A pioneer of contemporary painting, Roland Shakespeare Wakelin came to be regarded as the chief instigator of the modern art movement in Australia. Having become one of the most admired painters of the 20th century Wakelin left a lasting impression on the Australian art world with his strong idealistic vision, unconventional yet intellectual methods of colour application and composition and his unrelenting pursuit to have modernism recognised and thus celebrated in Australia.
Born in Greytown, New Zealand in 1887, Wakelin received his first years of formal art training at the Wellington Technical School from 1904-12. Arriving in Sydney later in 1912 he went on to study at the Royal Art Society in Sydney under the instruction of Dattilo Rubbo, where he stayed until 1914. As Rubbo’s classes introduced Wakelin to reproductions of modern French paintings, the style of prolific artist E. Phillips Fox soon became a huge influence on Wakelin’s artistic practices, leading him to begin his career as an impressionist painter.
As the beginning of the 20th century saw the Australian art world conditioned to the expressionist styles of the Heidelberg School, revolutionary developments that were emerging in Europe practically went unnoticed in Australia. The full impact of the post impressionist movement, fuelled by the work of such giants as van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne remained overlooked until Wakelin and his friend, Roy de Maistre held an exhibition of ‘colour music’ paintings in 1919.
Basing their works on the supposed relationship between the colours of the spectrum and the notes of the musical scale, incorporating elements of the early cubist’s style of geometric composition and application of paint, Wakelin and de Maistre developed an effective way of harmonizing sound and colours in their art while expanding on the cubist ideology. Creating works of art with such names as Synchromy in Orange Major the artists were successful in portraying the landscape in the colours that were best suited to its mood the musical sounds it conveyed. As a result of their ‘colour music’ exhibition, Wakelin and de Maistre gained a name for themselves as the men responsible for founding the modernist movement in Australia.
Travelling to Paris and London in 1923 Wakelin saw many of the works of the post impressionist giants. Being made witness to the variation of distinctive styles he was provided with inspiration on which direction he should take in his art. He soon developed a strong romantic vision and changed to a looser, broader style of painting.
Returning to Sydney in 1925 with his determination all the more fierce to have modernism recognised in Australia, he held an exhibition which reflected dominant influences by the painting of Cezanne. Showing an avoidance of the common styles adopted in Australian art at the time, Wakelin was often condemned by critics for defying popular artistic tastes. It was not until 1935, fifteen years after he began working as an artist, that he held a successful exhibition and received critical acclaim.
From 1925 Wakelin went on to devote a great deal of time to teaching, especially in studies of architecture at the University of Sydney.
With his career undergoing a number of shifts in style, Wakelin developed an attachment to the semi-rural North Ryde area of Sydney where he painted a number of lyrical scenes here in the 1950s. Organising painting trips with other notable arists of the time such as Lloyd Rees, John Santry and George Lawrence, Wakelin would often come to this area of Sydney to paint plein air.
Producing a remarkably diverse range of paintings in his artistic career, still lifes, landscapes, and cityscapes many of Wakelin’s works are now represented in all Australian state galleries, most notably, the Bendigo Gallery, the Castlemaine Gallery and the Newcastle City Gallery. In April 1967 a huge retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Art Gallery of NSW.