Suffering from severe glaucoma and cataracts in both eyes, Bill Pidgeon agreed to a very special commission for The Journalists’ Club of Sydney to paint seven former Presidents to accompany the many others he had done previously for the Club. This portrait of his friend Jerry Wilkes was done in 1971 and was one of Bill’s very last portraits.
In 1973 Bill received the following letter of glowing praise from Jerry.
April 30, 1973.
I recently sent photographs of your portrait of me to a very old friend in London, a man of impeccable taste and fine perception. I thought you would be interested in what he has to say in a letter to me:
“Thank you so much for the photographs of the portrait. How extraordinarily good it is! He has captured the quintessence of your personality, which, of course, is the true function of a portrait painter, whereas some of the fashionable painters of today are so determined to astonish all beholders by the profundity of their ‘insight’ into the sitter that they exaggerate every characteristic of the face, ending up with a caricature that reveals more about the painter than the subject. You will remember that when a grateful nation paid Graham Sutherland to depict Winston in oils the resulting canvas exaggerated his bulldog qualities, obliterated the charm and drew special attention to the flies. No wonder it was given a prompt consignment to the cellar.”
As for me Bill, I think that the portrait of Ray Walker is the only one of those in the Journalists’ Club that better portrays the character of the sitter than that of me.
An addendum to this story was added five years later …
October 31, 1978
I was sitting in the Journalists’ Club dining room with Stella and for the thousandth time, looking around at the portraits you painted. I am now quite sure that those you painted of Ray Walker and of me are masters, because they are, as well as marvelous examples of the true art of portrayal of the image of the sitter, portrayals also of character.
Taking a cold look at myself, as I have been in the habit of doing for fifty years, I believe that, in 1971, despite the disability under which you were labouring, you saw clearly who I was and put that into paint.
A portrait does not compete with a photograph, although I think it should be primarily objective. That is to say it should tell you more about the sitter than the artist. The good portrait has movement in repose and is a subtle amalgam of varying aspects of the sitter. It has mobility, and a synthesis of vision which is denied to the camera.
– William Edwin Pidgeon, 31 Aug 1962
[Answered in response to a request for his definition of a portrait by Sheila Patrick of Vogue magazine]
WARNING: if somebody offers to sell you this painting today, do not be tempted. However much you might like it (and your view was shared by the Archibald prize judges in 1958), you should decline politely and call the police, because it was stolen from Sydney’s Journalists’ Club on Saturday. Bill Pidgeon’s portrait of journalist Ray Walker had been hanging in the club for almost 40 years. A more recent Pidgeon portrait of another club president, Bill Perry, was also stolen. The paintings went missing between 2.30 and 5 pm, club president Jim North said yesterday. Both were hanging in the dining room, which was unattended but unlocked because it contains the club’s only female toilets. “The painting is probably worth around $10,000 but it is priceless to the Journalists’ Club,” North said. He said it was either a “brazen theft” or a “stupid prank”. Pidgeon, who also won the 1961 and 1969 [sic – 1968] Archibald prizes, was a newspaper cartoonist who signed his works “WEP”. He died in 1981.
Ref: Gossip, Stay In Touch, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Aug 1996
Police have recovered two paintings stolen from a Sydney club after a thief with a guilty conscience dumped them outside the home of an artists’s widow.
The paintings, one of them the 1958 Archibald Prize winner by artists William E. Pidgeon, were stolen from the Journalists’ Club in Surrey Hills.
A spokesperson said the paintings said the paintings of past club presidents were valued at about $15,000 each.
Police said a man telephoned the painter’s widow, Dorothy Pidgeon, in Northwood and said that his friend had stolen the paintings and wanted to return them.
Twenty minutes later, Lane Cove police received a phone call from a man saying the paintings could be found outside Mrs Pidgeon’s house.
Bill Pidgeon painted seven past-Presidents of the Journalists’ Club for a total fee of 700 guineas.
Ref: The Village Observer, Sep 1996, p3
We reported yesterday that two paintings by the Archibald prize winner Bill Pidgeon had been stolen from the Sydney Journalists’ Club on Saturday. Now they have been found. Dorothy Pidgeon, the widow of the painter, said yesterday that a man had phoned her at home late on Sunday. “The caller said he knew who had stolen the paintings and he now had them and wanted to give them back because he could not live with his conscience.” she said. Then Lane Cove police received a call from a man saying the paintings could be found outside Mrs Pidgeon’s home in Northwood. A police mouthpiece said the paintings were found unharmed and they would be fingerprinted before being returned to the Journalists’ Club.
