At the instigation of wife Dorothy, Wep painted a portrait of long time associate and friend, Bill Dobell. He was never really happy with the initial attempt, subsequently abandoning it to commence work on a second canvas, which became a finalist in the 1960 Archibald Prize.
In 1966, Wep noted that there was no specific reason for completing the painting other than that there seemed to be no portraits of Dobell about.
Following the 1960 Archibald Prize Exhibition, the painting was exhibited at the National Gallery of South Australia in March 1961 and The Moreton Galleries in Brisbane in April 1961 as part of their annual exhibitions of selected Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prize exhibition works.
The Moreton Galleries were particularly keen in purchasing the work but Wep was not happy with it and advised it was not for sale.
Bill’s friend and Director of the National Gallery of New South Wales, Hal Missingham, was also keen to acquire the work and was ultimately successful in 1966, purchasing it for the Gallery in November 1966 for $1,800
The following is a background to the portrait, which Wep wrote in 1966 at the time of the sale to the National Gallery of New South Wales, now known as the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
I first saw Bill Dobell in 1925. He was a designer at Wunderlich Ltd., and I was an office boy. About 1940 John Santry introduced me to him at King’s Cross. Used to meet him casually after this and did my first sketch of him whilst making a caricature illustration of the Dobell case.
The painting really started at the opening of the Terry Clune Galleries about 1957. My wife, who had at last met Bill Dobell (she had been wanting to for years) asked him if he would sit for me, and much to her surprise and mine he agreed.
In January, 1958, we spent a few days’ holiday at the Hotel Toronto.
One afternoon we drove out to Wangi and called on Bill. We all went to the Local to meet the boys and to help him forget about his consultation with a specialist in Sydney the next day. He promised again to sit for me. We returned to the “White House” and were shown his studio and met his sister and dogs.
Bill’s visit to the Doctor resulted in a major operation. Just before he left hospital, I took him out a sketch of his operation. It amused him. He was going to call at Northwood on his way back to Wangi but didn’t.
Returning from a caravan holiday up north with my wife and son late April or early May we came through Toronto and stayed overnight. I ‘phoned Bill from there (needless to say he also knew the publican quite well) and he promised to give a couple of hours sitting next morning – so out I went.
On this first occasion I made some notes and very rough oil sketches from which I laid out a 30 x 40 canvas.
As far as I can remember in the following Spring he gave me two sittings in my studio. How it was all managed evades me, but friend Rudy Komon was always around, and had always got at him before I could – or wanted to pick him up half-an-hour after arrival.
On the second occasion I was to pick Bill up at the Carlton I think and then Rudy ‘phoned to make it the Royal Exchange much later. He whisked Bill off to some Wine and Food Society gathering and then took us on to see some Australian trade ship. By the time I finally got him into the studio, the reek of Camembert and Gorgonsola and vintage claret was too much for the flake white. He patted our dogs and we ate more cheese.
Probably in the late Spring I took the canvas with me when with my family I spent another week end at Hotel Toronto.
At this time, I was also working on the portrait of Ray Walker. There is a photo of the Dobell portrait on the easel when a press photographer photographed me in the studio when I won the Archibald Prize with the Walker painting.
During 1959, I think I made about three train trips to Wangi, equipped with enough paint and canvas to paint ‘The Last Supper’, but Bill was a co-operative sitter and we used to finish up with tea and magnificent pikelets made by his sister, Alice (I got the recipe) – then a beer at the Wangi Hotel or R.S.L. Club (of which he was the Patron). Later I would pat their dogs until Bill got help with his quaint old compressed piano.
Other work and a new son created much distraction, and towards the end of 1959, I was feeling very dissatisfied with the painting.
By 1960 I had laid out another canvas and started afresh. I showed it in the 1960 Archibald Exhibition although at the time not ready for it. Following this I had several enquiries for its purchase, but I was not happy with it.
The portrait was not unwrapped for more than 18 months after it was returned from Brisbane, where it had gone after the Archibald Exhibition. Then I remounted the canvas to make it slightly bigger. As the mood took me, I worked on the painting intermittently until it was submitted to the Gallery.
As far as I know Bill has never seen the painting. My wife tells me she has asked whenever he was in Sydney and had the time, but Bill like myself doesn’t take much notice of letters.
