Walter Magilton: A life’s journey in art

WALTER MAGILTON has been an artist for 80 years.
And that life in art is about to be celebrated in an exhibition at Montsalvat’s Long Gallery.
Walter sat down with the Diary editor, SANDI MILLER, to discuss his journey from farmhouse to gallery.
“This exhibition is a survey of my life as an artist.
It’s got some very early work I did as a kid, it’s got a lot of sculpture, it’s got some gold and silversmithing, and wood-turning.
I’ve been involved in printmaking, all sorts of paintings, and all sorts of subjects.
And it certainly has some recent work and some other big paintings.
There will be two glass-top cabinets — one will hold artefacts and some of the jewellery I made, and the other will hold cuttings.
I’m showing some of my early work, which is not necessarily my best work because people will say ‘gee Walter never knew you were that bad’ — but everyone has to start somewhere, and this is my journey.
A survey, you know, of my life.
It’s certainly blowing my own trumpet; there’s no doubt about that, but this will probably be my swan song.
I will continue to paint, but I’m 90 now; all sorts of things are catching up on me.”

Early life

Walter said his earliest work, which will be included in the forthcoming retrospective, was exhibited in Melbourne Town Hall in 1946 when he was 11.
He was the son of a dairy farmer and a student at the Cowley’s Creek school near Camperdown.
He said that sometimes there were only about 10 kids there — “it really was a bush school.”
His teacher, Lou Evans, talked his parents into sending Walter and his brother to Carey Grammar, where they each became boarders for a time.
“In those days, when it came to art, there was no art department at all, but Lou was now a teacher at Carey and became like a godfather to me.
“We remained friends for 65 years.
“He took a shine to me as a young artist and introduced me to artist quality materials, proper brushes, proper paints — otherwise, I was using kid stuff.
“So, I’ve often said, I would not have become an artist if it hadn’t been for Lou Evans.”
Walter said he struggled academically at Carey because his country school arithmetic didn’t prepare him for algebra, geometry, or trigonometry.
“The maths teacher cut me to shreds, and I just never caught up.
“In the other classes, I was a happy medium, but I had no motivation; I was going to be a farmer’s son.
“When I came home, I spent the next two or three years farming with my father and brother.
“I’d go out and paint, but I had no lessons, and I had lots of other interests: motorbikes, model aircraft, youth group, and church.
“But Dad came to me one day, and it was the best thing he ever said to me — he said, ‘Walter, your heart doesn’t seem to be in farming — have a think about it, and if you want to train for something I will pay for your training — if it doesn’t work out, you can come back on the farm’ .
“For the first time in my life, I had a serious think about what I wanted to do.
“I was friends with a primary school teacher, and he seemed to have so much time.
“Well, if I was a primary teacher, I could go out painting on the weekends, so I went back to school.”
He went and completed his high school as a boarder at Geelong High.
“I often say I was probably the first mature-age student because I was 18 or 19, I had a moustache, I had a motorbike — and they didn’t always insist I wore my school cap.
“Now, my results just went up because I knew where I was going.
“I had a very dear old man as an art teacher who was totally hopeless, but I was his golden-haired boy because I went out on weekends painting watercolours — he’d never had a student do that.”
After graduating, Walter went to Geelong Teachers College.
“Late in the summer, I got a notification there was a vacancy in the teachers’ college art and craft course, did I want it?
“Did I ever?!
“That just opened my life up.
“I couldn’t get enough of it.
“I used to go out there at night to do extra classes.
“I just lived a couple of blocks from the old National Gallery School, which is now the public library and took life drawing classes with the likes of Charles Bush.”
He said he worked hard and got very good results.
“Not because I was particularly good at anything, but I worked hard at everything.”
He said his studies eventually were in gold and silversmithing and sculpture, his main instructor was Lenton Parr.
“It should be a household name, but he got too involved in administration, art schools, and things, but he was a superb sculptor.”
While Walter said he enjoyed his studies, in those days he didn’t see himself as an artist.
“I saw myself as an art teacher and had 27 years with the education department.”
Walter resigned as a teacher a few years before retirement to focus on his art.

