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Mansell, William Arthur Byram (1893–1977)

by Arianne Rourke

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

William Arthur Byram Mansell (1893-1977), artist and designer, was born on 9 September 1893 at Double Bay, Sydney, son of Benjamin William Mansell, a company secretary from England, and his first wife Ada Mary, née Byram (d.1893), who was born in New South Wales. Byram attended Scots College and Sydney Grammar School; encouraged by his father, he then studied engineering. At St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, on 12 November 1913 he married 19-year-old Beatrice Margaret Forman Cameron; they were to have one child before he divorced her in 1919. On 24 September 1919 at the Methodist Church, Waverley, he married Winifred Jane Capps. They had a daughter before being divorced. He was employed (from 1914) in his father's engineering plant at Gore Bay and spent some evenings at Julian Ashton's Sydney Art School.

In 1921 Mansell attended the Honolulu Academy of Arts, Hawaii, and in that city opened his first art studio. His flower paintings, mounted on black lacquered Japanese screens, proved popular. After briefly studying art, design, textiles and technology in Mexico, he spent two years at the Académie Julian, Paris. He operated a studio in Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, United States of America, worked for Cecil B. de Mille, designed costumes for several film studios and masks for Lon Chaney, and executed over forty commissions to decorate cafés, theatres and cabarets in cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. One of his commissions contracted him to decorate coaches for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Co. His interiors showed an influence of Art Nouveau, especially the style of L. C. Tiffany.

By 1925 Mansell had opened a textiles studio in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, where he taught batik-making. On 29 August 1928 at the Congregational Church, Pitt Street, he married Allison Grace Cameron; she was aged 25. During the mid-1930s his painting reflected 'the more conservative qualities of Australian art—Elioth Gruner-like portrayals of Palm Beach and Heysenesque studies of the Macdonald Ranges'. From 1939 to 1947 he conducted a studio at Bowral.

Inspired by materials from Sir Baldwin Spencer's expeditions, and Charles Mountford's photographs from the Australian-American Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, Mansell took up Aboriginal mythology as a theme in his art, and followed the advice of Sydney Ure Smith to create his own style by adapting rather than by copying Aboriginal techniques. He used parrot feathers as a brush, and natural pigments and cactus juice as binding agents; the simple, graphic impact of his work was largely due to his use of rich colours and patterns. Mansell responded to narrative aspects and design elements of Aboriginal art, and showed some appreciation of their spiritual value. From 1949 he held a series of one-man exhibitions in Sydney, and later in London at Australia House and Qantas Empire Airways Ltd.

In 1954 Mansell became a foundation member of the National (Art) Gallery Society of New South Wales; four years later he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of British Artists, London, and the Royal Art Society of New South Wales. Drawing on Aboriginal motifs, he executed numerous murals (some in ceramic tiles) for business firms and local councils in the early 1960s, as well as panels for the New South Wales Government Railways, the tanker, Amanda Miller, and the ferry, Empress of Australia. His work ranged from white earthenware domestic ceramics, through fabric and interior designs to paintings. He grew cacti in the garden of his Killara home and decorated his studio with Japanese armour. Survived by the son of his first marriage, the daughter of his second, and the two sons of his third, he died on 6 August 1977 at his home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Black, Old and New Australian Aboriginal Art (Syd, 1964)
  • Woolloomooloo Gallery, Sydney, Retrospective Exhibition, catalogue (Syd, 1985)
  • People (Sydney), 31 Jan 1951, p 21
  • Woman's Day, 5 Jan 1953, p 30
  • Art and Australia, 24, no 1, 1986, p 86
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 1924, 18 Oct 1927, 24 Jan 1950, 10 May 1952, 23 Apr 1955, 21 Sept 1964, 15 Aug 1971
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 10 Sept 1950
  • Christian Science Monitor (Boston, United States of America), 20 Aug 1954.

Citation details

Arianne Rourke, 'Mansell, William Arthur Byram (1893–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mansell-william-arthur-byram-11052/text19667, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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