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Atkinson, Evelyn John Rupert (1881–1961)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Evelyn John Rupert Atkinson (1881-1961), by unknown photographer

Evelyn John Rupert Atkinson (1881-1961), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22838953

Evelyn John Rupert Atkinson (1881-1961), poet, was born on 2 February 1881 at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, son of Dr Harry Leigh Atkinson (1832-1915) and his third wife Eva, née Moulden. Paternal ancestors included many medical practitioners and Anglican clergy. Harry Atkinson was educated at Beverly Grammar School, Yorkshire, England, entered the Leeds Free Hospital in 1849 and graduated L.S.A. (London) and M.R.C.S. (England) in 1858. After experience in Yorkshire, London and Paris hospitals, he migrated to Victoria in 1859 as surgeon to the Suffolk. Next year he was appointed to the Bendigo Hospital and in 1862 began private practice, which he continued with distinction until his death. Dr Atkinson was a masterly businessman who was a director of many important Bendigo mining companies and a shrewd investor in land. He became one of the largest landowners in Victoria; his pastoral properties included at various times Terrick West, Ravenswood, Auchmore, Barwonleigh and Yarrabrob. He married five times and at his death on 14 July 1915 his estate was valued for probate at £209,586.

Rupert was educated at St Andrew's College, Bendigo, before being sent to England with his elder brother Evelyn Leigh to attend Rugby School and later Dover College. Evelyn Leigh went on to the University of Oxford but about 1900 Rupert returned to Australia to work on his father's properties. He became manager of Ravenswood, but by June 1909 styled himself as a 'journalist living in Sydney' when, in Melbourne with Free Christian rites, he married Marie Domec-Carrè; they settled at Bendigo. After his father's death Rupert inherited much property and decided to study medicine. He matriculated at the University of Melbourne, but three and a half years later abandoned the course to devote himself to literature. For the next four decades, almost uniquely in Australian letters, Atkinson was to lead the life of a leisured gentleman, poet and playwright.

Always prolific, he published six volumes of poetry between 1906 and 1921. A Flagon of Song (Melbourne, 1920) is his own selection of his better work; the title indicates affinity with his friend Hugh McCrae. For the most part it is introspective but forceful philosophical verse, though he sometimes wrote lyrics and long narratives. Before 1920 he became interested in combining film with stage-drama and wrote Key to the Adaptation of the Best of Shakespeare's Plays to the Stage-Cinema-Interaction Process for the Production of Drama (New York, 1920). Between 1919 and 1928 he published several plays, including two involving 'cinematic back-projection'. Most of them were studies in abnormal psychology; some had energy and exuberance; none are known to have been publicly performed. In his plays and poetry both, Atkinson's language rarely matched the quality of his concepts.

He travelled widely in the 1920s and was associated with E. A. Vidler in the Australian Institute of the Arts and Literature, launched in August 1921. Vidler published most of Atkinson's plays. According to Jack Lindsay, Atkinson was 'a talented writer of verse and of plays in which he tried to define his own tormented split-up being, his sense of living several lives at the same moment … a restless disappointed man, printing his own work hastily and unable to settle to anything definite — poetry or whisky or travel, an intellectual or a playboy role'. He confessed himself to be a decadent, but was also generous with his wealth, subsidizing his friends' publications and, as Philip Lindsay warmly recalled, seeing them through impoverished patches. Widely regarded as an important poet between the wars, Atkinson dropped from literary view in the later part of his life.

He died at East Melbourne on 6 February 1961, predeceased by his wife in 1954, survived by two sons and two daughters and leaving a considerable estate. In his will he requested that he be cremated without Christian rites. At his dying wish We Gods in Masquerade (Brisbane, 1964), verse written in old age, was published posthumously.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Lindsay, I'd Live the Same Life Over (Lond, 1941)
  • G. L. C. Rees, Towards an Australian Drama (Syd, 1953)
  • J. Lindsay, Fanfrolico and After (Lond, 1962)
  • R. D. FitzGerald (ed), The Letters of Hugh McCrae (Syd, 1970)
  • Spinner, Jan 1925
  • Pastoral Review, 16 Sept 1915
  • Bendigo Advertiser and Bendigo Independent, 15 July 1915
  • E. J. R. Atkinson, letters (National Library of Australia) and letters received (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

'Atkinson, Evelyn John Rupert (1881–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/atkinson-evelyn-john-rupert-5079/text8473, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 28 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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