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.