W.E. Pidgeon, Nov. 1966
Occasionally Wep would be drawn back to the original portrait and fiddle with it. It underwent some minor restoration by Artarmon Galleries in 1977 along with Wep’s two Menzies portraits. It finally saw the light of day when it was included in the 2012 Retrospective also held at Artarmon Galleries, where it too was sold.
In early 1970, family friend, Brett Whiteley and another artist, Tony Woods, turned up late one night on our doorstep with a bottle of Ouzo. They were immediately welcomed in and a great discussion ensued around the dining room table.
As the social occasion became more convivial and expansive it was decided that all, as one body, should make a mass attack on the Archibald Prize competition.
The work was begun at Whale Bench where Brett and Tony were staying at the time. The picture is large (13′ 4″ x 6′ 6″) and is accompanied by a panel containing three photographs of the painting each with appropriate comments by the artists involved.
It was submitted to the 1970 Archibald Prize competition but was rejected on the grounds of non-compliance with the rules of the award.
Subsequently, it was seen and favourably looked upon by Dr. Harald Szeemann, who was brought to Australia by Mr. John Kaldor to organize an exhibition of Contemporary Australian Art. It was shown in his exhibitions at the Bonython Gallery, Sydney, and Victoria’s National Gallery, Melbourne, in 1971.
But perhaps it is best for my mother, Dorothy, to describe this story in her own words with a letter she wrote to Mr. James Mollison, Director of the National Art Gallery of Australia, 21 November 1974 . . .
Dear Mr. Mollison,
May I draw your attention to a unique painting which my husband and I have in our possession?
It is unique in more ways than one. Firstly, it is what the artists (Bill Pidgeon, Brett Whiteley and Tony Woods) have called a triple portrait; Secondly, it is a tribute by two younger artists to an older revered master; Thirdly, it could never be repeated by these artists again in the same manner as my husband has been unable to paint at all for the last two years.
A history of glaucoma in both eyes since 1956 culminated in a sixth eye operation early in 1973. Since then he has been unable to paint. The previous twenty years he eked out a living by official portrait painting, and during that period won three Archibald prizes – all with commissioned portraits. Rumour has it that on at least three other occasions he missed by a whisker. Needless to say, the ones he thought might win just never did. It took him ten years to win his first Archibald. His history is in Who’s Who in Australia.
The story of the Triple Portrait is too long to write fully now, but I shall tell you how it came about.
In the mid 1950’s a friend of my husband asked him if he would look at the work of a son of a friend of his. The son turned out to be a young 14½ year old schoolboy, Brett Whiteley. I remember my husband saying when he came home that it was the most natural talent he had seen – and he hoped he wouldn’t burn it out!
From then on they were firm friends. Until Brett won his scholarship to Italy some few years hence Bill aided and encouraged him – even against his mother’s wish that he not become an artist.
From Italy Brett went on to success in London – the Tate Gallery buying his work when he had just turned 22 years.
After a considerable number of years Brett and family returned to Australia. At the most unexpected times day or night he would appear on our doorstep – front or back – always we would love to see him and make him welcome. One night early in 1970 my husband had gone to bed early at 10.30 p.m. frustrated and despondent about his eyes. I was just about to put the light out later when Brett and Tony both very bright arrived at the front door with a bottle of Ouzo. In they came. Bill got up and we all sat around the dining room table, the three of them madly talking weighty matters on Art. We went right through to morning.
Bill had cheered and I asked Brett if he would sit for Bill for an un-commissioned portrait for the Archibald. From then it was on – Brett would do one of Bill, Tony not to be left out declared he must be in it too.
Months later in October, it finally got off the ground when the three of them had a week at a friend of Brett’s place at Whale Beach – there are many more stories – many I’m sure I don’t know. However, until 31st December (closing date for Archibald) and the final panel was being assembled on our sunroom floor- there were ons and offs and ups and downs.
Neither Brett nor Tony would heed me when I kept assuring them, stemming from five years’ experience at the Gallery, that it could not possibly be accepted as it would not comply with the conditions of the competition. Nonsense! They would carry all before them! However, my prediction turned out to be fact.
In the middle of January Bill and I brought it home quietly atop our station wagon – and here it stayed out in a backroom annoying Bill.
