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William Pidgeon

7 Jan 1909 - 16 Feb 1981


Interviewed by Hazel de Berg



Hazel de Berg collection

National Library of Australia Tape no. deB 146

Recorded in the Clune Galleries, Sydney 23 November 1965. He is well known under his pen name ‘WEP’. ‘You were off to a good start’ I said when he said he was born in Paddington and his father was the Mayor of Paddington.

‘Yes,’ he said ‘but of course the artists didn’t congregate there in those days.’ On the tape he says his caricatures resemble him because he has a ‘large nose’. Shall we say simply that he has definite features-is animated well dressed and casually confident.

Among other newspapers he mentions the Sunday News, the Guardian (with Eric Baume) and the Women's Weekly, with which he was associated for sixteen years.

He lives near George Lawrence and Lloyd Rees. ‘They are both Wynne Prize winners’, he said.

‘Must be a very satisfactory little community’ I said ‘say it on the tape.’ He speaks about William Dobell (at the age of about twenty-six) and later at the time of the court case over Joshua Smith. [A reference to the unorthodox portrait of Joshua Smith which won the 1943 Archibald Prize for Dobell. The award was contested by two of the judges on the grounds that the work was not a portrait but a caricature. However, the award was finally confirmed after a legal battle lasting two years.] He mentions a cartoon he made of the courtroom scene.

I was beginning to get the historical scene of the Sydney artists in true perspective.’ So you were one of Dobell’s mob?’ I said.

‘You're learning, lady, you're learning,’ he said.

He is also a serious portrait painter. ‘Have to watch I don’t send them up,’ he said.

‘I bet you do,’ I replied.

He heard his playback ‘Just like me,’ he said, ‘ punch lines and not too much detail.’


*        *        *

        My name is William Edwin Pidgeon. I was born in Paddington, 1909. For about twenty-five years I lived there. At one period, my mother's father was the mayor of the area, so that we were slightly-a little more socially inclined in the area than most of the others.

My father was a glazier, and I found that as a child I used to go through a lot of his drawings. He used to associate with artists like Fred Leist in the old days and they used to go up to the Royal Art Society Schools, I think, at the Tech College, and he pursued life drawing and some oil paintings. Unfortunately, none of them seem to be in existence at the moment.

From there on I always seem to have taken a great interest in draftsmanship. There were great numbers of old Studio magazines about, and I used to go through these and occasionally copy the drawings out of them.

Later on when I went to high school, I was intending to become an engineer, and my technical education was directed towards that end; but at the Technical High School they used to have a school magazine and various students would do comic drawings for them, of which I was one of the students that did this sort of thing, and I became more interested in this comic approach to draftsmanship, and just after the Leaving Certificate I was in two minds, whether to become an electrical engineer or try and get into the newspaper world. Fortunately I had an uncle who was a dentist, and one of his patients was the editor of the Sunday News at the time. Pressure was brought to bear on the patient and I was put on as a cadet artist with the Sunday News. This would be about when I was sixteen.

I was down there for two or three years when the Evening News folded up. I've forgotten exactly now what the situation was. No, the Evening News was still going when I went round and joined the Guardian and worked with Eric Baume, and I was the newspaper cartoonist round there up until the period of the Depression, when the Guardian and Smith's Weekly organisation finished and they were bought out by Sydney Newspapers-not Sydney, Sun Newspapers. (Campbell Jones didn't like the way I pointed noses, which was inevitable seeing my own nose is very pointed, so I got the sack.

During the Depression I freelanced and worked for the Labour newspaper the World, and when the World was sold out I did the original dummy for the Women's Weekly, that would be in 1933, and I stayed with the Women's Weekly and Consolidated Press then, as a cartoonist and illustrator, until 1949 when I decided that it was too long to have everything I do wrapped up round the purchases from shops, so I resigned from Consolidated Press and have been working as an artist on my own account ever since.

Well, from the time I left Consolidated Press, I didn't cut completely away from them, I made some sort of bargain with Frank Packer, who was then "Frank" not "Sir", and I used to do an occasional piece of work for them which managed to keep me going until I could try and organise some sort of routine for myself.

The background of the newspapers naturally had always kept me on the rather realistic viewpoint, mostly illustrations or caricatures-most of the work I've had to do has been involved with human relationships and that sort of thing, so naturally I became interested-I always have been interested-in human beings as such, and I like painting them, so this is the opportunity to settle down and try to win an Archibald Prize. It didn't happen very quickly but nevertheless-what was it, about six or eight years, I won the Archibald Prize in 1958; that was a painting of a fellow journalist, a rather rugged type. In 1961 I won the Archibald Prize again with a portrait of the Rabbi Porush.