Ref: Gossip, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Aug 1996
RAY WALKER, subject of one of the two W.E. Pidgeon paintings stolen (then returned) from The Journalists’ Club in Chalmers Street, city, was a legendary chief sub-editor of The Daily Telegraph in the days when Frank Packer owned it. Ray had been a dashing rugby centre three-quarter for Queensland, but put on a kilo or two in later years. When WEP was painting him for the club’s gallery of presidents, he found he could get him to relax only by positioning a schooner of beer at his right hand.
Ref: “COLUMN 8”, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Aug 1996, p1
Sequel: When the guilty thief called Dorothy, he advised her he was going to leave the paintings at her letterbox near the front gate. Dorothy advised him that she did not want this and told him to leave them in the shed down the road at Northwood wharf. When the Journalists’ Club folded a year later in 1997, the portrait of Ray Walker was once again mis-appropriated and has never been recovered. It remains stolen and hopefully it will eventually be returned to the Estate of William Edwin Pidgeon, along with several other Pidgeon portraits, which also went missing.
Mr. William Edwin Pidgeon is a Sydney artist, and winner of the 1968 Archibald Prize. He was born in Paddington (Sydney) and was educated at Sydney Technical High School. He is a former cartoonist and illustrator with various newspaper organisations, including Smith Newspapers, Consolidated Press and “Women’s Weekly”, and was a war artist.
His portrait of his friend and fellow artist, Mr. Lloyd Rees, was chosen last week by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales as the best of 136 entries in the 1968 Archibald Prize. He had already won the prize twice previously – in 1958 and 1961.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
What’s it like to be an artist to win a prize like the Archibald? There’s the prize-money, of course – and artists are always notoriously short of money. And there’s the prestige value, which is probably more important in the long term because you can’t get around knocking on doors and asking people if they’d like to have their portrait painted. You do much better when they come to you. And you only get known by the results, like winning the Archibald Prize. But apart from all that, what it all means – it means that two or three judges in the competition like this particular picture better than all the other entries submitted. It doesn’t always mean the artist himself is satisfied. I know that I prefer some of my pictures which didn’t win the Archibald Prize to those which did. There was a picture I painted once of the Chancellor of the New England University, Dr. P.A. Wright. This was as good as anything I’ve done, I think. But I don’t know. It didn’t get anywhere. It’s very hard to know when you are so close to a painting. You’re only conscious of the mistakes you’ve made; you aren’t conscious of what you may have gained in the process. Three or four years later you might say, “Well, maybe it wasn’t quite so bad after all.”
Painting portraits these days has become rather despised, a bit outmoded so far as the young painters are concerned, and the critics relatively fuddy-duddy stuff. But it’s all fairly delicate business, and a lot harder than the young people think it is. The real problem is to try and make a picture at the same time as you’ve painted a likeness. It’s all very well making a good likeness of a person, but if it’s an indifferent picture, nobody wants it. And it’s all very well making a good picture, but if it’s even not remotely like the person, well one can hardly call it a portrait.
The trouble is, you’ve got only a very limited number of elements to work with: a human face, a pair of arms and hands, a body, eyes…..That’s all you start with; what you do with the pose and composition and the colours you use – that’s a part of the abstraction that underlies all art. So there are these two conflicting sides of portrait painting: the demand for some kind of objective likeness and the demands that the laws of design make on the artist. These laws of design must be adhered to. All art is based on design; though a great deal of modern art has become nothing else but – just an exercise for the purist in paint and lines and relationships of one colour to another. I like doing abstract paintings myself, because it’s a relief – from trying to get the nose exactly where it should be or where people think it should be; but a lot of abstract art becomes so pure and dry and arid, it loses all its humanity. And that’s a third thing I think you must try and get into a picture: humanity.
I always find it interesting to be confronted with a person. Mostly, you don’t know them before you start to paint them. You have to try and work out the most effective and suitable approach. You start with a face you are not overfamiliar with, and you have to find the characteristics of that face, you have to find the underlying design of its structures, and you have to find out about the personality of the sitter. And while you’re doing this, you might have two or three sittings and then find that you’ve gone all wrong, and that the picture isn’t just working, and that one should have started another way. You go back to the beginning. I might add that you don’t find out much about a person by just looking at his face, you find out about him in other ways too. I don’t start work on the hands, for instance, till fairly late. At the beginning, people are always stiff, self conscious and never know what to do with their hands, but after a while they just seem to slip into some pose that truly reveals the sort of person they are. I did a portrait of a man not too long ago, who held his hands clenched at his sides – it showed an internal tension, a determination to command or conquer or at least be a bit secretive. There’s another picture – still on my wall at home, I think. It’s painted of a young girl who lived up the street. Her hands are very lightly clasped in her lap; and she was a lovely serene pose, for she was a serene girl, and no-one could consciously adopt this sort of loose quality. It has to come from within.
