A bohemian rhapsody
The Life and Loves of Wilmotte Williams Sydney’s Own Impressionist Painter
Written by Christopher Williams and available in e-book as both a pdf and an epub file.
The catalyst for this book was the overwhelmingly positive response to the celebration of Billie’s centenary year. Given my great love and respect for my dear mother Billie, I was moved that so many were touched by her, and by her work.The two major retrospective exhibitions were made possible by Macquarie University Art Gallery and the New South Wales Parliament.
Many thanks to to Rhonda Davis and Leonard Janiszewski at Macquarie University Art Gallery.
Many thanks to the President of the Legislative Council and the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly for choosing this Centenary Retrospective Exhibition of Wilmotte Williams’ paintings to hang in the Fountain Foyer of the New South Wales Parliament.
Many thanks also to the owners of the 44 paintings exhibited, which were all on loan from their private collections.
Sydney’s Impressionist Painter: Wilmotte Williams
During the 1960s the Impressionist influenced paintings of urban Sydney and rural outskirts were popularly embraced by an Australian public craving a creative interpretation of their rapidly changing environment. A modern Sydney was leading the nation into the global architecture of concrete and glass towers. Pockets of the old remained, seen in terraces, sandstone steeples and city streets lined with the greenery of trees. At the apex of this activity stood the artist Wilmotte Williams affectionately known as “Billie” who used her car as a portable studio in capturing this transformation. Her work quickly gained a wide following as she melded the aesthetic tensions of the old with the new in a remarkably distinctive style, so much her works were being reproduced on calendars and postcards.
In 2016, the Macquarie University Art Gallery team undertook the first of two major retrospective exhibitions marking the centenary of Williams’ birth. Held within the Macquarie University Library’s exhibition space, this display celebrated both the artist and the Sydney which once was. Of enormous interest was the recovery of a ‘lost’ painting, attracting wide media attention. The small but luminous painting depicted a local farm in Marsfield very close to the market garden area where Macquarie University is now located. It was hard to imagine so close to Sydney existed a rural environment that supported mixed agricultural pursuits.
In the early stages of her career Williams’ artistic talent was recognised, being awarded in the 1930s an Art School Scholarship. Unfortunately, this opportunity had to be put on hold for personal family reasons. Despite this initial setback, by the 1950s she had reignited her aesthetic interests and attended evening art classes at Eastwood Central Primary School. Consequently, she succeeded in creating a position of due respect and recognition within a professional field still firmly male dominated. Williams’ artistic presence at numerous charity art exhibitions became characteristic, not only of her philanthropy, but also of her prolific production as an artist.
All the works displayed in the Macquarie University retrospective were also featured, together with additional paintings, in a highly successful exhibition in late 2016 staged at the New South Wales Parliament House exhibition space.
This entire collection of Williams’ paintings has now been assembled and showcased here in this astonishing exhibition ‘Billie – a bohemian rhapsody’. Supplemented with a myriad of family reminiscences, memories, photographs and anecdotes, they collectively generate a beautifully crafted and poignant portrait – a portrait framed in love and admiration – of one of Sydney’s most accomplished, popularist, modern impressionist painters: Wilmotte ‘Billie’ Williams.
Rhonda Davis (Senior Curator)
Leonard Janiszewski (Historian, Curator)
Macquarie University Art Gallery
A sincere thank you to my family and friends: daughter Rosalie, Aunt Yula, cousin Phillipa, David Wilson, Alan Pearce, Bruce Gall and Barry Hartshorn, and to all who provided personal insights, photos etc. Thank you to Helen Jackson for editing the text.
My heartfelt gratitude goes especially to Robin Russell, John Santry’s daughter.
To dear ‘Dooly’ (Aunt Yula), our last link to Billie’s generation.
