Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Waller, Mervyn Napier (1893–1972)

by Nicholas Draffin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Mervyn Napier Waller (1893-1972), artist, was born on 19 June 1893 at Penshurst, Victoria, son of William Waller, contractor, and his wife Sarah, née Napier, both Victorian born. Educated locally until aged 14, he then worked on his father's farm. In 1913 he began studies at the National Gallery schools, Melbourne, and first exhibited water-colours and drawings at the Victorian Artists' Society in 1915. On 31 August of that year he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, and on 21 October at Carlton married with Presbyterian forms Christian Marjory Emily Carlyle Yandell (d.1954), a fellow student and artist from Castlemaine. Serving in France from the end of 1916, Waller was seriously wounded in action at Bullecourt in May 1917; his right arm had to be amputated at the shoulder. While convalescing in France and England he learned to write and draw with his left hand. After coming home to Australia and being discharged in February 1918, he exhibited a series of war sketches in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Hobart in 1918-19 which helped to establish his reputation.

He continued to paint in water-colour, taking his subjects from mythology and classical legend, but exhibited a group of linocuts in 1923. Waller had prepared his first, though unsuccessful, mural design for a competition in 1921 and in 1927 completed his first major mural for the Menzies Hotel, Melbourne. Next year his mural 'Peace after Victory' was installed in the State Library of Victoria.

Visiting England and Europe in 1929 to study stained glass, the Wallers travelled in Italy where Napier was deeply impressed by the mosaics in Ravenna and studied mosaic in Venice. He returned to Melbourne in March 1930 and began to work almost exclusively in stained glass and mosaic. In 1931 he completed a great monumental mosaic for the University of Western Australia; two important commissions in Melbourne followed: the mosaic façade for Newspaper House (completed 1933) and murals for the dining hall in the Myer Emporium (completed 1935). During this time he also worked on a number of stained-glass commissions, some in collaboration with his wife. Waller was, as well, senior art teacher in the applied art school of the Working Men's College, Melbourne.

Between 1939 and 1945 he worked as an illustrator and undertook no major commissions. In 1946 he finished a three-lancet window commemorating the New Guinea martyrs for St Peter's Church, Eastern Hill. In 1952-58 he designed and completed the mosaics and stained glass for the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. He was appointed O.B.E. in 1953 and C.M.G. in 1959. On 25 January 1958 in a civil ceremony in Melbourne Waller had married Lorna Marion Reyburn, a New Zealand-born artist who had long been his assistant in stained glass. A heart attack in 1966 did not prevent him from continuing his work. He died on 30 March 1972 at Ivanhoe, Melbourne, and was cremated. His wife survived him; his estate was sworn for probate at $104,238.

Waller's early work was strongly influenced by Pre-Raphaelite and late-nineteenth century British painters; his monumental works show an increasingly classical and calmly formal style, using timeless and heroic figure compositions to express ideas and ideals, sometimes with theosophical or gnostic overtones.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hetherington, Australian Painters (Melb, 1963)
  • N. Draffin (compiler), The Art of Napier Waller, 1893-1972 (Melb, 1978).

Citation details

Nicholas Draffin, 'Waller, Mervyn Napier (1893–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/waller-mervyn-napier-8963/text15769, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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