A booming arts career

“I did a few projects with architects in Melbourne.
“Each one was different, and I thought, ‘well, I’m going to be working in bronze, so I’ve got to learn about that’, and ‘I’m going to be working fibreglass, so I’ll learn about that’ .
“Around that time, I produced a sculpture at Carey Grammar—a big bronze portrait of William Carey.
“I was then approached by a big mining firm to do a sculptural panel for them.
“Then they said, ‘we want you to make something for the wall of the boardroom’ , and in my naivety, I spent a lot of time working on that and going into meetings discussing, without ever putting in a sort of charge as I went along.
“Then I got a phone call saying, ‘look, things are tough, we decided not to go ahead’ .
“Well, that hit me very, very hard.
“I thought ‘bugger it all, I think I’ll see if I can paint’.
“So, I got out my oil paints. “I think I used a coal chisel to clean the pallet and a hammer to soften my brushes and things like that had been dormant for so long because of all the years I was teaching.
“I was worn out on the weekends — my creativity was used up in class teaching students.
“I enjoyed it.
“I’ve got no complaints about that, and I had other things to do on weekends: my family, my church, the MJ Car Club, and sailing.
A return to painting Walter said in 1974 that he had planned to paint an old settlers’ cottage near present day Donvale Christian College.
“All covered in blackberries, very romantic, I thought that would make a great subject”.
But he discovered they had bulldozed the building a week before.
“It had taken a lot of courage to break the ice to even go out after all these years.
“It was easy to put the things away again for a while, but then I went to an old cottage in Port Campbell and started to paint.
“Gee, I couldn’t stop!
“It was like setting a match to a barbeque.”
Around this time,
Walter and his first wife Alison moved to Warrandyte.
“We started to look around. “
I missed out on a property over at Eltham for about four or five acres with an orchard and an old house, which must have been on the market for about 10 minutes.
“It got me thinking, and I kept coming back to Warrandyte.
“We looked and looked and looked, and I had to turn a lot of places down; they were on a steep hill, and you couldn’t use the land.
“About the fourth agent, I said, ‘are there any other places?’ and we had a look in the map.
“‘There’s two-thirds of an acre here, with a riverfront and a creek front and only one neighbour.’
“‘Give me three minutes while I ring my wife.’
“It was just what I wanted,” he said.
For more than 50 years, he continued to paint and teach in the home studio they built in Warrandyte, and more than 400 students have attended his classes.
As prolific as he is talented, he has held many solo and group exhibitions in various Australian capital cities and five in England and has won many awards for his work, including Best of Show.
He has been asked to judge many art shows, act as an art critic, and demonstrate to art societies.
He is a versatile artist who works with various subjects — portraits, landscapes, still life — and in various media, including oil, watercolour, gouache, and pastel.
He said some artistic highlights include designing windows for the Warrandyte Uniting Church.
“I didn’t make it, but I designed every piece of glass and numbered it, and we had two local women and one of my students put it together.
“An anonymous donor gave money so we could afford the very best glass because some glass colours are very expensive.
“It was a fantastic project, and I’m very proud of the design.”

Painting Jags

He said he also had a commission from Bib Stillwell’s Silverstone Motors for a series of five large paintings of Jaguar cars in action.
“I did five paintings for him, but Bib never realised how much work and research went into each piece.
“I said there’s two I want to do, one racing at Le Mans in twilight when the lights are coming on, but there’s still enough daylight to see the tents and the crowd, and one is the fabulous era in England where they brought out the big Jags and raced them door handle to door handle, with some of the top drivers of the time, Stirling Moss and racing Jags.
“And I said, I want to do it in the wet, so you got the reflections, spray, and all sorts of stuff.
“The Albert Park one was set in 1956, the birth of television, so I had to research what the loudspeakers looked like those days, what the breakdown truck and the ambulance looked like, and what the early television cameras looked like.
“I painted myself in that one because I was actually there, and occasionally, I took a bit of artistic liberty and changed some of the signage.”
But he said the amount of research that went into each one was just enormous.
“I said to Bib, they’re going to be absolutely anatomically correct because they are going to be looked at by car buffs, and Lord help me if I don’t have the correct number of rivets, and they’re also going to be looked at by artists, so in terms of composition and perspective they have to work as paintings.
“People have asked if they were copies of photographs — don’t insult me!
“There’s a whole lot to create in that composition; they’re all very authentic — we know the make of each car, we know the driver, and there is a great deal of authenticity.”

Forthcoming exhibition

Walter’s forthcoming exhibition highlights selected works from his extensive career as a professional artist and art teacher.
The collection includes oils, watercolours, gouache, prints, sculptures, and pieces of gold and silver smithing.
The exhibition will be opened by Eltham artist and good friend of Walter, Chris White.
“Chris and I have a sort of joke — if Chris and I go to a Rotary kind of exhibition, the best I can possibly do is come second.
“But there have been times when I’ve knocked Chris off, and he’s knocked me off, but we’re very good friends, and we have a lot of respect for each work and have similar ideas as to what is good painting and good composition.”
Opening night is Thursday, July 24, at the Long Gallery, Montsalvat and Walter will host a “Walk and Talk” on Saturday, August 3, and Sunday, August 4.
The exhibition runs until the end of August.