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WILLIAM EDWIN PIDGEON (WEP)

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF THE ARTIST 1909-1981

William Edwin Pidgeon was first stimulated in the visual arts by the output of his father Frederick Castledine Pidgeon, who died when "Wep" was four years old.

A glazier by trade, F.C. Pidgeon had attended Royal Art School classes at night, studying oil painting and life drawing. Drawings by him remained around the house in Paddington, and from this early influence Wep developed a keen interest in draughtmanship. Old copies of "Studio" magazine also provided sources of inspiration for copying.

Wep intended to become an engineer but as fate would have it his career in Press Art would start by doing comic illustrations for his Technical High School magazine.

His interest in illustrative draughting stimulated in this way, he passed Leaving Certificate facing the choice between further study to become an electrical engineer or breaking into the newspaper world.

His first job was as an office boy at the Wunderlich factory at Surrey Hills. It was here that he met Bill Dobell who was employed as an advertising artist and a life long association was formed between them. 

Taking the bit between his teeth an approach was made to a dentist uncle (Septimus E. Patterson) who had the editor of "THE SUNDAY NEWS" (Marmion Dart) as a patient. Pressure was brought to bear and at the age of 16, Wep was employed as a cadet newspaper artist in April 1925 for the paper including "THE EVENING NEWS". His first cartoon, "A Crossword Tragedy" was published 12 April 1925. A comic strip called the Trifling Triplets was first published in 1926 and ran for nine months.

In 1927 he joined Eric Baume and Frank Packer at Smith's Newspapers Limited working for "THE DAILY GUARDIAN" and later "THE SUNDAY GUARDIAN" when it commenced in 1929, as newspaper artist remaining there until the organisation was bought out by Sun Newspapers in the depths of the Depression in 1931.

He left following a dispute '...Campell Jones didn't like the way that I pointed noses which was inevitable seeing my own nose is very pointed, so I got the sack.'

Working freelance he contributed to the labour newspaper "THE WORLD" where he created the comic strip "Worldly Wisdom," and when it was sold out, Wep moved on to Associated Newspapers ("THE SUN AND SUNDAY GUARDIAN," "THE SUNDAY SUN" and "WIRELESS WEEKLY"). In 1933, working with his friend George Warnecke, he drew up the dummy of "THE AUSTRALIAN WOMEN'S WEEKLY" for Sydney Newspapers,  a publication with which he was to become synonymous as a cartoonist, illustrator and cover artist. In 1936 Sydney Newspapers merged to become Consolidated Press and Wep remained with them until his resignation in January 1949. '...I decided that it was too long to have everything I do wrapped around the purchases from shops'. Cushioned by an agreement to provide Frank Packer with occasional artwork, he set up as a portrait painter.

Behind his more flippant explanation for this move, lay a much stronger realisation of the dilemma of an artist working in the press, ever under pressure to articulate editorial policy in spite of personal conviction.

His output in these years had been prolific, inventing strips such as 'In and Out of Society' which first appeared in the "What Women are Doing" page in the 'WEEKLY' and re-establishing 'Wordly Wisdom' for the "DAILY TELEGRAPH" which was followed by an untitled strip based on current news items and the "Mr Humperdink's Progress" series in "WIRELESS WEEKLY". He ventured into book illustration, including the limited edition of Carboni Raffello's "THE EUREKA STOCKADE", printed at Mosman by Earnest O'Shea, and the legendary "HERE'S LUCK" by Lennie Lower.

His covers for magazines such as "WIRELESS WEEKLY," "AUSTRALIA MONTHLY" (AM) and "AUSTRALIAN WOMEN'S WEEKLY" gave expression to his gently sardonic humour, his perceptions of the human condition and his understanding of art. Many of the 'WEEKLY' covers are now classic illustrations of events and facets of Australian life of the times. Two of his most famous and most appreciated by readers are "Saturday Night Dance" and "School Bus."

Using caricature he revealed the personalities of political, sporting and social identities to the ordinary person.

This ability to simplify and communicate the complex carried into his art reviews for the 'TELEGRAPH'. His commentaries helped explain the directions of emerging Australian artists to the ordinary reader. More than once 'Letters to the Editor' appeared both supporting and condemning his "spade is a spade" remarks on exhibitions, artworks and artists. He was to return to art reviewing in 1974.

A war correspondent for the 'WEEKLY', Wep filed a stream of illustrations and cover paintings showing the daily life of troops behind the lines, in Darwin, Papua New Guinea, Morotai and Borneo, at hospitals, on beaches, around the camps, and at horse races.