In April, 1971 John Kaldor brought Dr. Harald Zeemann from Germany I think, to assemble in a week an exhibition of Contemporary Australian Art. Frantic ‘phone calls from Brett – could the painting be seen. Dr. Zeemann and entourage arrived, viewed and were impressed. It was included in the exhibition shown at the Bonython and took up the whole of one end wall. The painting looked terrific! Mrs. Bronwyn Thomas wanted to know if it was for sale. I assured her it was not at that time.
The painting consists of three interlocking panels and a fourth, the story one with photographs and each artist’s comments under glass.
The three painted panels consist of a full length portrait of Brett – head to toes – by Bill – a larger than life-size head of Bill by Brett – and a self-portrait by Tony with touches from the other two. It would be approximately 13’4″ x 6’6″.
From the Bonython it went to Melboune, and there are still stories to go before it arrived one morning in May, 1973, at my husband’s half-owned terrace in Paddington, N.S.W. Soon it will have to be moved. Perhaps you will agree it is a unique painting. I should very much like it to be part of the National Collection and properly cared for. Needless to say, I should want a good price for it, but not in the Jackson Pollock – de Kooning bracket.
If you would be interested in seeing the painting when in Sydney, you could ‘phone me at 427-1626 and I could arrange for you to see it at Paddington.
Although my husband is known for his portrait painting chiefly and his cartoons of 20 plus years ago, and at that same period, illustrations and covers for the Women’s Weekly, he in his personal work has painted landscapes, nudes, flower pieces, still life and abstracts – religious paintings. He has also sculpted.
The New England and areas about Picton were his chief landscape loves, but there are one or two of the harbour – and or two very rare ones in Romania, Paris and London painted following his only visit abroad when he was invited to Romania in 1956. He called briefly on friends in Paris and London on his way back – a scarce 10 weeks in all.
As a War Correspondent for the Women’s Weekly in Darwin, New Guinea and Borneo he at that time made some telling and lovely paintings. These he would sell because of his financial circumstances, but would prefer that they be kept in groups if possible.
He has never had an exhibition and like Godfrey Miller and to a lesser extent Dobell clings to his paintings – even though they are under the bed or behind wardrobes gathering dust.
In their own area I believe Bill’s landscapes are as representative of Australia as the Nolan’s and Drysdales, etc. There is a little gem of St. John’s, Canberra, and two or three at Springfield, Goulburn, with horses in paddocks.
Most of his paintings seem to have come about over a period of years. By nature and because of his vision problems he has never been prolific. His portrait of Dobell came about over a period of nine years and several efforts. That is quite a story too.
There is one of Dobell here that, Warren Stewart (now in his 50’s) who was the sitter for Dobell’s “Student,” says is much better than the one the N.S.W. Gallery bought a number of years ago. It is still “not finished”.
Please accept my congratulations on your efforts to ensure our national collection will be at top international level.
(Mrs . W. E. Pidgeon)
Some years later following Bill’s death and having recently failed to sell the painting at auction to raise funds, Dorothy again wrote to James Mollison.
9th September 1982
Dear Mr. Mollison,
I refer to my letter way back on 21st November, 1974, concerning The Linked Portrait by Pidgeon, Whiteley and Woods – apparently a failed work.
The subject of this letter is not that painting but my late husband’s work in general about which I wrote in the latter part of the abovementioned letter.
In your reply, dated 29 November 1974, you said, “I am well aware of the work of W.E. Pidgeon,” – but are you? The work I refer to has never been exhibited publicly. Would you care to come and look for yourself? Some even I had not been aware of until after his death. For instance, did you know that he was responsible for the design, layout and illustrations for the limited edition of “The Eureka Stockade” by Carboni Raffaello printed by Ernest Shea at Mosman during the years 1937-1942? I have copy No. 37 as well as galley proofs and test prints.
Perhaps you remember that after he could no longer see to paint, Bill wrote an art critique for the Sunday Telegraph every week for five years (without one week’s leave) until he was knocked down by a car in March, 1979. Many an artist has expressed regret that he is no longer here to understand their work. The general public understood his crits.
I enclose three letters (copies) from three very different artists written to my husband during that time. Amongst others he was beloved by Brett Whiteley, Tim Storrier, Peter Wright, Martin Sharp and Lloyd Rees. After his ‘Tribute to Sydney’ exhibition Lloyd said, “It is the best critique I have ever had.” Recently, Lloyd told me he would take to his grave with joy in his heart that Bill had written “Lloyd Rees has done for Sydney what Turner did for Venice!”
