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Roland Shakespeare Wakelin (1887–1971)

by Barry Pearce

This article was published:

Roland Shakespeare Wakelin (1887-1971), artist, was born on 17 April 1887 at Greytown, New Zealand, youngest of seven children of Richard Alfred Wakelin, an English-born timber merchant, and his wife Emily, née Noakes, from Auckland. Roland began sketching and painting as a boy. Educated at Wellington Technical School on a scholarship in 1902-03, while employed with the Land and Income Tax Department he continued night and Saturday art classes at the school under Henri Bastings and H. Linley Richardson and exhibited at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts.

Having visited his brother in Sydney in 1908, Wakelin settled there in 1912. He enrolled in classes at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales in 1913, studied life-drawing at night under Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo and Norman Carter, and on Saturdays painted with Dattilo-Rubbo. On 15 October 1913 Wakelin married Rachel Estelle Robinson at the William Street Methodist parsonage. He joined the State land tax branch of the Commonwealth Treasury in November. The same year one of Dattilo-Rubbo's pupils, Norah Simpson, returned from abroad with reproductions of works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso; her revelation of modern painting, combined with an exhibition of the expatriate Emanuel Phillips Fox, inspired Wakelin. In 1916 he gained long-term employment as a commercial artist with (S. Ure) Smith & Julius.

During the next few years Wakelin, with fellow pupils Roy de Maistre and Grace Cossington Smith, painted experimental works (breaking the picture space into touches of bold colour) which culminated in Wakelin's and de Maistre's colour-music paintings, or 'synchromies', shown in 1919. That year they executed completely abstract paintings, though did not exhibit them. At the same time Wakelin and his friends did not abandon their interest in realism: his 1916 masterpiece, 'Down the hills to Berry's Bay', has a vibrancy in its broken colour and an arabesque movement that anticipates the abstract paintings of 1919; equally communicated is the artist's sense of place, his love of the light, colour and atmosphere of his harbour city.

Under the pervasive and persuasive influence of Max Meldrum, Wakelin briefly abandoned his pursuit of colour until he visited London in 1922. Working as a freelance commercial artist for three years, he at last saw original paintings by the French artists. He was impressed by exhibitions of van Gogh and Gauguin at the Leicester Galleries, London, but when he returned to Sydney in 1924 Cézanne's paintings dominated his ideas about art for several years. Wakelin exhibited his paintings of London and Paris to open John Young's Macquarie Galleries in 1925 and enjoyed artistic if not commercial success. In the late 1920s he was championed by Ethel Anderson, the writer, who displayed his paintings at her home in 1930. The National Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1935 bought his 'Mount Wellington, Tasmania'. A member of the Society of Artists, Sydney, and of the Contemporary Group, he was later a foundation member of the Australian Academy of Art, Canberra.

From 1934 Wakelin's paintings entered a romantic phase of sonorous colour, depicting his beloved harbour and the intimate subjects of domestic life: backyards, still lifes, and portrait and figure studies of his family and friends. Never able to rely on a secure income from his painting, in World War II Wakelin did mechanical drawing in the Postmaster-General's Department and taught for a year at the National Gallery schools in Melbourne.

Back in Sydney he taught part time at the University of Sydney and for Dora Sweetapple at the Woollahra Arts Centre. With his quiet charm and unselfish nature, he was greatly respected by fellow artists, particularly his colleagues of the Northwood group, Lloyd Rees, George Lawrence and Marie and John Santry. A 'happy man with simple tastes', Wakelin had a bass voice and a repertoire of popular songs; he and his wife held Gilbert and Sullivan, Bach or Mozart evenings, depending on the company. Between bursts of painting, he read Shakespeare, Flaubert, Dickens and detective stories.

Wakelin exhibited for some forty years, often at the Macquarie Galleries, and was given a major retrospective by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1967. Survived by his wife, son and daughter, he died at Rose Bay on 28 May 1971 and was cremated without clergy. He is represented in all major Australian public collections.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hetherington, Australian Painters (Melb, 1963)
  • Art Gallery of New South Wales, Roland Wakelin Retrospective, catalogue (Syd, 1967)
  • L. Walton, The Art of Roland Wakelin (Syd, 1987)
  • Art in Australia, 1, no 1, Feb 1922, p 70, Mar 1925, p 15, 15 Aug 1934, p 22
  • Art and Australia, 4, no 4, Mar 1967
  • B.P. Magazine, 1 Dec 1930, p 51
  • Hemisphere, 17, no 4, Apr 1973, p 13
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Feb 1922, 8 Sept 1928, 24 Sept 1930, 5 Oct 1932, 4 July 1934, 27 June, 3 July 1935, 23 July 1936, 18 Aug 1937, 15 May 1942, 5 Apr 1967, 29 May, 6 June 1971
  • Sydney Mail, 8 Feb 1922
  • Australian artists, biography files (Art Gallery of New South Wales)
  • H. de Berg, interview with Roland Wakelin (transcript, 1961-62, National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Barry Pearce, 'Wakelin, Roland Shakespeare (1887–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Roland Shakespeare Wakelin (1887-1971)

Roland Shakespeare Wakelin (1887-1971)

National Portrait Gallery, 2001.191, self portrait in Green Hues c1962, oil on board, 54 x 41.5cm, gift of Philip Bacon AM 2001, with the permission of Judith Murray

Life Summary [details]


17 April, 1887
Greytown, New Zealand


28 May, 1971 (aged 84)
Rose Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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