There’s a delicate relationship between the portrait painter and his subject. You must develop some kind of rapport with him, otherwise the painting doesn’t really work. If the sitter doesn’t help, you can only make a very stodgy job out of it indeed, but not at all a really viable picture. So, besides the three elements I’ve mentioned – the problem of getting an objective likeness, the demands of design and the need for a quality of humanity in your picture – there’s a fourth element – a subjective element, namely, the artist. I have to get involved in the portrait, I have to please myself a bit, too; I’m entitled to my own ideas about the sitter and I’m entitled to put them in in my own view – on my own terms of paint, so long as it doesn’t conflict too greatly with the other three elements I’ve just mentioned.
Now if there’s a fifth element in the situation, it’s the pressure of the interested outsider: the sitter’s wife, the Council or Aldermen or Board of Directors who commission these sorts of things – they have to be considered – not necessarily in any great respect, but they have their own prejudices and their own ways of seeing the man I paint. Naturally, this tends to make them react in different ways. Of course, the subject himself isn’t much good at assessing what he looks like. For a start, he’s never really seen himself, except in a mirror. And that’s not very good, because in the first place, you only see yourself in reverse, so that if your nose goes one way on your face, it goes the other way in the reflection. And there’s the other point, that people don’t really see their true expressions in a mirror. You don’t really catch yourself unawares; you look at yourself with abhorrence or approval to your tie or your beard or the way you comb your hair – which is an altogether different thing.
As a matter of fact, even outsiders can’t make a thoroughly objective judgement about a portrait of somebody they know. I remember painting someone with a half-smile playing across his mouth; to me it was nothing more than a half smile. And it was acceptable for the sitter and his wife. Someone else came up to see me and said, “You’ve certainly got his character”. And I thought he was referring to his approval of the sitter, and he said, “You’ve got that nasty leering look, that sarcastic vision, it’s all there, wasn’t it?” Well, was it?
To me, the greatest portrait painter of them all is Holbein – or at least one of the greatest; he does an objective picture of the person which is also invariably a beautiful piece of art as well. Other painters have got more and more subjective about their sitters, till in the end the picture tells you more and more about the artist and less about the man he’s painting. And when you get to the semi-abstract portraits, I think you find very few indeed that fulfil the basic function of telling you something at least about the sitter. Only a great artist like Picasso can get away with it; nobody I know can compete with him in things like his semi-abstract portrait of people like his friend Sabartés, the poet.
It’s an odd fact, by the way, that there are many people who collect abstract art and pop art and all the latest jazz and hang it on their walls, and who like this sort of thing very much indeed. But if they ask you to paint a portrait of their little one, it has to be right on the ball. No jazzy eyes or two mouths or exaggerated features! Maybe I tend to go too much the other way; I spent too many years on newspapers doing too many caricatures of people, so that I suppose that I tend to over-compensate for that in my portraits.
To tell you the truth, I sometimes get a little tired of doing portraits. At least, I always like starting a new one; finishing them is much harder – another matter altogether. There are times when I like to give up portraits for a while and try other kinds of painting. I told you before that I enjoy doing abstracts, but the thing I really prefer most of all is landscapes. And, of course, this means Australian landscapes. You hear people say that the Australian countryside is colourless. They must be blind. It has a subtle, opalescent quality about it – almost pearl-like. It’s fashionable to go out into the Centre and paint the landscape there these days, which is all fiery red and dramatic. I’ve never been there myself, and if I ever do go, I think it’ll probably just be to look, not to paint. My favourite countryside is the Western Slopes of New South Wales, and the mountains. I really don’t like the sea. But those long mountain slopes, I really love that part of the country. And I’ve done quite a lot of straight-out landscapes and free interpretations of landscape, which I do at home from notes and sketches that I’ve done on various trips to the country, or maybe just from recollection. I really love Australia. About ten years ago, I was over in Europe for a while; and most of the country there struck me as being a bit weak and flabby – that’s apart from the Alps, naturally. It wasn’t really landscape at all; it was more like a park, which is all very well in its own way, but it hasn’t really got anything very much for me. Not like the Australian landscape, which is hard and has some guts to it. Of course, it’s all very pleasant sitting out in the soft European countryside on the soft grass, or the fragrant pine-needles. But in more ways than one, the Australian needs the broken sticks and the bull-ants, too.
From the Liberal Opinion, Official Organ of the Liberal Party of Australia (N.S.W. Division), Vol.4 No. 4, Sydney, February 1951
This entry for the Archibald prize has created a lot of interest and keen and favourable comment. “Wep” is regarded by fellow artists and the soundest critics as one of the best contemporary portrait painters. He is, of course, a great cartoonist with a style which is inimitable. “Wep’s” work truly reveals the Prime Minister’s qualities of loyalty, efficiency, regard for decency and truth and, in times of stress like the present, trustworthiness and clear thinking.