It was reported by Humphrey McQueen (SMH 21.8.82) that Daniel Thomas pleads for a landscape by Conrad Martens and a portrait by James Bock “Then our collection will be representative.” Will it? – twenty two Albert Tucker’s, but not one Pidgeon – assuredly an unique 20th century Australian artist! It is not too late! Will you come and see the 1969 portrait of Lloyd Rees (admired by Barry Pearce) and the 1949 portrait of Menzies – a painting Her Majesty would appreciate?
For some years now I was aware of one of Wep’s paintings titled The White River but had no idea what it looked like. It came up for auction in 2002 and the provenance detail showed it had been purchased by Sir Daryl Lindsay from Artlovers Gallery in Artarmon for the I.C.I. Art Collection. Lindsay was an artist and member of the famous Lindsay family and a former Director of the National Gallery of Victoria (1941-1956). Wep’s archives reveal the painting was sold May 1st, 1958 and his proceeds were £29.8.0. The asking price was probably 40gns (£42).
The I.C.I. Art Collection, later known as the Orica Art Collection was purchased by Kerry Stokes for $13 million in December 2001. In August 2002 Sotheby’s Australia auctioned a number of works from the Kerry Stokes Collection including works formerly in the Orica Collection. The painting was then held in a private collection and was re-framed by Maitland Heritage Frames and Art Supplies. In 2005 it was offered for sale in the Hunter Valley Grammar Festival of the Arts. It remained in a private collection until March 2019 when it was offered for sale by Lawsons Fine Art. This was an ideal opportunity to reunite the painting with the family collection of Wep’s artworks.
I was curious to identify the location of The White River, especially as this was a descriptive name, rather than a geographical name. I suspected it was the Snowy River near Jindabyne.
Going through Wep’s paper archives and photos appears to confirm the location is indeed the Snowy River near to the site where Bill and Jess camped in their caravan in 1937. It was also where they took the humorist Lennie Lower in the caravan in 1938. Photographs and other works present a similar landscape to that of The White River. The site is just north of the former road bridge across the Snowy River, now well and truly submerged beneath Lake Jindabyne.
Dating the work
When the painting was offered for sale in 2002, the date was listed as c.1958. I was not so sure about that. The only works Wep sold ‘fresh’ were commissioned portraits or illustrations. In early 1958 Wep had at least five works on the go. It was also the year he painted Ray Walker, his first Archibald Prize winner. He was fairly busy at the time and unlikely to be dabbling on the side with one of his more favoured pastimes, landscape painting. More likely his friend, John Brackenreg, who owned and ran Artlovers Gallery (now Artarmon Galleries), asked Bill if he had any works which he could offer for display/sale. Alternatively, Bill needed some ready cash to keep things going and approached John with a painting he was willing to let go. Usually in these situations he would look for a suitable painting (as he was not one to exhibit or sell), possibly add some finishing touches and then sign it.
Another point that suggests the work is much earlier than 1958 is the signature “wepidgeon”. Initially Wep signed all his works as “wep”, of which there are several distinct period styles. However, come the 1930s, only illustrations and cartoons were signed “wep” and his paintings, if signed, usually bore the signature “wepidgeon”. Upon leaving Consolidated Press in 1948 to concentrate on portrait painting, Wep made a definitive change to his painting signature to distance himself from the illustrator/cartoonist known as “wep”. From this point onward, all his paintings were simply signed as “pidgeon”. This suggests the painting is at least earlier than 1948. Given the subject matter, the most likely date is c.1938.
For some time now I have undertaken an intensive project to digitise Wep’s archives. Firstly to know what I have and secondly to re-establish the links between various items long since separated, which may reveal further clues to the life story of the artist, William Edwin Pidgeon.
Previously I have scanned numerous photographs and negatives but some had been put aside for another day; their condition being less than desirable. I am now addressing those as well. The problem is that many photographs were used by Wep simply as tools of the trade. He would take numerous photos of sitters for portrait composition, details of hands, poses, etc and they would simply get crumpled up, paint stained or covered in insect dirt and dust. Particularly so in his latter years as his studio had become more and more less weatherproof and the wisteria vine taking over, its tentacles reaching far inside through the many gaps, crevices and window openings.
