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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sturgess, Reginald Ward (1892–1932)

by Peter W. Perry

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

Reginald Ward Sturgess (1892-1932), artist, was born on 18 June 1892 at Newport, Melbourne, third surviving child of Edward Richard Sturgess, cabinetmaker, and his wife Emma, née Ward, both from Bath, England. Aged 12, he left Williamstown State School and later enrolled (1905) in the National Gallery schools, Melbourne, where he studied drawing under Fred McCubbin and was nicknamed 'Stodgy'. In 1909 Sturgess moved upstairs to the painting school under L. Bernard Hall, winning prizes for still life and landscape painting in oils. Penleigh Boyd, Louis McCubbin, Percy Leason, W. B. McInnes, John Rowell and A. E. Newbury were among his fellow students.

An admirer of the works of R. P. Bonington, J. S. Cotman and the Maris brothers, Sturgess was also influenced by the illustrations of Edmund Dulac and Harry Rountree and by the Art Nouveau movement. When he left the gallery schools in 1912 he painted in every spare moment, often working late at night and striving for perfection in fluency of wash and colour harmony. During this period he produced decorative lampshades, for which he had a constant and lucrative market until the outbreak of World War I. He also assisted his father with his seedsman's business at Williamstown; after his father's death in 1916, Sturgess managed alone until 1926 when he closed the shop. Only then was he able to concentrate entirely on his painting. On 30 July 1917 at St John's Anglican Church, Malmsbury, he had married Meta Townsend, a prizewinning student at the gallery schools (1909-14).

Modest about his work, Sturgess had been persuaded to show a few examples at the Victorian Artists' Society. While these attracted considerable attention, it was not until July 1922, at the Athenaeum Gallery, that he held his first one-man exhibition. Encouraged by the response, he then exhibited regularly, mostly at the Fine Art Society's gallery, Melbourne, but also in Adelaide (1926-27) and Sydney (1928-29). He lived in close retirement and worked prodigiously. Concerned with effects of nature rather than localities, he had little need of travel to find subject matter: his favourite haunts were the Malmsbury district, the You Yangs region and his native Williamstown. His work was romantic, delicate and lyrical, and had an affinity with that of J. J. Hilder.

A 'rare spirit' of 'strong individuality and charm', Sturgess was intense and a free-thinker. Tall, broad shouldered and very thin, he had great energy and allowed himself little rest. He shared a deep love of music with his close friend Frank Homewood. In 1926 Sturgess was injured in a motor accident and his jaw was broken; although he recovered, his health deteriorated; his fading eyesight finally forced him to put away his brushes and paints in 1930. He died at his Williamstown home on 2 July 1932 of a cerebral tumour and was buried in the local cemetery. His wife and daughter survived him. He is represented in State galleries in Victoria, South Australia and Queensland, as well as in various regional galleries in Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • R. H. Croll, The Life and Work of R. W. Sturgess (Melb, 1938)
  • P. Perry and B. Sinclair, R. W. Sturgess, Water-Colourist 1892-1932 (Castlemaine, Vic, 1986)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 5, 6 July 1932
  • Bulletin, 20 July 1932.

Citation details

Peter W. Perry, 'Sturgess, Reginald Ward (1892–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 30 September 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 12

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