling the story of Tony Rafty.

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