Artist, Miner & Sapper: Penleigh Boyd
by DON HUGHES
7th September 2020
A CALL FROM the Editor of the Warrandyte Diary — startled me.
Still in my lockdown slumber, I soon reflected on the message intently.
“There is a mistake on the honour board at the RSL.
“T. Penleigh-Boyd” is not accurate.
It should be Theodore Penleigh Boyd, with no hyphen!
He prefered to be known as just “Penleigh Boyd”.
He is one of Australia’s noted landscape painters.”
Accepting responsibility for this dilemma; I was inspired to make good the mistake and seek out the deeper story.
When the Editor also mentioned that Penleigh was a senior member of the Boyd artistic dynasty, she casually included that he was an Australian Army Engineer (Sapper) in WWI.
As a current day sapper, my guilt went into overdrive.
How had I not heard of him?
This needed further research.
A man who combined two of Warrandyte’s great heritages — Mining and Art.
The current President of the Warrandyte RSL is also a sapper — David (Rhino) Ryan — who comes from a plumbing background.
Who is a Sapper?
A “sap” is a trench, dug usually in a zig zag alignment, to safely approach a fortification (such as a castle) to then undermine it, collapse it and allow the infantry access.
One who digs saps, is therefore called a sapper.
Modern day sappers’ clear obstacles (landmines, wire etc) and also provide engineering services (water, power, construction etc).
Well knowing the reputation of the renowned Warrandyte architect, educator and social commentator, Robin Boyd, I never made the connection that he was Penleigh’s son.
Also, I personally know Linda Noke and Andrew Sisson who live in The Robins on Warrandyte-Kangaroo Ground Road, but still I did not know that Penleigh was a WWI Sapper.
His reputation as an artist has been chronicled as equal to that of Arthur Streeton.
The Artist and “The Robins”
Theodore Penleigh Boyd (1890–1923) was a noted landscape painter born in Westbury, Wiltshire, England to parents who were both successful painters.
Before WWI he became a successful and profitable artist, travelling to Europe where he married Edith Anderson (1880–1961), before purchasing about 14 acres in the township of Warrandyte sloping steeply down to the Yarra River, to the north of the bridge, to establish the family seat — The Robins — occupying it in 1914.
Linda and Andrew, the current owners of The Robins, hosted a Robin Boyd Foundation open day on 15 May 2011.
The Foundation described its architectural and artistic heritage:
“At this time a flourishing community of artists began to settle around the township.
Chosen for its natural beauty, Penleigh designed and built a single-storey cottage with a generous attic that was broadly Tudor — with a crooked terracotta gabled roof, bay windows and cross-beamed ceilings.
The ground floor walls were constructed of earth mixed with concrete, an early example of in-situ concrete, and possibly one of the first examples of reinforced concrete being used to build a house in Australia!
The biographer Brenda Niall describes that:
“…. the style of the house and the physical and emotional energy that went into its building express the contradictions of Penleigh’s personality.
Venturesome and self-reliant, he carved his own space out of the Warrandyte bush, but the style he chose for the house was quaint, nostalgic and very English.” (Niall, The Boyd’s, 2002)
Penleigh Boyd (service number 5) enlisted as a Sapper in November 1915 into the newly formed Australian Mining Corps.
Soon he was promoted to Sergeant and joined a special Australian Army Engineer unit; the Australian Electrical and Mechanical Mining and Boring Company.
Jocularly called by the Diggers, the “Alphabet Company” because of its abbreviation — AE&MM&B Coy!
This unit had the responsibility of providing and maintaining the equipment required to light, ventilate and de-water the extensive tunnel and dug-out systems along the entire length of the Western front.
The unit deservedly earned many plaudits for the support it provided to all Imperial Forces.
Sergeant Boyd detailed lorry drivers and the distribution of stores and equipment.
Other Sapper units at the time included; Field, Mounted, Signals, Submarine Mining, Works & Fortifications (Fortress), Railway, Training & Survey (McNicoll, History of the Royal Australian Engineers 1902–1919, Volume 2, Making and Breaking, Canberra, 1979).
Underground warfare, or mining and tunnelling, is little known to most, but was prolific during WWI — particularly on the Western Front.
Throughout history tunnelling has been used by Sappers of all nations to breach enemy fortifications.
Traditionally, undermining castles.
A more modern example would include the infamous Viet Cong tunnels of Vietnam.
As one of Australia’s earliest deployed artists into France, he took the opportunity to become an unofficial war artist capturing impressions and images of a place, period and situation that otherwise would have gone unrecorded.
As a Sapper on the ground, he had a unique vantage point to record daily life on the Western Front.
Many of his drawings were published in his wonderful book, Salvage (P. Boyd, British Australasian, London, 1918).
Penleigh was badly gassed in Ypres in 1917 then invalided to England.
He repatriated home aboard the Euripides in 1918 to continue his painting and living in The Robins.
He suffered permanent lung damage but continued his artistic work with unabated energy including assisting fellow returned soldiers.
The Drunken Lion Tamer (The First Warrandyte Festival?)
The current owners of The Robins, Linda, a Project Manager constructing Victorian Police Stations, and Andrew, a School Teacher at Eltham Primary, share their favourite Penleigh Boyd story as reported in the Argus (Jan 1921) and digitised by the State Library of Victoria:
“As President of the Warrandyte branch of the Returned Soldiers’ League, Mr Penleigh Boyd, in order to build a soldiers’ institute, persuaded his neighbours to hold a week-long fete.
With their assistance, he transformed the glen at the foot of the bridge into a veritable fairy dell!
The pathway from the main road to the glen, were artistically illuminated with festoons of Chinese lanterns — all the way to the banks of the Yarra.
In the moonlight, with the reflection from the lights, the river appeared as if it were a stream of silver.
Hidden amongst the trees were gaily decorated stalls who did a roaring trade.
Food, drinks, dancing, fireworks and music along with many other attractions, entertained a multitude of residents from the whole district.
The proprietor of the travelling circus, reported to the local constabulary that; the Lion Tamer, who had a drinking problem, was missing.
All cafes and the hotel were searched in vain, finally, the Lion Tamer was found in the cage with the lion and lioness!
All three lying fast asleep!
The searchers tried to arouse the trio but were met with noisy and frightening protests!
They were permitted to sleep on.
After 8 hours the Lion Tamer awoke, patted the lions, adorned his cape, and then proceeded home to his wife for breakfast!”
Penleigh sold The Robins in 1922 but tragically died in a car accident at Warrigal in 1923.
Robin Boyd was 4 years old at the time.
His wife, Edith, lived until 1961.