Who is Terry Powis? by James Zee
Beyond the NSW Bookstall Comics
Terry Powis is credited with nearly half of the comics published by the NSW Bookstall Company when it established its ground-breaking line of Australian comics. Yet there is virtually no information about him.
John Ryan in Panel by Panel acknowledges Powis and Will Donald as 'real pioneers of Australian comic books', before largely dismissing Powis' work:
"Powis shared Donald's ability to produce dramatic covers but if there was a gap between the promise of Donald's covers and their contents it was even more accentuated in the work of Powis. He specialized in comics with a war background…While his sombre renderings may have reflected the mood of the wartime years the effects were negated by his use of text boxes to describe actions in the panels and his minimal use of speech balloons."11John Ryan in Panel by panel. Stanmore, NSW: Cassell Australia, 1979. Page 161. Ryan also refers to Powis 'joining Donald...
And the amount of information doesn't improve over time. Annette Shiell's Bonzer illustrates Powis' work without commentary. There is no biography at Design & Art Australia, Australian Dictionary of Biography or AustLit. And just a basic list of work at Lambiek Comiclopedia. There appears to be no one named Terry Powis that was born, married or died in Australia.
However, someone, at some time, possibly knew something more. The National Library of Australia credits Tigers of Tobruk to "Fred Powis".
Fred? Is that a mistake? —Probably not!
Australian artist Frederick Thomas Powis (1894-1978) signed his work in the same way as the Powis signatures on NSW Bookstall comics. And while there are variations, at times NSW Bookstall comics have a distinctive 'W' (see The Terror, Tigers of Tobruk and The Secret Cave). Fred Powis' daybills use the same stylised 'W' in many places, including general text on The Prodigal and in the 'Goldwyn' name on Tarzan the Ape Man. 'Goldwyn' appears stylised that way only on Australian daybills of the period.
Fred Powis was born to John Bartlett Powis (b.1848) and Anne Powis, in Brighton England around June 1894.22AustLit provides a (probably incorrect) birth date of 1893, but it helped open up research for a lot more... Twenty-one years and two months later he was in Melbourne, still a single man and working as a mechanic, when he enlisted in the army on 3 August 1915. He had previously been rejected on the basis of heath.33Fred had no Australian address at the time, and his father's address was 3 Church Street, Brighton, England. See
Powis moved to Sydney after the war and possibly studied art. He married his first wife Edith Mabel McAdam (MacAdam) in 1922 at Petersham. She died in August 1928,44Three separate notices invite Frederick's family, Edith's family and Edith's friends to the funeral. 'Family Notices' (28 August 1928). The... leaving Fred to look after two young children Frederick (192?-2016)55This is probably Frederick Bartlett Powis who joined the Department of the Attorney-General and of Justice in August 1938 as... and Joy. He married again the following year in Woollahra to Ethel Eleanor Brown, probably a work colleague.66Fred and Ethel had at least one son, Jon Bartelett Powis (1930-2009). Jon was a noted journalist who joined The... They had at least one child Jon in 1930 and divorced in 1945.77Divorce papers Frederick Thomas Powis - Ethel Eleanor Powis [Incorporates 3058/1943] State Archives & Records. Retrieved 1 October 2017....
By 1923, Fred Powis was handling all art for Paramount Pictures Corporation in Sydney. He worked with Sir Nathaniel Bernard Freeman, Paramount's Sydney Sales Representative, and moved with Freeman to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's new Australian office88Around 1920, Sir Nathaniel Bernard Freeman represented Paramount Pictures Corporation in Albany, New York, learning film publicity and distribution. He... to become artistic director, some time before February 1926.99In February 1926, a lunch was held to celebrate Freeman's wedding including Messrs. Ferguson, Lake, Powis, Sol Freeman, Kirkup, Curtis,...
