Important Australian + International Fine Art
28 August 2019


(1887 – 1971)

oil on pulpboard

76.0 x 50.5 cm

signed and dated lower right: R. Wakelin / 31
bears inscription verso: 2

Private sale

Toorak Art Gallery, Melbourne
Ken and Joan Plomley Collection of Modernist Art, Melbourne, acquired from the above in May 1968


probably: Inaugural Exhibition, Modern Art Centre, Sydney, c.1932
Roland Wakelin Retrospective, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 8 – 30 April 1967 and touring to Newcastle City Art Gallery, Newcastle, 10 – 13 May 1967, cat. 41 (illus. in exhibition catalogue) (label attached verso, lent by Roland Wakelin)
Roland Wakelin, Toorak Art Gallery, Melbourne, 12 – 29 May 1968, cat. 2


Johnson, H., Roy de Maistre: The Australian Years 1894-1930, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1988, pl. 46, pp. 88 (illus.), 100
Watson, A. The Art of Roland Wakelin, Master Thesis, University of Sydney, Sydney, 1975, pl. xi, pp. 54, 193 (illus.) [https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/8682] (accessed 2/05/19)

Catalogue text

Portrait of Marjorie Fear, 1931, is a significant essay in Australian modernist painting, not least for its depiction of a self-assured young woman. Although nothing is known about her life and personality, Fear’s fashion and attitude reflect an inner pride as she sits, hands clasped, whilst her eyes contemplate the middle distance. With a softly enigmatic smile on the lips, she presents ‘a tonal and compositional stillness that evoke(s) the dream of quiet gentility’.1 It was most likely painted in Roland Wakelin’s home studio at 52 Edward Street, North Sydney, completed in the hours outside his full time employment as a commercial artist with the O’Brien Publicity Company. With two young children and the looming clouds of the Depression, Wakelin sought stability and support within his family’s structure, and utilised local streets, people and domestic scenes as the framework through which to articulate his painterly thoughts and processes.

In 1928, Wakelin had written a brief article on the early years of modernism in Sydney, a period in which he was a key player alongside Roy de Maistre and Grace Cossington Smith.2 In it, he argued that ‘(m)odern painting aims at the setting down of essentials in the clearest and most direct manner possible’; and in Portrait of Marjorie Fear this attitude is abundantly clear. Through his use of a ‘simplified composition, a reduction of complex forms and a reduced perspective’,3 there is a marked tension in the painting as the eye first takes in the finely balanced harmony of the central figure, before moving around new discoveries within the paint application and colours. Due to the high viewpoint, Fear’s body is slightly elongated with the tilt of her head mirrored by the angle of her clasped hands. In spite of the boldness of her highly fashionable (and probably self-made) striped jacket, the vertical lines provide logical linkage between the face and hands; and the shimmering green finds chromatic allies in the blue of the cushion, and that of the visible dado to her left, itself punctuated by the soft terracotta stripe. Like her clothing, Fear’s hairstyle (a bob with soft waves) marks her as a modern woman, and in this she has painterly companions in similar female portraits by contemporaneous artists such as Cossington Smith, Margaret Preston, Adelaide Perry and Grace Crowley.

By 1931, Wakelin had exhibited widely, including a modest ‘retrospective’ at the house of his ardent supporter Ethel Anderson. In 1925, a solo show by the artist launched the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney, run by his close friend John Young, and Wakelin followed this up with a second in 1928. In her opening remarks for the latter show, Anderson noted that in the artist’s paintings, there was ‘no attempt at softening of outline, no striving after glowing atmospheric effects. The colouring is hard and masculine, the contours are emphasised by definite lines. Here the quality of design is pronounced’.4 Portrait of Marjorie Fear is not an example of modernism in the sense of the radical avant-garde; rather it is a quietly compelling statement, ‘a kind of painterly truth, [utilising] art as a reflection of natural order’.5

1. McAuliffe, C., Art and Suburbia, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1996, p. 58
2. Wakelin, R., ‘The Modern Art Movement in Australia’, Art in Australia, Sydney, third series, no. 26, December 1928, unpaginated
3. Pegus, A., ‘Roland Wakelin’s Colour Music’, Colour in Art: revisiting 1919, exhibition catalogue, Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Sydney, 2008, p. 16
4. Anderson, E., in ‘Mr Wakelin’s Exhibition’, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, 22 August 1928, p. 10
5. Adams, B., ‘Wakelin’s search for the aesthetics of nature’, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, 25 April 1987