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Jeffery Wilkinson: Untitled

November 2013

  • Nicole Salvo

The latest exhibition at The Gallery @ Bayside Arts & Cultural Centre presents a visual archive of the highly accomplished, yet relatively unknown Victorian sculptor and ceramicist, Jeffery Wilkinson. In this survey exhibition we are able to witness the true quality of this artist’s craftsmanship, whose output spanned more than fifty years and encompassed a variety of materials from earthenware and terracotta to bronze and fibreglass.

Born in Ballarat in 1921, Wilkinson studied at the Ballarat School of Mines in the 1930s before becoming a teacher in the Pottery Department in the Melbourne Technical College (later known as RMIT). Wilkinson then served in the Royal Australian Navy during the Second World War, first in the Pacific as an Able Seaman and then towards the end as an artist with the Naval History Section.  It was during this time that Wilkinson created models of Australian Admiral Sir Guy Royle and Rear Admiral Collins as well as the head of the first Japanese soldier captured at Finchshafen which were presented to the Australian War Memorial.

Returning to the Melbourne Technical College after the war, Wilkinson went on to have a long and successful teaching career, beginning as an Assistant Pottery Instructor in 1946 and advancing to the position as Senior Lecturer of Ceramics, from which he retired in 1985.  Some of Jeffery Wilkinson’s students forged their own success in the arts, including the likes of Hedley Potts and Peter Rushforth, who was taught by Wilkinson in the late 1940s and is recognised as one of Australia’s most important ceramic artists.

This exhibition showcases a variety of Wilkinson’s ceramics, ranging from his utilitarian vases and pots from the 1960s, to the beautifully modelled animal figures which have a sculptural quality that Wilkinson went on to later develop in his bronze works. A superbly crafted black sculpturesque work entitled Pot stands out amongst the ceramic pieces. This work was selected by Kenneth Hood for the exhibition Australian and New Zealand Pottery which was at the National Gallery of Victoria and toured the state galleries from 1963 to 1964. The somewhat organic shaped form of Pot reminds us of coral with its tube-like fingers that look ready to wave with the water’s movement. Another interpretation of the work comes from Elwyn Lynn, who in a 1964 review for The Australian, evocatively described it as having “protruding gun muzzles – like a new weaponry awaiting victory garlands.”

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Wilkinson’s career as a sculptor was very active, regularly exhibiting at the Victorian Sculptors’ Society and the Argus Gallery, and becoming President of the Victorian Sculptors’ Society in the late 50s. During this time, Wilkinson was regarded as one of the state’s leading sculptors, exhibiting alongside Andor Meszaros, Inge King, Clement Meadmore and Lenton Parr. Wilkinson’s ceramics and sculpture were selected for The Arts Festival of the Olympic Games Melbourne in 1956. To put this achievement into context, other artists chosen for the exhibition included distinguished ceramicists Klytie Pate and Ivan McMeekin, contemporary painters Arthur Boyd and John Brack as well as important 19th century artists Louis Buvelot and Frederick McCubbin. Wilkinson was also chosen for various commissions, ranging from religious altarpieces to athletic trophy sculptures and most prominent of all, the Tullamarine Airport Mural with Harold Freedman in 1970.

Significant to his practice, the artist set up a studio with a large kiln and foundry in his home in Black Rock in the late 1950s. It is believed that Wilkinson was the first artist in Australia to sculpt and cast bronze himself in his own studio rather than sending works off to foundries for casting. As a result, he was not only able to control the entire process of his work, but it gave him the freedom to experiment in a lifetime of consistent production. It was in his home studio that he produced many of the works included in this exhibition.

It is through his bronze sculpture that we are able to get a sense of both Wilkinson’s personality and his talent for modelling. A beautiful series of horses, crafted meticulously using the ancient lost-wax process, as well as a series of torsos which celebrate the female form, show Wilkinson’s skill in formal perfection. Other bronze works illustrate Wilkinson’s ability to experiment, an example of which is an untitled bronze female figure that almost floats above its base. This figure, whose body has been reduced to an allusive silhouette with elongated lower limbs, is reminiscent of the work of the great Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. 

Wilkinson’s sense of irony and wry sense of humour is evident in much of his sculptural work, as exemplified in Self Portrait as Jester. A jester is usually the joker who is there to entertain us and make us laugh at his gags, however here he is presented with an almost austere, sad expression. Instead of depicting himself as the jovial clown, Wilkinson’s jester is symbolic of common sense and of honesty, able to dispense frank insights and highlight the absurdities of society. 

Wilkinson’s own observations on society are seen in a number of works, none more so than in the satirical series of Judges and Generals. In both sets of portraits, the more elaborate the headgear (be it helmets reflecting rank, or the wigs of the judges), the more ridiculous the face. We see in these works a real sense of the folly of a society based on rules, on judgment and on authority.

Most people know Jeffery Wilkinson’s large bronze sculpture The Swimmer which has graced the Hampton foreshore since 1999, and in this exhibition we are able to see this work in its original (albeit much smaller) inception from the 1950s. This maquette was interestingly exhibited as a fountain design at an exhibition organised by the Victorian Sculptors’ Society and National Gallery of Victoria in 1963. In spite of this, it seems far more appropriate that when it was cast forty years later, the work was installed in Melbourne’s Bayside, destined to float above Port Phillip and to be enjoyed by thousands of daily passers-by.

Jeffery Wilkinson: Untitled includes over fifty works of art and this exhibition finally gives Melbournians the chance to get to know the man behind The Swimmer and witness other aspects of his dynamic oeuvre.

Jeffery Wilkinson: Untitled shows at The Gallery at Bayside Arts & Cultural Centre, corner of Carpenter and Wilson Sts, Brighton, from October 19 to December 19.

1) Jeffery WILKINSON, The swimmer 1999 – Image courtesy of the Wilkinson family
2) Jeffery WILKINSON, Whistling man. Image courtesy of the Wilkinson family
3) Jeffery WILKINSON with a series of his bronze works. Image courtesy of the Wilkinson family
4) Jeffery WILKINSON, Untitled (Horse III). Image courtesy of the Wilkinson family
5) Jeffery WILKINSON, Blue rider. Image courtesy of the Wilkinson family




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