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Neville William Cayley (1886–1950)

by A. H. Chisholm

This article was published:

Neville William Cayley (1886-1950), ornithologist and artist, was born on 7 January 1886 at Yamba, Clarence River, New South Wales, son of Neville Henry Penniston Cayley, bird-artist from Kent, England, and his native-born wife Lois Emmeline, née Gregory. Educated at local public schools, he moved with his family to Sydney about 1894. He later attended an art school and soon followed his father's example — painting mostly birds. He was a founder of the Cronulla Surf Life Saving Club and a member of the executive of the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia and the Royal Life Saving Society.

On 15 December 1917 at Marrickville Cayley married Beatrice Lucy Doust. Next year he published his first booklet, Our Birds, and displayed the 'somewhat romantic' originals in the Hunter Street gallery of the art dealer William Aldenhaven. Increasingly interested in ornithology, he became associated with George Robertson and illustrated birds' eggs for The Australian Encyclopaedia (1925-26) using partly mechanical methods. His popular book What Bird is That? was published in 1931 and reprinted many times. He followed it with Australian Finches in Bush and Aviary … (1932), Budgerigars in Bush and Aviary (1933), Australian Parrots … (1938) and The Fairy Wrens of Australia (1949). Cayley 'was irresistibly attracted by the brilliant colours' and 'elfin forms' of the wrens: the illustrations first appeared in the National Geographic Magazine (October 1945). He also did the colour drawings for G. A. Waterhouse's What Butterfly is That? (1932) and Ellis Troughton's Furred Animals of Australia (1941). His projected work covering all Australia's birds, their habits, nests and eggs was never completed, although he amassed over 500 colour illustrations.

Cayley's love of birds was an integral part of his life: he was a council-member of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales (president 1932-33), the Royal Australasian Ornithologists' Union (president 1936-37), the Gould League of Bird Lovers and the Wild Life Preservation Society of Australia, and was a trustee of the National Park in 1937-48. He also held several exhibitions of his paintings: in 1932 one was presented to King George V. His main medium was water-colours; his pictures were vibrant and steeped in sunlight and shadow.

Cayley died at his Avalon home on 17 March 1950 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by two sons of his first marriage, and by his second wife Phyllis Mary Linton, née Goodson, a divorcee whom he had married at Chatswood on 2 November 1944.

Select Bibliography

  • Emu, 5 (1950)
  • Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, May 1950
  • Wild Life (Melbourne), 12 (1950)
  • Sydney Morning Herald 11, 12 June 1924, 20 July 1932, 16 Mar 1940, 18 Mar 1950.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. H. Chisholm, 'Cayley, Neville William (1886–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 January, 1886
Yamba, New South Wales, Australia


17 March, 1950 (aged 64)
Avalon, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.