Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Pidgeon, William Edwin (Wep) (1909–1981)

by Peter Spearritt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

William Edwin (‘Wep’) Pidgeon (1909-1981), portrait painter, cartoonist and illustrator, was born on 7 January 1909 at Paddington, Sydney, younger son of Sydney-born parents Frederick Castledine Pidgeon (d.1913), leaded-window maker, and his wife Thirza Jessie, née White. Bill attended Glenmore Road Public and Sydney Technical High schools and, briefly, J. S. Watkins’ art school and East Sydney Technical College. His first job was at Wunderlich Ltd, Redfern, where he met (Sir) William Dobell, an advertising draughtsman. At 16 he became a cadet newspaper artist with the Sunday News; his first comic strip, ‘The Trifling Triplets’, was published in 1926. He worked on the Evening News, Daily Guardian, Smith’s Weekly, Sunday Sun, World and Daily Telegraph.

‘Wep’, as he was known from 1924 by his cartoon signature, collaborated with the journalist Colin Wills on Rhymes of Sydney (1933); his illustrations captured the atmosphere of Sydney and included a cheeky map of city pubs, entitled ‘With Wep Where It’s Wet’. He grew a moustache in 1929 and started to go bald in 1930, caricaturing with aplomb both these features and his pointed nose. On 24 August 1933 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney, he married Jessie Ann Graham (d.1952), a stenographer.

After working on the first dummy of the Australian Women’s Weekly for (Sir) Frank Packer in 1933, Wep for many years illustrated stories by his drinking companion, the humorist Lennie Lower, and also serials. He drew cartoon strips, including the witty ‘In and Out of Society’, and became a household name. A book of war cartoons by George Finey, Wep and Bill Mahony was published by the Telegraph in 1940. As a war correspondent and artist for Consolidated Press Ltd, Wep depicted conditions in Darwin, Morotai, New Guinea and Borneo; some of his paintings were used as covers for the Women’s Weekly. The artist Hal Missingham later wrote that his war paintings had ‘an unmistakably Australian feeling of casualness’. Wep’s cartoons appeared in the Daily Telegraph, Australia: National Journal and Salt.

Pidgeon became disillusioned with cartooning. In Australian Artist (winter 1949) he argued that cartoonists needed ‘complete independence’ from editorial interference and attacked those who could not go beyond ‘the hackneyed symbols of weeping nations and broken men’. He resigned from full-time employment with Consolidated Press that year. On 15 November 1954 at St Anne’s Church of England, Strathfield, he married Dorothy Ellen Lees, a clerk. In 1956 he travelled to Romania on a cultural exchange program. He illustrated, among other books, Nino Culotta’s (John O’Grady) They’re a Weird Mob (1957).

Having concentrated from 1949 on portrait painting, Pidgeon won the Archibald prize three times: in 1958 with a study of the newspaperman Ray Walker; in 1961 for a portrait of Rabbi Israel Porush; and in 1968 for one of his neighbour, the painter Lloyd Rees. With fading eyesight, due to glaucoma, he completed his last portrait in 1972. He was a political cartoonist on the Sunday Telegraph in 1974 and in 1974-79 served as its art critic. Hit by a car near his Northwood home in 1979, he died on 16 February 1981 at St Leonards and was cremated. His wife and their son and the son of his first marriage survived him.

A wide variety of institutions, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Australian War Memorial, hold works by Pidgeon. The author and illustrator Vane Lindesay wrote that he brought ‘extraordinary zest’ to his cartoons and caricatures. Wep displayed a sharp eye and a wry sense of humour; his cover illustrations for the Australian Women’s Weekly brilliantly captured aspects of Australian life in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, from suburban backyards to the Melbourne Cup.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Lindesay, The Inked-in Image (1979)
  • L. Bloomfield (ed), W.E. Pidgeon: War Paintings 1943-1945 (1988)
  • H. de Berg, interview with W. E. Pidgeon (typescript, National Library of Australia, 1965)
  • J. Kerr, ‘William Edwin Pidgeon’, Australian Dictionary of Artists Online (http://www.daao.org.au/main/read/5104, accessed 16 Mar 2009, copy held on ADB file)
  • W. E. Pidgeon website (http://www.wepidgeon.com/, accessed 16 Mar 2009, copy held on ADB file).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Spearritt, 'Pidgeon, William Edwin (Wep) (1909–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pidgeon-william-edwin-wep-15454/text26670, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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