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.
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.