When Ralph Heimans was a student at The Julian Ashton Art School he expressed an interest to Paul Delprat that he would like to be a portrait painter.
Recently on a return visit to his old school he spoke to the students fondly of his student days and how he approached the stunning portrait he created of Princess Mary of Denmark. He reminded the students of the importance of drawing and especially composition, areas of the art of portrait painting in which he excels. A portrait is not just a head and hands, it is a picture.
Paul remembers a masterly perspective painting of a reclining figure on the floor in a room. All painted with the greatest of care. The painting was entered by a very youthful Ralph in The Mosman Art prize many years ago. His single minded natural talent was evident then.
This week he has let us all know that he is to paint Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and has had a sitting in Buckingham Palace. The Queen graciously wore specific robes and Queen Victoria’s diamonds. As with his other portraits the composition will be planned and be of the utmost importance as the setting creates the atmosphere in which the subject may be fully understood.
The gentle, searching young Mosman artist Paul met all those years ago is now truly fulfilling that early promise.
Ralph Walker, (1912 – 2003) was an Australian draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor of enormous industry and great talent. In his long life of 93 years he created thousands of drawings and hundreds of pieces of sculpture ranging from life size figures to miniatures that he worked in the palm of his hand. The hallmark of his work is a deep understanding of form through drawing and a haunting poetic sense of intimacy – moving towards soliloquy and loss. Ralph designed the relief panels for the Sydney Mitchell Library main doors. These panels had aboriginal subjects. Ralph was one of the first Australian artists to give aboriginal people integrity and honour through his work. Among the many examples of his public art Ralph created works for the Australian War memorial in Canberra having been an official war artist during WW2. Those who have written with admiration for the work of Ralph Walker include fellow artist Fred Williams, Richard Leplastrier architect and historian Manning Clarke and yet the work of this major artist is relatively unknown. With his artist/writer wife Jean he lived in a rambling, self-designed, house among Angophoras near Sydney Harbour. His son, Ian Walker, himself an artist, with the assistance of his talented family is cataloguing and preserving Ralph’s work. I have fond memories of Ralph and Jean dating back to the 1960s when I got to know them through my uncle Richard Ashton. There was lively knowledgeable conversation on the subject of art and vigorous debate. From 1937 to 1941 he was a student at The Julian Ashton Art School, where he studied under Henry Cornwallis Gibbons.
Ralph, gentle and kindly, was never happier than when he could be reclusive in his purpose built Studio Yurt at the bottom of the garden. Here he was not to be interrupted whilst creating his little figurines and firing them in the kiln. He was a lover of the human form and of the bush.
Jean wrote two bestselling books on designing Australian bush gardens and was a close friend and supporter of the Bradley sisters, Joan and Eileen, who were like her, pioneers in the field of bush regeneration. Their bush care involvement was in response to the depletion of the natural habitat including that of the Sydney Blue Wren, a sculptural inspiration of Ralph and Jean.
I first met Australian artist, Sir Sidney Nolan at the old Hungry Horse Gallery in Paddington Sydney in 1964. I was just out of art school and had joined Betty O’Neill’s “stable” of artists. This was the time of the relative decline of the importance of the art societies and the rise of the commercial galleries. Her pioneer gallery was soon to be taken over by Kym Bonython who became the “Lorenzo the Magnificent” of Australian art patronage. I was impressed to meet the famous senior member of Betty’s stable, Sidney Nolan, at that time resident overseas, on one of his visits to Australia. I was enthralled by his work, especially The Ned Kelly series. In my mind Nolan is the Shakespeare of Australian Art. His characters enter and exit on an elusively enamelled stage. Everything in movement. He had, through sheer fluency and invention, touched on the epic nature of the surreal history of his country. He was happy to talk to a boy just out of school on the beginning of his journey and we discussed matters of mutual interest. He had explored various media, including Ripolin, which was a commercial paint product he had found that suited him. He did not confine himself to brushes but used anything to hand including silk stockings and windscreen wipers. I was astonished by his candour. I recall that he was totally open minded about the possibilities of a painting. At the art school we had restricted ourselves to the traditional tools of the artist; canvas, brushes and artist oil colours and the study of the great masters. To my embarrassment Betty dragged out a few examples of my work. He was encouraging to a young painter and we talked for ages before he was whisked away to a function by Betty O’Neill.
A kindly smile, A quizzical look into the distance – and he was gone. I found him to be, by nature, a shy reflective person. But like Shakespeare here was a keen observer who had the gift of turning the simple stuff of his local environment into the universal. He changed Australian art forever. And made a deep impression on me.
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