Art prize honours Western Front bombardier

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Thousands of Australians would know the art of Napier Waller, the bombardier who lost his right arm at Bullecourt in 1917 but went on to create iconic parts of the Australian War Memorial.

Waller was a noted muralist, mosaicist and painter in stained glass and other media. He is best known for his stained glass and mosaics in the Memorial’s Hall of Memory, which includes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Like many young men of his time, the former Victorian farm boy was pursuing a career when he signed up for the First World War.

Young man in full army uniform.

He was studying at the National Gallery schools and had exhibited some water-colours and drawings. He married a fellow art student Christian Yandell and, when war was declared, he headed off to the Western Front with the 22nd Battalion.

In 1916 he transferred to the 11th Howitzer Battery and used his diary to make sketches of the Somme. He took part in several battles before being severely wounded at Bullecourt, France.

His right arm was amputated and, while he was convalescing in France and England, he taught himself to draw and right with his left hand, famously stating: “An artist draws with his head, not his hand.”

When he returned to Melbourne, Waller presented realistic images of the Western Front to Australians at home, his war sketches in black and white, watercolour and oil on show in capital cities for two years. He then exhibited in London.

Over the next 20 years, he worked prolifically and established himself as a noted mural artist and mosaicist, undertaking commissions for the University of Melbourne, the Menzies Hotel, the Melbourne Public Library and Newspaper House.

His work in Art Deco style incorporated classical and mythological themes and it idealised contemporary subjects such as mass communication.  

In 1937, the Australian War Memorial invited him to design and install works in its Hall of Memory.

Stained glass and mosaics are difficult and laborious crafts and, despite having only one arm, Waller was actively involved in the process, supported by his art students and war widows in Melbourne, who attached more than six-million tiles to sheets of paper. The result, unveiled in 1958, was one of the largest single mosaics in the world.

Waller’s monumental works demonstrated his aptitude, resourcefulness and strength. In 1933, when he created a public mural in Melbourne, Art in Australia hailed him as ‘our only proved decorator’. 

Napier Waller Art Prize

Today, Napier Waller is being honoured again, with a major art prize bestowed in his name by the Australian War Memorial.

The $10,000 prize is exclusively for current and former defence personnel and aims to promote the healing power of art.

It will include a period in residence at the Memorial with the Official War Artist Ben Quilty who won the Archibald Prize in 2011.

Entries are open from June to July this year and the winner will be announced in September. For details visit the Australian War Memorial website.

Further reading:

Nicholas Draffin. The art of M. Napier Waller. South Melbourne: Sun Books, 1978.