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The windows of war illuminate a forgotten artist

The red cricket ball in Waller’s naval gunboat window at the Australian War Memorial. Photo: AWM

WHEN the winner of the Napier Waller Art Prize 2022 is announced in Parliament on June 23, many may wonder who Napier Waller was, but with the publication of Jan William Smith’s new book, The Glass Cricket Ball, this question has a satisfying answer. .

Mervyn Napier Waller was the Australian artist who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in 1915. In 1937 he was chosen to create the mosaics and stained glass in the Hall of Memory of the Australian War Memorial.

What is perhaps less well known is that, after the amputation of his right arm in France, Waller quickly learned to write and draw with his left hand, saying: “I think a man could learn to paint with his feet if he had the determination to keep it up and the pleasure of expressing yourself.

The official report stated that he had “suffered a total incapacity … permanently incapacitated for service”, but as Smith observes, he would return home to paint the bigger picture of his life.

Before leaving for World War I she had already married her classmate at the Victorian National Gallery’s art school, Christian Yandell, a theosophist and spiritualist who throws an obscure figure into the book.

Mervyn Napier Waller posing in a studio in France during the First World War. Photo: AWM

Waller returned to Australia to build a house with her on the outskirts of Ivanhoe, where the couple became the center of the “modern” visual arts community.

Author Smith, a former reporter for ABC and interstate newspapers, first became interested in Waller’s story while he was a volunteer guide at the War Memorial.

Among the principals of Smith’s dramatis personae I am Charles Bean the historian, William Leslie Bowles the sculptor, whose original artwork has been thwarted by ministerial deceit, and most importantly, John Linton Treloar, the crafty and wise longtime director of AWM.

Author Jan William Smith.

“I imagined a meeting with Treloar at Waller’s house,” says Smith, “authenticity is one thing, but since we can’t always get it, I had to come up with it, even though I know that Treloar visited him at Ivanhoe.

Smith’s book provides visual evidence of Waller’s talent in drawing and painting, but makes it clear that upon his return from the Western Front, he turned to different forms of artwork, saying that if he was asked to do mosaics would, if glass would make glass.

Trained in the Western tradition, he had a quintessential European sensibility in which wall decoration had to integrate glass architecture, music, murals and frescoes, leading to an ongoing battle with Bean and Treloar not just for content but for materials, as Waller insisted on using glass and tesserae from Italy, even as war with Italy loomed.

Even Waller, who had set his sights on World War I when he realized that another 40,000 men had been killed in World War II, was forced to change focus, but he never compromised on materials.

Waller was a perfectionist and also a pedant, and he instructed Bean that the thematic titles for the different windows should be between seven and 11 letters and no more. Bean liked it a lot.

It is the “Ancestry” (eight letter) part of the Western Wall that gives this book its title, “The Glass Cricket Ball”.

Because when Waller thought about the essence of an Australian fighter, it seemed to him that the love of cricket summed up the Australian spirit, so above the naval gunner’s head he depicted a crown enclosing a red cricket ball, flanked by three stumps and two deposits.

Waller died in 1972 when his mosaics and stained glass windows were completed; the vision was incomplete until 1993, when then Prime Minister Paul Keating presided over the burial of The Unknown Australian Soldier, thus turning a memorial into a grave.

In one of his many references to the strong Canberra light, Smith writes: “The setting sun will always illuminate the red glass cricket ball above the naval gunboat window … I think Napier Waller would not have appealed against the light.” .

Jan William Smith, “The Glass Cricket Ball”, Big Sky Publishing.

The Napier Waller Art Prize exhibition, open to the public, Parliament House, June 18-November 20.

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