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William (Bill) Ricketts (1898–1993)

by Richard Broome

This article was published:

William Ricketts, by Cliff Bottomley, 1961

William Ricketts, by Cliff Bottomley, 1961

National Library of Australia, 44033370

William Edward Ricketts (1898–1993), potter, and Aboriginal and ecological spiritualist, was born on 11 December 1898 at Richmond, Victoria, fifth and last child of locally born parents Alfred Clarence Ricketts, ironmoulder, and his wife Susan, née Jones. Bill was educated at Thornbury and Preston South State schools. A frequent truant, he spent time larking about at Darebin Creek. At fourteen he was apprenticed to a jewellery manufacturer. He also learnt violin, gaining evening work in Melbourne’s picture theatres, until the ‘talkies’ eroded orchestral employment.

Despite being untrained, Ricketts briefly worked as a potter at the Australian Porcelain Company Pty Ltd. In the early 1930s he met and was influenced by Gustav Pillig, an immigrant German sculptor, producing images of the Australian natural world. After Pillig introduced him to Sir Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen’s classic book, The Arunta (1927), Ricketts made Aboriginal people his principal creative motif. A fellow ceramicist, Marguerite Mahood, reviewed his first solo exhibition and judged his work to be passionate and ‘more imaginative and more individual’ (1935, 25) than other Australian pottery. A central piece, a grasping octopus-like Wild Life Trader of the Forests, expressed his revulsion of the rapacious attitudes of the White man towards Australian flora and fauna.

In 1935 Ricketts purchased several acres of forest at Olinda near Mt Dandenong as an artist’s retreat. By 1937 he had been joined by his mother in his primitive hut. They adopted a frugal lifestyle, selling sculptures when funds were needed. He held a dozen solo exhibitions before 1948, often at the Velasquez Art Gallery, Melbourne, and in Adelaide. They were opened by personalities such as: the doyen of Australiana R. H. Croll, the potter Ola Cohn, and the Aboriginal rights campaigner Dr Charles Duguid. Related events included lectures by the Aboriginal pastor (Sir) Douglas Nicholls and the linguist T. G. H. Strehlow. Reviews of his sculpture were mixed. In 1945 the art critic Alan McCulloch had admired its originality, passion, and sense of the divine behind each natural object, but considered that his work ‘sometimes smacks of not very good rococo’ plaster decoration (1945, 6).

Ricketts rejected being labelled as an artist or sculptor, explaining that ‘my Creator has put into my hands weapons of the spirit’ (1994, 3). In 1949 he visited Central Australia with a trailer of works to show Aboriginal people, the first of several trips. While he was there an Arrente man observed ‘Numbakulla [the creation deity] made this. He made mountains, trees; He made everything’ before exclaiming of a sculpture ‘No man made that’ (Ricketts 1994, 37). Ricketts, who believed he had captured the totemic essence of things, installed his works at Pitchi Richi near Alice Springs.

At his ‘Mountain Gallery,’ Olinda—amidst towering mountain ash, a small diverted stream, and winding bush paths—Ricketts created a hymn to nature in dozens of mostly unglazed pottery sculptures. His busts of Aboriginal men and women, together with animal figures, spoke of the unity of all life. His works preached the necessity of bridging cultures, salvation of the environment from rapaciousness, and a personal mysticism, based on a totemic view of life adopted from Aboriginal people. In 1961 he agreed to transfer his land to the Victorian Forests Commission. He remained resident and the commission built him a new house, studio, and kiln. The William Ricketts Sanctuary opened in 1964. Undeterred by a lack of funds or preparation, he shipped a truck loaded with sculptures and travelled to the United States of America (1966) and India (1970–72) to share his message.

When an octogenarian, Ricketts—small and slim, wearing a green beret and kaftan—danced like his lyrebird totem, declaring: ‘I use clay. It opened up my love for the country, the earth, the clay, the wild life. I am part of that … I am trying to share what the Aboriginal gave me. It is not the William Ricketts Sanctuary, it is the forest of love’ (1998). With the exception of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, institutions rarely collected his work. In May 1993 he was admitted to William Angliss Hospital, Upper Ferntree Gully, where he died on 9 June. His ashes were scattered around The Tree of Life in the sanctuary. Over time, damaged by tree falls and the elements, his sculptures may revert to the forest. 

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Blake, Elissa. ‘Ricketts, A Seeker Lost in the Wonder of Aboriginal Life.’ Age (Melbourne), 12 June 1993, 2
  • Brady, Peter. Whitefella Dreaming: The Authorised Biography of William Ricketts. Olinda, Vic.: Preferred Image, 1994
  • Centralian Advocate. ‘Noted Sculptor Has Plans for Native “Reserve”.’ 27 August 1954, 9
  • Hanson, Elizabeth. ‘Sculptor Dedicates Life to Bush Beauty.’ Australian Women’s Weekly, 20 January 1951, 12–13
  • The Forest of Love. Documentary. Produced by Bilcock & Copping Film Productions, 1998
  • McCulloch, Alan. ‘Aboriginal Lore in Sculpture.’ Argus (Melbourne), 7 August 1945, 6
  • Mahood, Marguerite. ‘The Art of William Ricketts. A Poet in Clay.’ The Australian Home Beautiful: A Journal for the Home Builder, 1 January 1935, 25, 56
  • Public Record Office Victoria. VPRS 1156, Unit 572, 62/763
  • Ricketts, William. Australiandia Land of the Holy Spirit. Knoxfield, Vic.: Highway Press, 1994. First published 1986

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Richard Broome, 'Ricketts, William (Bill) (1898–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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