In 1924, Metro Co., Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer had amalgamated in the US to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Marcus and Arthur Loew of the new company persuaded Freeman to leave Paramount and become MGM's first managing director for Australia and New Zealand. He established the first office in January 19251010'Gossip' 24 July (1926). Smith's Weekly (Sydney, NSW: 1919-1950), p. 13. Retrieved 28 September 2017, from nla.gov.au/nla.news-article234441602 and
From 1927, Powis produced numerous Australian daybill posters and later, from about 1930, the MGM head office provided some black and white art for theatre advertisements in newspapers, which had become increasingly text-oriented. Before that time, many theatres did their own original artwork, with Eileen Farquhar at the Haymarket Theatre1313Straight from art college in 1919, Farquhar secured a job at Haymarket Theatres as assistant to Virgil Riley. After his... and Wynne W. Davies providing art mainly for the Lyric Wintergarden and Lyceum,1414Wynne W. Davies drew 'The Strange Adventures of Percy the Pommy' the 'The Funny Side' (10 May 1925). Sunday Times... including MGM promotions.
In 1927—the year of the expensive and successful Ben-Hur film—MGM's Australian office produced a lavish colour Announcement Book for the season under the direction of Powis, including many paintings by him with text by W.J. Kirkup, director of publicity.1515'M.G.M. Announcement Book' (29 August 1926). Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW: 1895-1930), p. 26. Retrieved 28 September 2017, from nla.gov.au/nla.news-article128135816;...
Between then and 1932, the vast majority of Australian MGM promotional material was by Powis, often signed or credited. During 1931 and 1932, when newspapers across Australia printed many of his portraits of current MGM stars, he was frequently described as a 'leading Australian artist'.1616See for example, untitled (28 August 1931). The St George Call (Kogarah, NSW: 1904-1957), p. 6. Retrieved 30 September 2017,...
Some daybills were signed "E. Brown" in 1927 and 1928, such as Across to Singapore. This credit is for Powis' second wife Ethel Brown and the posters show his contribution through the distinctive Powis 'W' and other design elements.
A range of non-cinema work by Powis is also likely, but not confirmed. He painted at least one travel promotion poster for the Canadian National Railways (1929?). Some undated art credited to a 'Fred Powis', possibly the same one, has been sold at auctioned in recent years.
After March 1932, Fred Powis disappears from records until 1944. It is possible he worked overseas for MGM or moved into general commercial art, which was routinely uncredited. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he does not appear to have done newspaper or magazine illustrations, unless he worked under another name.
Toward the end of that 12 year gap 'Terry Powis' worked on comics for NSW Bookstall—from 1941 for about four years. Looking at the available information on those comics, most just report 'Powis' and two have 'Terry & Powis' and 'Powis & Terry'. It is possible 'Terry Powis' is a misunderstanding, with this work done by Fred Powis and an unknown collaborator called Terry. Perhaps it is just a pseudonym or a later move to own the early Bookstall work published anonymously under the name "Terry".
After NSW Bookstall ceased publishing comics, Terry Powis did just a few comic stories for Offset Printing. Perhaps this was work he had already started, sold instead to another publisher. He then appears to have stopped creating comics. I haven't seen the OPC issues to confirm credits or signatures. The covers and pages I've seen are unsigned.1717John Ryan also reports Powis' OPC work in Panel by panel. Stanmore, NSW: Cassell Australia, 1979. Page 161....
At this time, Fred Powis illustrated two children's books about animals by Hery B. Raine (also previously published by NSW Bookstall) for Wirraway Publishing (1944)1818The Offset Printing Coy. Pty. Ltd. and Wirraway Publishing were both at 75 Pitt Street, Sydney, at this time.This building... and Taro Publishing (1945). For Wirraway, Fred also illustrated a children's book of Nursery Rhymes by Eve Pownall (a former colleague at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer], and wrote and drew a children's book Billie the Beetle (1946) for Invincible Press.
Terry Powis is also reported doing a range of book covers and interior illustrations for Invincible Press (1946-1947). The latest of these I can identify is a reprint of Murder at Horsethief by James O'Hanlon. This alignment of publishers also suggests Fred and Terry are the same person.
From 1947, I've found no evidence of further published artwork by Fred or Terry.1919In 1951, he is reported living in Bellevue Hill when his son Jon Bartlett became engaged to Barbara Leonie Clapp... Fred would have been in his mid-50s, recently divorced, with children old enough to be in the workforce, so it is possible he retired. He died aged about 83 on 10 May 1978.2020Fred is described as a 'retired commercial artist'. 'In the Supreme Court of New South Wales…' (21 July 1978). Government...
Despite strong circumstantial evidence, I've found no difinitive proof that Terry Powis is Fred Powis. But if he is, his skill at dramatic comic covers was honed through years working on cinema posters for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Australia.