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Hottie's Snifter to port

by Peter Jeffrey, 15 December 2016

Hardtmuth 'Hottie' Lahm, 1973 by Nora Heysen
Hardtmuth 'Hottie' Lahm, 1973 by Nora Heysen

You only have to take one look at Nora Heysen’s 1973 painting of Hardtmuth Lahm in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection to think he is the kind of guy you’d like to know, or at least know more about. With his silk scarf, and his crimson pants echoing the ‘Cherry-Bum’ overalls of Prince Albert’s 11th Hussars, he presents an unusually dashing figure for the seventies – an era not notable for elegant male attire, especially in Australia.

Fittingly, Lahm’s origins were continental – he immigrated to Australia from Estonia in 1928, aged sixteen – and, like another cartoonist of exotic origin, Emile Mercier from New Caledonia, soaked up, and was soon contributing to, popular Australian culture.

The young Hardtmuth studied art at East Sydney Technical College, where his volatile personality earned him the nickname ‘Hotpoint’ (Hottie for short). By the 1930s, his work was appearing in such quintessentially Australian publications as Smith’s Weekly and the Bulletin. In 1937, Lahm commenced his long relationship with Associated Newspapers, supplying covers, caricatures and cartoons for the Sun group of publications.

Portrait of Hottie Lahm, Sydney 1971 by Hal Missingham

Between 1936 and 1974, Lahm drew the iconoclastic, incontinent dog ‘Snifter’ for MAN magazine, a somewhat risqué publication inspired by America’s Esquire. Snifter was a quirky hound of obscure breed – perhaps a cross between Dalmatian and Dachshund. During World War II, the canine scallywag was a popular mascot for members of the armed forces, featuring as the nose art on Lancaster bombers and eventually as the protagonist in numerous cartoon collections, including Mr Snifter, Snifter of the Secret Service, Snifter’s Post War Plan and Snifter’s War Effort. (This last volume, doubling as a fundraising initiative for an AIF ambulance, derived comedy from the availability of objects that Snifter could urinate against: a circus elephant’s foot, a sailor’s wooden leg, a fireman’s pole, the North Pole).

When I learned that the flamboyant figure in Nora Heysen’s portrait was none other than the creator of Snifter, I experienced something of a Proustian moment. Clive James notes that the speed with which memory can carry you back to your past is astounding. A good painting, like a taste or a fragrance, has the power to evoke a chain of associations, different in every viewer. For me, the portrait of Hottie conjured up a memory over sixty years old.

In 1948, my mother’s cousin Lance came to stay with us for a few months. Tall and tan with dark wavy hair, Lance was fully equipped to be hero-worshipped by any schoolboy. As well as looking like a young Robert Taylor, Lance was good with his hands. He drew convincing versions of the cartoons of the day – Superman, Dagwood and Blondie – and could carve nifty little guns, knives and skulls from wood. From a piece of red striated stone he carved a beautiful, shiny, striped pink pyramid.

Shortly after arriving, Lance joined the Sea Scouts. From an ordinary Scouts’ belt, with its round fleur-de-lis buckle, he made a wonderful plaited belt that I coveted madly. When he went on holiday for a couple of weeks, he left the belt behind, saying I could have it if I could figure out how he did it. Reader, I couldn’t. How he cut it, plaited it and fitted it to the buckles is still a mystery to me.

Lance was in our coastal town on a training course for a career in the post office. He bought a little clinker-built boat to sail on the weekends; he cut the peak off a postie’s navy cap and wore it whenever he was aboard. I’m not sure it didn’t have a couple of ribbons trailing down his back like the one George V wore on his yacht.

Nothing if not obsessive, Lance painted the name ‘Snifter’ around and about the bow of his boat in cursive script. To finish his embellishment, Lance begged my dad, who he called Uncle Jeff, for sheet copper. From the copper, Lance carefully cut two copies of the image of the sausage-shaped dog with a perky nose and an even perkier tail that Hardtmuth ‘Hottie’ Lahm had created in 1937. With copper nails, Lance fixed them on each side of the bow, like cheeky figureheads. I knew Snifter through MAN magazine, which appeared mysteriously but regularly in our house and which I perused avidly for its cartoons and, to a lesser extent (I was only about ten), for its tastefully posed images of female pulchritude, presented under the artistic title of ‘Les Nus’. I campaigned vigorously to sail in Snifter on the sparkling waters of Spencer Gulf and I’m pretty sure Lance would have welcomed an adoring crew, but, sadly, the idea was vetoed by Uncle Jeff and Auntie Rae.

When Lance left us I inherited the wood carvings and the pink pyramid. The bastard took the belt with him.

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