He further contributed to the war effort through the medium of cartooning. Along with George Finey and Noel Counihan, Wep was represented in the 1941 National Gallery of Canada Catalogue, "WAR CARTOONS AND CARICATURES OF THE BRITISH COMMONWEALTH". The Curator of the exhibition, New Zealander Alan Reeve, drew particular attention to Wep, commenting on his high level of craftsmanship and individual style, that appeared little influenced by past and current cartoonists.

During the war years, cartoonists occupied a unique position in the media. As visual journalists their ebullience communicated itself directly to the public. Alan Reeve noted, that with over 30 artists drawing for the Australian press their numbers were equal to those working in Great Britain with seven times the population. - At the fore front of this media movement was William Edwin Pidgeon.

Following the end of the war, Wep spent a further 4 years at Consolidated Press until 1949, when, looking back over the first 25 years of his working life, he might have observed how-much he had contributed to the humour of the nation and its perception of itself. Looking ahead, it would have been difficult for the artist to imagine the bitter-sweet years to come.

His diverse output as a press artist was at its most productive in the years leading up to 1950. Producing cartoons, strips, caricatures, covers and colour illustrations, giving voice to his humour, perceptions of Australian life, international events and the many actors who strode across both stages.

Within a small number of years he would suffer the death of his wife Jess, who he had married in 1933, and the gradual deterioration of his eyesight - a fact kept hidden for professional reasons.

It was not to be a total tragedy however as he was to win the Melbourne Cup of Australian Art, the Archibald Prize, three times and find in the companionship of his second wife Dorothy, support until his death in 1981.

Professional portrait painting brought to the fore his special gifts as an observer of people, highlighting his ability as an artist which was further articulated in his occasional landscape.

Formal training in painting had been limited to six months at J.S. Watkins Art School and several months at Technical College. After leaving Watkins he frequented Sidney Long's studio pursuing an interest in etching. The highlight of his formal training was an "honourable mention for a well modeled ear" at Technical College.

Spending his early years in newspaper production meant that Wep found himself primarily a 'cobber' of journalists. However, drifting around 'Mockbells' and other coffee shops, acquaintances were made with artists and these linkages were further developed through his art reviews. Living at Northwood, he had as neighbours fellow artists Lloyd Rees and George Lawrence.

In the later period, deeper friendships would develop as his home in Northwood became a regular drop-in for those wishing to drink, discuss, and theorise about art. The area around Lane Cove River was a neighbourhood to a small community of artists such as Reinis Zusters and the young Brett Whiteley.

Pidgeon included amongst his friends, Brett's parents, Clem and Beryl Whiteley who lived in the adjacent suburb of Longueville. He was one of the first to recognise the potential of this young artist, and, after viewing the 15 year old's painting, commented that here was the most natural talent he had seen and hoped that it would not get burnt out.

Brett Whiteley became a frequent visitor to Northwood with Wep ever willing to explore notions of art, supported by searches through the bookshelves to find evidence, facts and illustrations. The friendship was to find final expression in a joint painting 'Linked Portrait' produced by Pidgeon, Whiteley and Tony Woods. The work was submitted to and rejected by the 1970 Archibald.

After putting out his shingle as a portrait painter, the artist attracted a growing number of patrons from the judiciary, politics, academia, boardrooms and social pages. His facility for working in oils came from his years of experimentation working up colour illustrations for newspapers and magazines, while caricature and 'cartooning had honed his ability to observe and render the human form, particularly the head, face and hands.

Conscious of the tensions between subjective and objective rendering of a sitter, the artist spoke most eloquently in non-commissioned works, or when he felt that artistic understanding was present in the client.

In the first ten years of portraiture, he entered both the 'Australian Women’s Weekly Portrait Prize' and the Archibald, which he won for the first time in 1958. The winning portrait of journalist Ray Walker hung for many years at the 'Journalists' Club' in Sydney and presents the sitter as a rugged, jovial individualist rendered with a sense of freedom not always seen in the formal commissioned works.  This work was twice stolen and returned under mysterious circumstances and has since disappeared since the collapse of the Journalists' Club. He also won the Archibald Packers' Prize in 1958 for his portrait "Liz."

This first Archibald was a triumph over the bitter fact that for the past two years Wep had been suffering glaucoma of both eyes. This affliction would lead to six operations and ultimately to the accident near his home that heralded his final decline and death. But in that summer of 1958/59 the Northwood household celebrated both victory at the Archibald and the birth of his second son, Peter. Two more wins in the Archibald were to follow in 1961 and 1968 with portraits of Rabbi Porush and Lloyd Rees.