Whilst progressing through the last remaining box (is it really, I wonder) I came across a small yellow metal canister. I opened it up to reveal a roll of 18 exposure Kodachrome Color Safety Film. This film type was produced from 1936 to 1962. I have previously scanned a roll of colour positive film taken at Northwood around the early 1940s. It is possible that this roll could be from the 40’s or 50’s also. Has it been exposed and never developed? After 60 to 70 years, it is highly unlikely that any decent colour images could be obtained but if the film has been exposed, there might be a slim chance of obtaining some black and white images.
Curiousity is getting the better of me. A quick search online reveals that there is a company in Melbourne that will process old film but recently they stopped doing the colour process. I could only hope for black and white at best. But colour was rare back then and I want to know more.
It turns out that there is a company in Indian Head, Saskatchewan, Canada, called Film Rescue International, who may well be able to release the genie for me. If the film has never been exposed or there are no recognisable images on it, then I will not get charged. Other than my postage, what is there to lose?
So this week I intend to pack up my little roll of vintage Kodak Koachrome film and send it off to the other side of the world in hope of a message in a cannister. The turn around is about eight to ten weeks so I should know around the end of August. And if there are some hidden treasures, stay tuned for them to be revealed right here.
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.
Following Wep’s Sunday Telegraph Art review of Bryan Westwood’s exhibition at Bonython Gallery in October 1975, he received the following note of thanks from Bryan.
Thank you very much for your most kindly review of my paintings at the Bonython recently. I saw you briefly at the opening on the Thursday night but you were obviously about your work so I tried not to catch your eye or interrupt you. Thank you for your kindness and generousity,
P.S. I will not be showing in Sydney for quite a long time, I can almost afford to write to say thank you – something I understand is simply not done! BW
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.
Artist extraordinaire William (Bill) Pidgeon or WEP as he was affectionately known by his humourous cartoons and illustrations, made his home and established his studio at Northwood in 1941. At the time he was still drawing for the Daily and SundayTelegraph and the Australian Women’s Weekly where he had become famous nationally for his iconic covers, humourous illustrations and the cartoon strip “In and Out of Society.”
In 1949, Bill left the newspaper world to pursue a career in portrait painting and to try and win an Archibald Prize. His early interest in draughtsmanship, design and comic drawing involving human relationships provided him with a special ability to capture the true character of his sitters. His goal was achieved with the recognition by his peers of his skill, being awarded with three Archibald Prize wins in 1958, 1961 and in 1968 of his friend and fellow Northwood artist, Lloyd Rees.
When not painting portraits, Bill sometimes dabbled in abstraction however his true love was landscapes. He claimed people who stated the Australian countryside was colourless were blind. As he described it, it has a “subtle, opalescent quality about it – almost pearl like.” His favourite countryside was the Western Slopes of NSW and the mountains.
This exhibition reflects Pidgeon’s love of painting in all his many spheres of interest: portraits of the greats of our society to intimate ones of friends and family; landscapes of his favourite countrysides, his sketches and drawings. WWII paintings of everyday life of the troops in Darwin and North-west Australia, New Guinea and Borneo and some cover illustrations as appeared in the Australian Women’s Weekly; political cartoons and comic strips under his signature, “wep” are all featured. Of the portraits on show, eight former Archibald Prize finalists are included along with several of Bill’s self nominated ten best works.
Bill Pidgeon visited Artarmon Galleries (begun in 1955 by John Brackenreg) quite often as it was near his home in Northwood. Pidgeon was a mentor and friend to many artists and was a founding member of the Lane Cove Art Panel along with Lloyd Rees, Reinis Zusters and Guy Warren. As art critic for the Telegraph newspaper, Pidgeon endeavoured to review many shows, encouraged young artists and recorded on several occasions past artists’ exhibitions in the gallery.
Now it is Bill’s turn to hold a full exhibition at Artarmon Galleries, which will be launched 8th May at 7.30pm. Long time friends of Bill; Venita Salnajs, fellow artist and wife of Reinis Zusters, along with another former local resident and leading Australian Classical composer, Ann Carr-Boyd and Australia’s elder statesman of caricaturists, Tony Rafty will open the exhibition – a pleasure for all to see.