ABOUT THE TITLE
“Billie” was the name that everyone knew her by. Her mother, however, always called her Wilmotte; her soul mate John Santry always called her Willie; her two sons called her Mum. Everyone else called her Billie – her family, grandchildren especially, friends, neighbours, gallery owners, charity show organisers, and the thousands of art lovers she met in person.
The dictionary defines a bohemian as a person with artistic interests who disregards conventional standards of behaviour. And that was Billie. She disregarded conventional standards of behaviour in her private, public and business life. A rhapsody is defined as a literary work written in exalted or impassioned style. I am rhapsodic about my mother’s life – her trials and tribulations, the tributes and triumphs. I am very proud to say that as I grew to adulthood she regarded me as a close confidant. We discussed and shared secrets of all sorts. A quarter of a century has gone by since her passing. She is, though, more popular and revered than ever. Admirers of her work are keener than ever to hear the story behind the paintings and the painter. I hope you find that my impassioned storytelling style does Billie justice.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I was six years old when Billie started painting again. My education through primary school, high school and university parallelled her blossoming career as an artist. While other kids might have done their homework at the kitchen table after dinner, I always did mine in my room. In our house, paint tubes, brushes, palette, palette knives, boards, turps and linseed oil replaced knives and forks, cups, saucers and plates on the kitchen table.
Not only did I learn enough at school and university to graduate with an Arts degree, but also by helping Mum as much as I could, I learnt something about every aspect of the art business. After graduating, I enjoyed careers in human resources, promotions, art and consulting for charity. I have written and published both fiction and non-fiction works, and produced several documentaries for charity. For as long as I can, I intend to keep up my daily blog – Twitter @writersweb = and to be writing even on the day I die. After all, I have a great example to follow: Billie was painting in Hyde Park on the morning of the day she died.
ABOUT THE BOOK
In December 2015, the NSW Parliament chose, for the first time, to exhibit paintings by an individual artist. Never before had such a personal honour been bestowed. Previously only charities and groups had been invited. Wilmotte Williams, Sydney’s own Impressionist painter, was the artist. This final Retrospective Exhibition in her Centenary year was installed in the Parliament House Fountain Courtyard in early November 2016. November was specifically chosen so that her 100th birthday on 30th November would be celebrated in surroundings and style reflective of her talent and achievements. The Centenary Retrospective was very popular with the Parliament and the public. It was due to finish on 16th December. Parliament, however, requested that it be extended until the Christmas break.
Each of the 44 paintings in the Centenary Retrospective has its own story, and a story synopsis was beside each painting. These stories and the paintings themselves aroused the public’s interest and whetted their appetite for more. So many people asked for her story to be told. Many of the visitors to Parliament House praised the beautiful paintings and said Billie deserved to be world famous. I hope that by telling her story she will become more famous around the world than she is today. She was famous during her lifetime. Her own granddaughter Rosalie said to her one day, “Billie, we learned about you in art class this week. You’re famous!”
WHAT’S IN THE BOOK?
“Billie a bohemian rhapsody” is the life story of Wilmotte Williams from her birth on 30th November 1916 up to the celebration of her 100th birthday on 30th November 2016 in Parliament House with her Centenary Retrospective gracing the walls in the Fountain Foyer. You see, she didn’t die in May 1992, she just joined John Santry to continue their journey together, their timeless journey as soul mates. As she told me before she left this world, she missed John too much, he’d been dead for too long and she couldn’t wait to be with him.
Billie’s family misses her, as does John Santry’s. His daughter Robin wants the story told and her reminiscences are invaluable. Billie’s story can now be told as it should be in both words and pictures. I’ve tried to get it done just as Billie did every day with every one of her paintings, first, on a framed but blank canvas, a quick sketch of the subject. Then I’ve painted the picture, careful with composition, contrast, perspective, background, colours, light and shade, form and characters. Finally, the Centenary Year Retrospective Exhibition of 44 paintings at NSW Parliament House was the ideal culmination of a year of celebrating Billie being Billie.