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William Nicholas (Will) Rowell (1898–1946)

by Andrew Mackenzie

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with John Thomas Nightingale Rowell

William Nicholas Rowell (1898-1946), by Alice Marion Ellen Bale, c1924

William Nicholas Rowell (1898-1946), by Alice Marion Ellen Bale, c1924

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H88.63

John Thomas Nightingale Rowell (1894-1973) and William Nicholas Rowell (1898-1946), artists and stage designers, were born on 18 January 1894 and 29 January 1898 at Carlton, Melbourne, third and fourth sons of George Rowell, butcher, and his wife Margaret, née Nightingale. They were educated at Faraday Street State School, Carlton.

In 1908 John worked part-time at the King's Theatre, Melbourne, before being apprenticed to a scene-painter. He studied art at West Melbourne Technical School and in evening classes at the Working Men's College. At the National Gallery School, in 1912-17, under Bernard Hall and Frederick McCubbin he won several prizes. On 16 January 1917 he married fellow student Eugenie Bertha Durran.

After military training in 1916-17 Rowell taught at West Melbourne Technical School and succeeded Harold Herbert as instructor (1919-27) at the art school, Ballarat School of Mines. He then became senior painting master (1929-47) at the school of applied art, Melbourne Technical College. A senior examiner of art for the Education Department, he also illustrated departmental textbooks. In 1937-38 Rowell and his family toured England and the Continent; he was greatly impressed by the works of Corot, Velasquez, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Monet and Turner. While in London, he was awarded a Carnegie grant that allowed him to travel in North America.

With his brother Will, Rowell also produced scenery, sets and costumes for the King's and National theatres. He was art adviser to the latter and later vice-president of the National Theatre Movement. Rowell's first one-man exhibition was held in October 1917 in the Upper Athenaeum Hall; many more followed in Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane. He won the Crouch prize (1927, 1937) and several other awards. He was represented in the 1923 Exhibition of Australian Art in London, and his 'Monarchs of the Soil' was selected for the Imperial Art Exhibition, London (1928). He exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (1936, 1938), and in Paris, Dublin and Glasgow, and was a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London (1937), and member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, London. He was commissioned to paint the coronation of King George VI.

Rowell was a kindly man, of medium height, slim build, blue-eyed and fair-skinned, with inexhaustible patience, always the thorough professional. He was considered a leading exponent of Australian Impressionism, placing considerable emphasis on technique. His works were influenced by McCubbin, his friend Walter Withers and Max Meldrum, though he should not be considered a Meldrumite. A lover of Nature, he is best remembered for his traditional rural landscapes. A realist, a superb draughtsman, with a strong sense of colour and space and with the tonal vigour of Velasquez and Corot, he used back-lighting to capture atmospheric effects, especially brilliant sunlight. His search for the essence of a subject was influenced by Chinese and Japanese techniques.

Survived by his wife and daughter, John Rowell died on 14 November 1973 at Mornington, and was cremated. He is represented in national, State and regional galleries, and in many private collections in Australia and overseas. Retrospective exhibitions were held at the McClelland Gallery, Langwarrin (1973), and the Mornington Peninsula Arts Centre (1982).

In 1908 Will Rowell went to live on a property at Malmsbury where his brother and other artists came to paint. After studying at the Working Men's College and at the National Gallery School (1913-18), where he won a prize for landscape, he studied briefly with Meldrum.

In 1920 Will held a one-man exhibition at the Athenaeum Gallery and won the Castlemaine prize. He exhibited frequently in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, and painted a great deal of theatre scenery. In 1935 he won the Melbourne centenary prize for landscape. At the Athenaeum Gallery in 1936 he exhibited portraits of his friends W. B. McInnes, Louis McCubbin and A. E. Newbury; and next year won the South Australian Melrose prize for portraiture. In 1938 he exhibited studies of Aborigines and landscapes painted in Central Australia at Sedon Galleries. He won the Crouch prize in 1939 and 1942. His 'Grey Summer' toured with the Art of Australia, 1788-1941 exhibition in North America. He was commissioned to paint Prime Minister John Curtin, and in 1939 painted a diorama background for the National Museum of Victoria. His works, also including seascapes and flower paintings, were painted in a realistic, honest, impressionistic manner, in a high key, capturing effects of mellowing and glittering sunlight and atmosphere.

Nuggetty and ginger-haired, Will had a likeable personality, being more extrovert, boisterous, and worldly than his brother John. He was a councillor of the Victorian Artists' Society (1931) and of the Australian Artists' Association (1934-35), and a member of the Twenty Melbourne Painters' Society (1933), the Bread and Cheese and Savage clubs. A foundation member (1937) of the Australian Academy of Art, he was appointed drawing master at the National Gallery in 1941 and was acting head of its art school briefly in 1946. On 18 April 1946 he married journalist Thelma Doris Champion, née James, in Sydney. Ill health caused his resignation in July.

He died at Richmond on 21 August 1946 of coronary occlusion and was cremated. Will Rowell is represented in many private and public collections. Retrospective exhibitions were held at the Book Club Gallery (1949) and the Block Gallery (1974), Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • R. H. Croll, I Recall (Melb, 1939)
  • S. U. Smith (compiler), Art of Australia, 1788-1941 (NY, 1941)
  • H. W. Malloch, Fellows All (Melb, 1943)
  • D. M. Dow, Melbourne Savages (Melb, 1947)
  • R. T. M. Pescott, Collections of a Century (Melb, 1954)
  • D. H. Skinner and J. Kroeger (eds), Renniks Australian Artists, no 1 (Adel, 1968)
  • L. B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria, 1861 to 1968 (Melb, 1970?)
  • McClelland Gallery, Langwarrin, Victoria, Catalogue (Langwarrin, 1973)
  • E. Hanks (compiler), Australian Art and Artists to 1950 (Melb, 1982)
  • Mornington Peninsula Arts Centre, Catalogue, 12 Feb–15 Mar 1982 (Mornington, 1982)
  • J. Campbell, Australian Watercolour Painters, 1780-1980 (Adel, 1983)
  • G. Norris, Australian Artists Today (Melb, 1984)
  • Art in Australia, 1933
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Oct 1917, 15 Mar 1921, 2 June 1936, 31 Oct, 8, 19 Dec 1938, 21 Mar 1942, 5 Dec 1944, 18 Oct 1947
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Apr 1935
  • Age (Melbourne), 16 Nov 1973
  • private information.

Citation details

Andrew Mackenzie, 'Rowell, William Nicholas (Will) (1898–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Nicholas Rowell (1898-1946), by Alice Marion Ellen Bale, c1924

William Nicholas Rowell (1898-1946), by Alice Marion Ellen Bale, c1924

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H88.63