Welcome speech given by Peter Pidgeon at the opening of the William Edwin Pidgeon Retrospective at Artarmon Galleries, 8 May 2012
I would like to thank you all for coming tonight in support of this, the first retrospective of my father, Bill Pidgeon and especially to Bill’s long time friends; Tony Rafty, Ann Carr-Boyd and Venita Salnajs for their wonderful memories shared with us tonight. I would also like to thank Philip and Julie Brackenreg of Artarmon Galleries for having the faith in providing me with the opportunity to hold this exhibition. Their father, John Brackenreg, another long time associate of Dad’s founded this gallery in 1955 and being local to our former home in Northwood, it really is most appropriate for this exhibition to be held here.
Apart from a few group exhibitions and the odd art prize competition, Bill never exhibited. He was not a commercial artist in that he did not mass produce or sell his work, other than what was commissioned but happily
gave it away to friends, acquaintances and even strangers who may have expressed pleasure in a particular piece.
Ever since Bill died, Dorothy, my mother, has dreamed of a retrospective of Bill’s work. It came close many years ago with the S.H. Ervin Gallery but funding eluded her and old age caught up. In 2006 when she sold the family home in Northwood to move to Melbourne I had a real concern as to what to do with the paintings. Fortunately, Edmund Capon from the Art Gallery of NSW and Charles Hewitt were very supportive in facilitating storage and kicking off a cataloguing project of the major works.
In 2009, my mother insisted the paintings be shipped to Melbourne. This was not the preferable location as any potential exhibition would best be held in Sydney. At the time, I had not yet realised my mother had suffered a minor stroke, which had played a significant part in this decision.
Having the paintings in Melbourne did however prove advantageous; allowing me to personally take over the cataloguing work as well as their research in conjunction with Dad’s other papers. I photographed all the paintings and have their images imprinted into my cognitive consciousness. As I go through Dad’s papers, sketch books, old photographs, newspaper clipping and writings, I may sometimes notice a few pencil strokes on a scrap of paper which immediately remind me of a painting and a light bulb goes off. For instance, there is a small striking landscape from 1932 featuring the red trunks of two trees with mountains in the background. I really had no idea where it was situated other than I was familiar with the locations Dad would travel in. I found an old note in a journal which had a couple of sketched lines indicative of these two trees and the background with a note stating “Hawkesbury River” even though no river is actually visible in the painting. However, there is also another landscape painted in the same style where a river is featured. On a hunch that it was in the Hawkesbury River region as well, I then used an old map book of Dad’s from the 30s with the roads he had travelled highlighted with pencil and combined with Google Maps and Google Earth where I could view the topography, I was able to identify this picture as being near Wiseman’s Ferry. I quite enjoy this research and get a real buzz when I confirm the location of a landscape or the identity of a portrait using Dad’s photographs and other web resources such as Google image search, Flickr and Trove. At times I have also undertaken trips to confirm my locations of paintings such as those of the Bylong Valley, painted when he and first wife, Jess, took a six month caravan trip in 1937 to travel throughout NSW and south east Queensland.
In 1948 when Bill resigned from Consolidated Press and newspaper work, he set out to win an Archibald Prize. His first entry was that year with a portrait of Frank Broadhurst. He was within the first four in 1951 with his portrait of Jess. In 1955 Bill entered a portrait of Brett Whiteley’s sister, Wendy, or as she is more commonly known, Frannie. Frannie Hopkirk wrote in her book titled “Brett” that this portrait was the judges’ choice however Bill was denied the prize because she was not a subject of a “distinguished person of arts or letters.” The Art Gallery subsequently purchased that portrait. Finally, Bill won the first of his three Archibald Prizes in 1958 with a portrait of his journalist friend, and President of the Journalists’ Club, Ray Walker. His second Archibald came in 1961 with a portrait for the Great Synagogue of Rabbi Porush and his third in 1968 with a portrait of Lloyd Rees, commissioned by the Lane Cove Council. The portrait of Lloyd hanging in the exhibition was actually the initial painting but mid way through it, Lloyd decided he wanted to be painted wearing his favourite velveteen jacket instead, which he had bought in Paris. Rather than paint over the canvas, Bill painted an alternative portrait, which went on the win the prize. However, the one here on display was his personal favourite of the two.