I still earn my livelihood mostly by painting portraits, though I like to do landscapes occasionally, and sometimes experiment with a little abstractionism. It gets away from the literalities mostly commissioned portraits demand.

Well, I may as well go back a little bit further and mention the fact that I've had no fundamentally formal art training. It's mostly been picked up from books out of the public library and practice. I did six months with J.S. Watkins' art school, and a couple of months up at the Technical College, but apart from that I've never had any real education in the application of oil paint techniques and that sort of thing, so what facility I may have acquired has been picked up mostly by experimentation in working for the colour magazines and newspaper illustrations; and the interest in human beings has naturally been conditioned by the fact that I used to do a cartoon every week, if not more. These cartoons always involved some political character or somebody else you'd do a caricature of, and although I prefer not too formal an approach to drawing in cartoons, I'd rather keep it expressionistic, well, there was a certain amount of freedom in doing these things. Invariably the idea has to be your own, the literary people in the newspaper world always conceive of ideas for cartoons and such like illustrations in terms of words rather than visually, so that in the final analysis all ideas for cartoons as a rule mostly come from the artist.

The ideas usually would I'd say necessitate about two or three hours thinking, occasionally you might get one quite inspirationally; it's a matter of reading the daily papers, going through the news. The cartoon is of no use to the daily press unless it's topical. Then after reading the newspapers, you sort of make your mind receptive and wait for something to happen. You'd think about all sorts of things, all different approaches, different angles; you'd discard them or you'd become receptive, the subconscious seems to work and sometimes you'd get an odd twist from that, and that will be the cartoon. You might do about three or four ideas of which you trust that the editor will pick the one you favour.

When I approach the problem of painting a portrait, it usually is conditioned by some particular size, specially if it is commissioned, maybe on the smallish side or it may be slightly larger, and you are limited by the set boundaries in which you have to work. So consequently I always prefer to do a drawing of the sitter. It takes me quite a long time to pose them to what I think mostly looks like themselves. It's rather difficult. I find that nobody knows what to do and I don't know the people well enough, and they are self conscious, so that by the time you settle down to find a pose, and seek to generally observe how these people look, maybe an hour or so has gone. Well, I like to do then this sketch drawing and brush in the hands and the body, and call that a day for the first sitting.

        Subsequent to that, I measure it over and scale it up, if it is to be 24 by 30 [inches] or 36 by 28, well, you get some idea as to where to chop the composition, and then I square it up on the canvas, and next time the sitter comes I start painting, and I usually work from the sitter from then on. 

        I probably find that from the past, where I've done so many years of caricature, I tend to react slightly the other way. I think that fundamentally I could well afford to use more of the element of caricature in what I'm doing, but there again, the thing still has to be some sort of synthesis. If you just paint them where the light happens to be falling on them it may look like them in a certain aspect, but if their hair is light and the light is in a different direction, it makes it look dark, so you have to make your modifications. 

        Sometimes the sitters may have the false look and you just wait till they wear out and they get somewhere near their real look, and it takes time because until they become themselves it's very difficult to say which way they hold their mouth or-and maybe, after about two or three sittings, you come to the conclusion you should have started them from another angle. However, if you don't let them know and you do that again, it's all right, but otherwise they get very despondent! 

Moving around various places, I did art criticisms for the Daily Telegraph off and on for some years, and of course I met quite a considerable number of artists at that period. I only knew them very casually. I cannot say that I was very closely associated with them. During the Dobell case, I had known Bill Dobell previously. By an odd circumstance, the first job I ever had was at Wunderlich's out in Redfern and I was the office boy and Bill Dobell was the advertising draftsman for metal ceilings. Bill must have been about twenty-six then. I think the following year he won his travelling scholarship, and I didn't meet him again till he came back from Europe, and I went up there, spent quite a few visits up at Bill Dobell's place with various artists like Jackie Baird and John Santry, and talked about his work. When the litigation came on about Dobell's Joshua Smith, I remember having a long discussion with Bill Dobell about the pros and cons of this matter, and I had the interesting job of doing a caricature of the courtroom scene which incorporated Dobell and Mr Justice Roper, Sir Garfield Barwick, and seven other subsequent judges, many of the artists-Douglas Dundas, Mary Edwards, Joe Wilenski, all these people. It was rather interesting to do caricatures of them in this dispute about what a caricature was and what it wasn't!

        Incidentally, at the present moment I live at Northwood, which is on the Lane Cove River, and immediate neighbours of mine are Lloyd Rees and George Lawrence, both extremely well known and fine artists, both of whom have won Wynne Prizes and I've won an Archibald, so that Northwood is fairly well represented in the list.


Source:  Artists’ Portraits, Selected and introduced by Geoffrey Dutton; National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1992.  ISBN 0 642 10579 0



Last Updated - 27 August, 2009