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Reginald Cecil Grahame (Rah) Fizelle (1891–1964)

by Daniel Thomas

This article was published:

Reginald Cecil Grahame (Rah) Fizelle (1891-1964), painter and teacher, was born on 4 September 1891 at Baw Baw, near Goulburn, New South Wales, second son of Hubert George Fizelle, a Victorian-born schoolteacher, and his native-born wife Agnes Elizabeth, née Marsden. After training at Teachers' College, Sydney, he joined the Department of Public Instruction and was teaching at Goulburn when he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in January 1916. He fought with the 22nd Battalion in France, was promoted to lance sergeant and was wounded three times.

Fizelle returned to Australia in 1919 with the after-effects of gas and a badly damaged left arm. Back at the Teachers' College, he specialized in art, under May Marsden, and in 1921 won a scholarship to Julian Ashton's Sydney Art School. In 1922-26 he taught at Darlington Public School, and continued evening classes with Ashton and also studied under Will Ashton. Known as 'Rah', he chiefly painted pleasantly airy landscape watercolours and exhibited with the Society of Artists, Sydney, from 1923 and the Australian Water-Colour Institute from 1925. His teaching was progressive, introducing creative expression as opposed to representation.

In 1927 Fizelle studied in London at the Polytechnic School of Art, Regent Street, and the Westminster School of Art under Bernard Meninsky. In Italy in 1928-30 his landscape paintings and watercolours became simplified, stylized and geometric. He was further influenced by the early Renaissance painting of Giotto and Piero della Francesca: El Greco remained his favourite artist. He travelled widely in Europe and exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français, Paris.

Back in Sydney in 1931, Fizelle held one-man shows there and in Melbourne, and next year painted at Dorrit Black's Modern Art Centre. In 1932-37 he and Grace Crowley conducted joint classes: their studio, at 215a George Street, was the most advanced centre of modern art in Australia. The week-day students were few, but at evenings and on Saturdays, colleagues such as Ralph Balson and Frank Hinder worked there. In 1939 the group held a long-planned manifesto exhibition, 'Exhibition 1', at David Jones' Art Gallery. Fizelle's characteristic paintings and drawings of the 1930s are semi-abstract figure compositions, but he also showed a special interest in the dignity of labour with a series of pea-pickers.

In 1939 Fizelle became the first president of the New South Wales branch of the Contemporary Art Society of Australia, and for some years was a regular exhibitor. He was president of the Australian Water-Colour Institute in 1948-51, constantly exhibiting with it until 1962. In 1938 he had returned to teaching, at Balgowlah Public School (whose 6 to 10-year-olds' work he presented at the Grosvenor Galleries—an unprecedented context for children's art) and then at Redfern. He lectured at Teachers' College, Sydney, in 1947-57. His art in the 1940s and early 1950s included near-abstract figures in carved wood, sandstone and pottery. Most later watercolours are realistic studies of natural abstract structures, like eroded rock or tree forms, found near the homes he had at Palm Beach and Kulnura—the George Street studio remained as a city pied-à-terre.

On 28 November 1942 at North Sydney registry office he had married Edith Agnes Watson, née Collins; an artist, known as Michael Collins, she had been one of his early students. On 25 October 1964 he died in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, and was cremated without religious rites. He was survived by his wife. His collection of Italian majolica pottery and woven fabrics was given by his widow to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney.

Enthusiastic, wide-ranging and cultivated in his artistic sympathies, Rah Fizelle ultimately gave less energy to his own art than to his fellow artists and their causes, to his students, to children and the under-privileged. Modern art was perhaps one of many good causes to be supported by a man who best loved art-history and natural beauty.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Free, Balson, Crowley, Fizelle, Hinder (Syd, 1966)
  • Art and Australia, 3 (Sept 1965), no 2
  • Art Gallery of New South Wales Quarterly, Oct 1966
  • Fizelle papers (Art Gallery of New South Wales Library).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Daniel Thomas, 'Fizelle, Reginald Cecil Grahame (Rah) (1891–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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