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 10a.m.. What very few knew was that he’d already worked six hours, rising at 4a.m.. 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 marvelous.

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 he 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 [not at that time – 1957]. 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 XXXX 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 [actually his first] Archibald. O’Grady was lost in the cheers that went up. O’Grady was very put out.

I met your mother several times both before and after marriage and have fond memories of her.

– Les Tanner, Feb. 2000

Wep’s 1956 Romanian adventure: 25 Nov; London – saw Marian Anderson at Royal Festival Hall

Sun 25-Nov-56: Walked along south Embankment – saw end of service in Abbey. With Marian Anderson, Jean Ure at Royal Festival Hall

1956 MM-DD WEP Romania_0152

25 Nov 56
London Sun 8:30 p.m.

Dearest wife,

How nice to sit down with you again-even though it be only with an inadequate letter. How little a substitute for the real thing, when this time next Sunday night, I will be (God willing) with you and Graham incomplete and satisfying reality-slightly gorged with good food and drink and completely overflowing with the wonderful serenity of being in my own home and with my own, very, very, exclusively, my own people. I hope I handle this wonderful reunion, with the grace it deserves, and that we all will find nothing discordant in the whole day and the whole wonderful night. I am frantic to be there-now!

This day began very smoothly for me. Perhaps because I was relaxed and really didn’t care much what it brought. I rang an earnest English lass who teaches Romanian here (I met her in Bucharest with John St John) and made arrangements to meet her this afternoon for a look around. Being my last lingering look so to speak. Anyway after looking at The Times I noticed Marian Anderson was giving a farewell concert at 3 p.m. at the Royal Festival Hall. So I decided I’d stroll peacefully over the Hungerford Bridge and see if I could get some tickets. Got a couple of 10 bobbers. The Thames almost like Paris this morning-mild and misty enough to etherealise the fine north side buildings-and the trees lining the embankment reminiscent of those alongside the Seine. A limpid autumn, though practically sunless, morning. After getting the tickets I idly watched the seagulls in their leisurely Sabbath diversions-their graceful landings-fine, and abrupt take offs into the wind, then veering in side slips like fighter planes over the body of the river-poised almost motionless-ray and white, the breathless curving of their wings fluting through the air-and turning into the smoothest glides. Beautiful, unspoken poetry, movements carved in air, and left engraved in the mind. Relaxing-and in a sort of inverted way, exciting just because one so seldom spends that available and rewarding time. A further sauntering taking me past the huge Italian Renaissance style county council buildings with steps running down onto the Thames and looking like some miss placed and darkened Doge’s Palace. Across Westminster Bridge past the Houses of Parliament, past Westminster Abbey, when something made me retrace my steps and enter while the morning service was on. Then a wonderful choral singing-filling the ancient walls with sound so that is seemed to come out of the very pores of the stones. The two sections of the choir throwing back the themes one to the other-and silvery and sombre voices weaving a pattern throughout the whole. With the music of the goals and the almost visible design of this most magnificent singing I felt the day could hardly bring more or comparable delight. And it didn’t.

Having some little time to spend until I met this Jean Ure (who was some relative, cousin, or niece of Syd Ure Smith) I thought I’d try some draught Guinness at a pub called the Villiers, pubs being open too on Sunday here. Found the stout very good and settle down with my paper alongside a dame on a bench. She was as Irish as they came and started talking to me. Asked me if I’d have a drink with her-naturally I had reversed the salutation and buy her drink. Then she up and she’s sorry she couldn’t buy me one she was short. Well I bought another and then she tried to touch me for lunch-no! Then 2/- no. I got up and changed 2/- and gave her 1/-. Fortunately that got rid of her-but sadly dented my benignity.

Walked back over the Thames and waited 20 minutes for this dame, who is un-humorously earnest about socialist good works. I don’t know whether it was my disintegrating ecstasy or the workings of the Guinness but I enjoyed the show less than my walk across the bridge back to meet the girl. The Thames still looking fine, fitful sunlight and through the pearly atmosphere a single gleam of gold, high keyed-from the distant dome of St Paul’s, and behind me the occasional train chuffing over the bridge, it’s bellowing is fading off into the sounds of church bells somewhere in the south.

I am not very keen on these contralto sort of voices and they don’t seem eminently suitable for Mozart to me. But, she really was magnificent in the Negro spirituals. Perhaps because they were simpler, and I could follow the theme and emotion better, I went from them in a big way. So did the rest of the house-she got a wonderful reception from the enormous crowd present.

The Royal Festival Hall, built in 1951, very modern, and quoting my guidebook “a concert hall which such great conductors as Toscanini have declared the finest in the world. The exterior has met with some criticism, but the acoustics and amenities, the planning and the decor of the interior have received almost universal praise.” This could hardly be disputed-the exterior is a cross between a factory and a hangar but the interior is quite fabulously successful in appearance and function. Huge foyer with glass walls and all round vision, alongside, are found bars, restaurants overlooking the Thames, the lower coffee lounge and cafeteria-fine slick glass and wood stairways and an enormous concert hall-lined below with padded red leatherette, above on the second flight with a well designed fabric. Fine acoustically waved roof, studded with many lamps like stars. You would have loved it-what a pity. Anyway, we had a light tea and I got back here about eight. Well content with the day, and now about to give up the good fight.

Have got the radiator on trying to dry out a shirt and handkerchiefs as I want to get all my luggage down to Liverpool Street station early so that I can get back to the city and have a quick look at the Royal Academy and a final run through the National Gallery.

Am getting restless about my return. Once I get moving-well, I should be something or other-I don’t know-have given up thinking.

Much love, my very dear one.

Monday morning 8 a.m. [26 Nov 56]

well, this is it, sweetie, I’m about to take my first tottering steps on the homeward journey. I packed and everything is beautifully squashed down for five days-“God help this” all screamed the new suit, dressing down, and female odds and ends. Nothing to be done about that-but forward into the night! Whoops Dearie-I’m practically there-get yourself into trim-cleanse the fatted duck, pat Graham and Trellie-I’m on the way!

Love, love, lovey, from your bird on the wing — Bill.

XXXXXX SAOH for all!

XXXXXX SAOH for all!