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Wheen, Arthur Wesley (1897–1971)

by Sally O'Neill

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

Arthur Wesley Wheen (1897-1971), soldier and librarian, was born on 9 February 1897 at Sunny Corner, New South Wales, second son of Harold Wheen, Wesleyan minister, and his native-born wife Clara Isabel Morze, née Black. Arthur grew up in the country towns of his father's calling and attended Nowra and South Bathurst Public schools. When his father was posted to Sydney in 1910, Arthur continued his education at Gordon Public and Sydney Boys' High (1911-14) schools. He won an exhibition to Teachers' College and in 1915 studied arts at the University of Sydney.

On 15 October Wheen enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and embarked for Egypt in December. He was posted as a signaller to the new 54th Battalion at Tel-el-Kebir on 16 February 1916 and crossed to France in June. For repairing cut telephone lines and maintaining communications in the midst of enemy artillery barrages 'at great personal risk and self sacrifice', he was awarded the Military Medal and two Bars: at Petillon in July 1916, at Beaulencourt in March 1917 and at Villers-Bretonneux on 25 April 1918. Meanwhile, he was promoted lance corporal on 17 January 1918 and corporal a week later. Having attended an officers' training course at Oxford, England, he was commissioned on 7 May and promoted lieutenant on 7 August. Wounded in action in September 1917 and again in September 1918, he was invalided home, reaching Sydney in March 1919.

Chosen that year as Rhodes scholar for New South Wales, Wheen left for England in July 1920 to read modern history at New College, Oxford (B.A., 1923). His health broke down and he took third-class honours. In January 1924 he was appointed assistant librarian at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. He detested ambition and personal advancement, and refused early promotion to chief librarian, but became acting keeper in 1939 and keeper of the library in 1945.

Returning to Australia briefly in September 1926 after the death of his father, on the voyage out Wheen met Aldwyth Lewers, sister of Gerald Lewers, the sculptor, and married her on 20 October 1928 at the register office, Kensington, London. They made their home at Jordans, among a Quaker community in the Chiltern Hills, Buckinghamshire. Aldwyth ran the property as a smallholding. Their younger daughter died of meningitis on 13 January 1939, aged 5; their elder, Gretchen, was evacuated to Australia during World War II and never again lived in England.

Wheen mixed in literary circles that included (Sir) Herbert Read and T. S. Eliot. His only listed original work is a short story, 'Two masters', first published in the London Mercury in November 1924. A highly gifted linguist, he was better known for his translations from the German, most notably that of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front which has remained a classic in Wheen's version since its appearance in March 1929. Between then and 1937 Wheen translated four more German war novels (two of them Remarque's), a scholarly treatise on Virgil and a book on Bushman art.

To his friends Wheen revealed his singular verbal talents in conversation and in correspondence: surviving letters disclose a delightful range of wit, oblique fancy, irreverent humour and erudition. Tall, with striking blue eyes and an expressive face, he was a 'spell-binder', both as speaker and listener. His friend J. F. Head described his 'extraordinarily penetrating and logical intellect'. Wheen had a wide knowledge of English and foreign literature, both classical and modern, but was naturally in sympathy with the avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s, taking particular interest in Pablo Picasso and Georg Grosz; he also encouraged young British artists. He bought extensively for the museum's art library, tracking down important publications in Eastern European and Oriental languages, and adding to the section on aesthetics and the philosophy of art. Another contribution to the library was the subject index which he began in 1936.

On retirement in 1962 Wheen took up pottery at Jordans and continued to advise former colleagues. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died in Amersham hospital, Buckinghamshire, on 15 March 1971 and was cremated without religious rites.

Select Bibliography

  • Reveille (Sydney), 1 Mar 1935
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Sept 1918, 1 Mar, 12 Nov 1919, 1 Dec 1920, 29 Jan 1924, 22 Sept 1926, 5 Apr 1971
  • Times (London), 19 Mar 1971
  • Wheen papers (National Library of Australia)
  • M. Aurousseau papers (National Library of Australia)
  • J. F. Head papers (Society of Antiquaries of London)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Sally O'Neill, 'Wheen, Arthur Wesley (1897–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wheen-arthur-wesley-9063/text15971, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 20 October 2018.

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

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