Bill entered and was a finalist in every competition from 1948 to 1972 except for two years when he did not enter; 1965 and 1971. Coincidentally, in both these years the prize was awarded to Clifton Pugh, another three time winner along with Eric Smith and Bill Dobell. This exhibition includes six of Bill’s entries; the 1949 Menzies, the 1951 portrait of Jess, the 1953 portrait of Dorothy, the 1954 portrait of Jack Cassidy, the 1969 portrait of Dorothy and the 1972 portrait of Venita.
During the majority of Bill’s portrait painting career, it was a little known fact that he was going blind. Bill was first diagnosed with glaucoma in both eyes in 1956. It would have crippled his ability to obtain commissions if his deteriorating sight had become general knowledge. All in all, Bill underwent six eye operations to treat his glaucoma, remove cataracts and ultimately the removal of his lenses. Shortly after having his first lens
removed he accidentally poked his finger in his eye resulting in an emergency operation to correct the damage. It was at this time that Bill painted his last portrait, the one of Venita, which he personally nominated as one of his ten
best. Four of those portraits are here on display, the others being his self portrait in the studio, Diana Judah and the one of Mum in yellow.
Ultimately Bill was declared legally blind yet he continued to be engaged in the art world. In 1974, his good friend and editor of the Sunday Telegraph, King Watson, asked him to step in to do the political cartoon whilst
their regular cartoonist was on long service leave. A number of those cartoons are in the exhibition. King also asked if he would do the art crit for the paper, a task both Dad and Mum took on every week for the next five years. Mum would drive Dad around to all the gallery shows where he would then examine the paintings with a magnifying glass and write up his review, which Mum would then type and submit to the paper – all for $50 a week. He did not do it for the money – that was never his motivation. He did it because he embraced all things about art and he loved fostering the talent of new and young artists as he had always done in the past with the likes of people such as Peter Harrigan, Les Tanner and Brett Whiteley.
According to Bill, the most important aspects of a painting are its design; being the relationship between form and line, as well as the treatment of colour and tone and with his background in newspaper work and cartoons, “the added values of understanding, intensity of feeling and nobleness of mind,” which he said, ”can transmute the diagrammatic structure into art of great profundity.”
Bill would often receive letters from artists he had reviewed thanking him for his insight. One example from George McIvar who wrote in 1977, “It is a great pleasure to get a good criticism written from a point of view and by a critic you respect.” But it was not always so. Back in the 1940s Dad was the art critic for the Daily Telegraph. Both the Royal Art Society and the Australian Art Society wrote to the paper asking that they not send Wep to review their shows. They felt he was giving them unfair criticism. Wep’s response was that he was entitled to be critical of the works of uninspired or unsophisticated artists who simply made a realistic transcription of what they see and like in the world around them. He said that the society shows “revolve round the works of a dozen regular exhibitors. Apart from these, most of the paintings are the products of the dilettante or the amateur.” Members of the public wrote to the paper in support of Wep. Arnold Zimmerman, himself a member of the RAS, wrote saying the ban was unfortunate as Wep is the most sincere and constructive art critic in Sydney.” Another, from Dora Chapman, Secretary of the Studio of Realistic Art wrote, “we congratulate you on possessing an art critic who is well informed, sincere, constructive, and knows how to put his ideas across.”
One day I hope to be able to tell Bill’s story in full; of the extraordinary life he led in conjunction with Jess and Mum and his amazing creativity through his art, photography and writing. Sometimes I like to think that Dad and Jess are guiding me in this quest to uncover his story. I have often found myself simply staring at photos, especially those of Dad and Jess, wishing for them to reveal their history.
My mother was very pleased about this upcoming exhibition. I kept her informed of every detail regarding it. When I described to her each picture I had selected, she would recall them all with pleasure. At the beginning of
April I learnt that Philip and Julie’s mother, Eleanor, had passed away after being ill for some months. Just four days later at Easter, my mother also passed away. This exhibition has proven to be quite a journey for Phil, Julie and I. I can only imagine that our parents and Jess are all celebrating this event with us tonight.
Finally, I want to thank my family for putting up with me as I undertake this journey, especially my wife Liz, whose life has been so impacted by this man she has never met.
So with that, please enjoy the show, please sign the guest book for me and I would love to catch up and hear your own stories as well. And if I can, I may be able to share a little more background to some of the paintings.