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Bull, Elliott Ronald (1942–1979)

by Sylvia Kleinert

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Elliott Ronald Bull (1942-1979), Aboriginal artist, was born on 22 August 1942 at Lake Tyers Mission Station, Victoria, son of Alfred Marshall Bull and his wife Agnes, née Moore, who had had moved from Cumeroogunga Aboriginal Station, New South Wales, in the late 1930s. Alfred, originally from the Victor Harbor region, South Australia, worked as a general labourer, and Agnes, from Swan Hill, Victoria, gained renown for her feather flowers. They had twenty-one children, seventeen surviving to adulthood. Ronald was removed from his family as an infant and again as a young boy, when he joined several of his brothers at Tally Ho Boys' Training Farm, a Methodist Church institution in Burwood, Melbourne. Here he was provided with painting materials and publications on art. At 15 he was placed in foster care at Lilydale.

Bull's artistic talent was evident at an early age. Combining his Aboriginal concern for country with a European landscape tradition, he studied the landscapes of English and Australian artists John Constable, J. M. W. Turner, Arthur Streeton and Hans Heysen whose work he saw in the National Gallery of Victoria and in reproductions. Living in Melbourne, Bull studied informally with a leading representational painter Ernest Buckmaster. He also corresponded with and visited Heysen. Like the Arrernte artist Albert Namatjira, with whom he was often compared, Bull gained considerable public recognition, but his work was not included in institutional collections such as State art galleries. Following his first showing at Morwell in 1965, he participated in a number of solo and group exhibitions: in 1966-67 with Keith Namatjira, fourth son of Albert, and in 1976 with Lin Onus. Bull's most important surviving artwork is the mural which he painted in 1960 during one of several gaol terms he spent in Pentridge prison. This powerful work, depicting a classic tribal scene, has been restored and preserved at the former penitentiary as part of Aboriginal cultural heritage. A prolific painter, producing some 2000 works, Bull is also represented in the collection of the Koorie Heritage Trust, Melbourne.

Of medium build with a gentle and reserved disposition, he had an irrepressible sense of humour. In 'To White Families Who Take Children for Holidays', published in Smoke Signals in June 1966, and in an Australian Broadcasting Commission television programme in March 1976, he reflected upon the trauma and confusion he suffered as a result of his childhood experiences. Bull died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease on 8 September 1979 at his home at Mont Albert, Melbourne. Buried by choice with Anglican rites in Emerald cemetery, Macclesfield, he was survived by his wife and their three children, by a former wife Lynette Davies and their daughter, and by a daughter from his relationship with Betty Williams.

Bull's talent and tenacity ensured that, against all odds, he achieved success as an artist. Once relegated to obscurity, he is now considered a significant figure in the regional history of Aboriginal Australia, a parallel in the south-east for Namatjira and a precursor to a later Koori art movement in Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • Smoke Signals, 6, no 1, Feb-Mar 1967, p 12
  • S. Kleinert, ‘Aboriginal Landscapes’, in G. Levitus (ed), Lying about the Landscape (Syd, 1997)
  • S. Kleinert, ‘Bull, Ronald’, in S. Kleinert and M. Neale (eds), The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture (Melb, 2000)
  • S. Kleinert, ‘‘‘Blood from a Stone”: Ronald Bull’s Mural in Pentridge Prison’, Australian Journal of Art, 14, no 2, 1999, p 93
  • S. Kleinert, ‘Jacky Jacky was a Smart Young Fella’: Art and Aboriginality in South East Australia 1900-1980 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1994)
  • private information.

Citation details

Sylvia Kleinert, 'Bull, Elliott Ronald (1942–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bull-elliott-ronald-12826/text23155, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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