Painter and cartoonist, according to one account, was born Arthur William Olday in Hamburg, Germany, the illegitimate son of a German woman and a Scotsman. Another account has him born in London, not Hamburg— spending his early childhood in New York, where his mother had relocated after his birth. When she visited her native Germany in 1913 she left him there with her mother. Always known as John, at the age of eleven he joined the Hamburg hunger riots of 1916 during WWI. Two years later he participated in the sailors’ mutiny and the workers’ uprising, acting as an ammunition hauler for a Sparticist machine gun emplacement. When the year-long struggle was crushingly defeated, he made a last-minute escape, barely avoiding certain execution. In the early 1920s, as an agitator with the 'Communist Youth’, he got involved in plundering and looting by masses of starving people suffering from food shortages but was soon expelled from the movement for 'anarchist deviations’. He became a member of the 'Anarcho-Sparticists’ and fought in one of their guerrilla squads during the workers’ uprisings in October 1923, then was active in the movement for workers’ councils in industrial western Germany under French occupation.
In 1925-32 Olday withdrew from the revolutionary movement and devoted himself to political cartooning and expressionist graphics. He also wrote socially critical theatre sketches, performed in Hamburg cabarets. In 1933 he illustrated flyers for his Sparticist friends with incisive anti-Nazi caricatures. Acting the 'eccentric gay artist’ for the Nazis, he was accepted and able to help his friends until 1938 when, threatened with imminent arrest by the Gestapo, he escaped to England. Pacifist friends in London helped him publish a collection of his anti-Nazi drawings, The Kingdom of Rags , in 1939. He worked underground with exiled communists in Paris and other parts of Europe. In 1942, he secretly married Hilde Monte, a German Jew and 'dogmatic Marxist intellectual’ who edited German language newspapers and supported Jewish underground resistance, in order to protect her against deportation. In 1944 she was captured by an SS patrol on the Swiss-German border and summarily executed.
When compulsory military service was instituted in Britain in 1940, Olday was to have served as a sapper, but he deserted before he could be sent to 'the imperialist war’. He remained at large until 1944, drawing caustic political cartoons and caricatures, working as an editor and, with two well-known libertarian activists, writing a fortnightly anti-militarist broadsheet distributed to soldiers in the British Army. At the same time he provided numerous drawings and poems for a Scandinavian paper, the Industrial Worker , distributed in German ports. In 1943 he published a collection of 41 of his political drawings, The March of Death . According to Peter Peterson, this 'unexcelled classic of anarchist anti-militarist propaganda’ sold 10,000 copies in a year and a half.
In 1944 Olday was arrested trying to procure a typewriter for the 'Freedom’ group that had supported him since his desertion. In January 1945 he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, having been found guilty of 'theft through the finding and fraudulent use of an identity card’. He served eight months, gained early release then was immediately taken to prison camp by the military authorities to serve another 2 years for desertion. A public campaign by 'Freedom Press Defence Campaign’ friends supported by sympathisers like Herbert Read and George Orwell resulted in his release after only 3 months. The Adelaide Quaker artist Mary P. Harris believed that Olday drew passionate anti-war cartoons and pictures while imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs as a conscientious objector during the war. 'Even while in prison… his leaflets, his drawings of the agony of war and its circumstances were leafletted by air over Germany’, she wrote in her autobiography (p.46).
After the war, says Peterson, Olday carried out anarchist propaganda programs and other anarchist activities in German prison camps under the guise of giving education lectures in democracy. Inevitably finding himself disagreeing with the aims of the various Spartacist groups, he dropped out of international anarchist activity altogether at the end of the 1940s. At the beginning of 1950 he migrated to Sydney. According to James, he found only a small group of feuding Yugoslavs there, organised the anarchists among them to move to outback NSW and train, then took himself off to Adelaide, where he had been invited by a group of artist sympathizers while still in England. His first exhibition at the Royal Society of Arts 'was the prelude to 12 successive exhibitions within one year’ (James). All were in aid of charity organisations such as the United Nations’ Children’s Fund since Olday didn’t believe in selling his work. In order to survive he took a job as attendant at the Art Gallery of South Australia.