In the final decade of his life the artist painted when possible as his eyesight collapsed. His final portrait was of artist Venita Salnajs. From 1974 he wrote art reviews for the 'TELEGRAPH' until knocked down by a car in a lane near his home in 1979 which led to a collapse in his health and his eventual death in 1981.

A self taught man in the areas of religion, philosophy and social theory, he was well known at the local pub for reading Greek mythology over a glass of beer and being ever willing to discuss ideas with fellow drinkers. The only direct exposure to foreign culture came in 1956 when as part of a cultural exchange he visited Rumania and briefly, Paris and London, something that he had aspired to do many years earlier in the 20's.

 

Les Tanner Remembers

 I first met Bill when I was a seventeen year old copy boy in the artist room at The Sydney Daily Telegraph in 1944.  He had just returned from New Guinea and I was greatly in awe of him.  I had seen his work long before (my father had worked in the publishing rooms of various papers and always brought copies home – The Telegraph, Smith’s Weekly, Women’s Weekly, etc) so I was familiar with his comic illustrations.  What I now discovered was his immense versatility in the war paintings he did.  He was probably the first adult I was encouraged to call by his first name.  At his insistence he was either Bill or Billy Wep or Bill Pidge.  Everyone else was Mr. or Sir. 

He was very warm, friendly, encouraging and funny.  He had a reputation for heavy drinking being among those that appeared in the Pub when they opened at 10AM.  What very few knew was that he’d already worked six hours, rising at 4AM.  Newspapers were pretty boozy places anyway so the reputation did him no harm.  I didn’t know Jess at all as she was very sick but I heard a lot about her from his friends and colleagues.  I know he adored her and that she was strikingly good looking and that he adored her not only for that but for her spirit and all the qualities she had and shared with others.  He nursed her until her tragic death. 

He used to come to the Artist’s room to get pencils, ink, white poster colour and paper but would always look at what I was drawing and say things like ‘that’s very funny, do more like that’ or show me the books of the old masters.  I remember him showing me a book of Hokusai the Japanese 18th century print maker and telling me that he signed his work ‘An old man mad about drawing’. Bill thought that was marvellous. 

Bill would appear always wearing a pork pie hat, always well dressed in a casual way.  He had a soft voice, workman like hands with solid blunt fingers (as I well remember, from having one of them down my throat to make me up-chuck some of the excess liquor I’d consumed at the Artists’ Ball so I’d be sober enough to drive home.)  He was great encourager of young talent, Brett Whiteley, Peter Harrigan and me.  He even set up a travelling scholarship which I was told later he meant for me but I was in the Army in Japan and madly in love with an American girl and didn’t enter.  Peter Harrigan did and deservedly won a year in London. 

I think he was so in love with drawing and painting and just creating with his hands that when he saw talent in others he couldn’t help but foster and encourage.  I remember him showing me a short flight of concrete steps at Northwood.  He was so proud of having made them that signed them Wep. 

His friends Geoff Turton, George Finey, Bill Mahony and others told me stories about him shocking a posh dinner party with an oyster stuck in his nostril waggling about.  About him taking Lennie Lower away to the Snowy Mountains with instructions not to give Lower any more money than two shillings (20c).  Lower went to Cooma with his two shillings and came back rotten drunk with seven and sixpence change.  He’d gone into Cooma, told everyone who he was and that he was there with Wep so no-one would let him pay for a drink and actually pressed money on him thus defeating the other instruction ‘sober him up and keep him sober’. 

I saw a lot of your father when he was cartooning for the Sunday Tele as I was rostered on on Saturdays.  We used to drink in the Windsor hotel in Castlereagh St. He had his paper on the bar marking stories that might give him an idea for a cartoon.  We’d go back to the canteen for a cold pork sandwich and he’d buy a bottle of dry sherry to share with the women in the Social dept. next door to our rooms. 

Ure Smith the publisher got me to design the cover for ‘They’re A Weird Mob’ which I did but came down with Appendicitis.  Ure Smith asked Bill to illustrate it which was a bit much as he was trying to break away from illustration for serious portraiture and in fact had won his first Archibald.  I think it was when he and your Mother were either courting or had just married.  I know he visited me in hospital to tell me he would do it.  I only mention it because when the book launch was held, the author John O’Grady, a vile man at best, made his speech he hoped ‘You all made enough out of my talents to buy a new suit of clothes.’  This was greeted by us all in stunned silence until someone announced that Bill had won his second Archibald.  O’Grady was lost in the cheers that went up.  O’Grady was very put out.

 

Last Updated - 22 January, 2012