Harris met Olday through her friend Fred Whitney, whom she called another [ sic ] Quaker Conscientious Objector in Wormwood Scrubs. When Olday’s exhibition of war art was on at the SA Society of Arts Gallery in 1955 Whitney suggested Harris visit it. She 'met the fair-haired John Olday’ and responded to his cartoons: 'I quivered under the physical and spiritual contact of the cartoons displayed… prisoners; barbed wire; klink parson [a portrait of a Prison Chaplain wearing immaculate lawn sleeves which dominated the exhibition]; and the unmitigated suffering of women and children, each cartoon with its own peculiar case history typed and hung alongside.’ As a result, the two held an exhibition in the Friends’ Meeting House, Adelaide called War and Peace – the former being Olday’s cartoons, the latter Harris’s watercolours. It opened on 6 August 1955, World Peace Day. (His contributions were apparently on the horror of nuclear war, the known subject of one of his Adelaide exhibitions.)
Olday gave Adult Education classes and broadcasts 'attacking Art racketeers, Art snobs, censorship, state education, state sponsorship of the arts, exploitation of the artist by means of taxation, and organised the artists in boycott against the commercialised Galleries. The “Rainbow Group” exhibited works of Arts [ sic ] not acceptable to Galleries, on account of their “indecent”, “blasphemic” or radical political character. J. himself refused to sell at all, but offered his works as a gift to National Galleries on his terms (never to be sold nor to be lent to State officials, but to be kept accessible to anybody at any time). (All State Galleries accepted, bar Sydney and Melbourne.)’ James also adds: 'After aiding Greek New Australians to produce a play, displeasing to the orthodox authoritarian Rulers of the Community; writing and producing incidental music to a play of Irish [ sic ] (The Wake) and next scoring a success with his one-man cabaret 'Roses and Gallows’ he left Adelaide, as the Press put it “in a blaze of glory”.’
He went to Melbourne and released an LP record, Roses and Gallows . He joined the Melbourne University Repertory Company, acting, writing ballads and producing sketches that caused a scandal. He opened a studio in a stable that became a hotbed for student radicals, broadcast, lectured, and joined the editorial staff of the German language paper 'Anker’. To make a living, he worked in a hospital.
Back at Sydney, living on a houseboat moored on Fisher Bay (whose chains were mysteriously cut adrift after he discovered a Nazi conspiracy to set up a major steel industry in Australia that had been suppressed by the Australian government), Olday staged a mime show ( The Immortal Clown ) with Robin Ramsay, the disowned son of the millionaire owner of the Kiwi shoe polish factory who had made a fortune in arms manufacture in WWII. Olday’s Yugoslav friends joined him at the theatre with the aim of attracting New Australians from many countries to work against fascists and Nazis. They subsequently collected amazing (and unlikely) scandals about collaborators and war criminals in Australia.
In March 1964, coinciding with the third Adelaide Festival of the Arts, Olday booked into the Royal Admiral Hotel on Hindley Street and obtained management cooperation in displaying 40 paintings and 70 drawings throughout the premises.
Olday regularly held lectures and recitals on board his houseboat, now protected by a German shepherd called Wolf. Later his son rented a house in Sydney with rooms converted into exhibition and meeting spaces. The basement was turned into an 80-seat theatre, but the Council refused it a license. So a new harbour location was found, known as “Café” la Boheme and “Genius Corner” cabaret. By charging tourists and society people high prices, students, artists and 'sailors from East and West’ could be subsidised. One night Olday and his son were attacked by two men who had asked for shelter; J’s son was knifed and J. was stunned and half blinded. The police later caught the men and the Oldays were told to hold themselves in readiness to appear as witnesses at the trial. 'They decided not to aid the prosecution, sold the café in a hurry and left Australia’ (James).
In the late 1960s Olday returned to London via Hamburg and Berlin. There he worked mainly with the anarchist papers Freedom and Black Flag . In 1974 he founded the 'International Archive Team’, a worldwide correspondence bureau, and again took up a politically active anarchist life. 'He worked for the I.W.W.; he published the German-English information bulletin Mit Teilung ; translated materials of the I.W.W. into German; drew caricatures and kept up contact with exiles and prisoners throughout Europe and Japan. In spite of poor health, he continued to draw social-critical cartoons and worked on two new plays./ In the summer of 1977 at the age of 72, death tore him away from this last creative period’ (Peterson). Harris, however, in reminiscences published in 1971, states that Olday died after working at the gallery for two years. Although he had always refused to sell his work, she believed that he bequeathed some of his cartoons to the AGSA and left other works in the hands of a few disciples called 'the Rainbow Group’.