Prison Art @ Pentridge

Pentridge Prison operated in Coburg between 1850 and 1997 and as in all prisons some prisoners were also artists (not just escape artists and bareknuckle bash artists). In 1886 professional photographer, Joseph H. Soden was convicted of forging pound notes and served time in Pentridge in the same year his photographs were exhibited at the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition.

In 1960 (or 1962 or1964) aboriginal artist Elliot Ronald Bull (1942-1979) painted the mural in “F” Division. Painted with ordinary house paint the mural depicts an aboriginal camp scene. Part of the stolen generation Elliot Ronald Bull had already studied painting with Melbourne painter, Ernest Buckmaster. After his release Elliot Ronald Bull participated in a number of solo and group exhibitions. His mural at Pentridge has been restored and preserved.

Having lived in Coburg for decades I can remember the prison in operation, closed the location being slowly rehabilitated. I can still remember hearing the howls that came from Pentridge at midnight on New Year’s Eve in 1991 when I was living a block from the prison walls. I also saw and photographed parts of the prison shortly after it closed.

Carving from officers club rooms Pentridge Prison.

There was some prisoner art on the site in the maximum security Jika Jika Unit and in the officers’ club rooms. On a wall in the officers’ club rooms were a series of folk art style carved and painted round base reliefs. I’m don’t know what has happened to them.

The escape proof Jika Jika Unit has been demolished along with the art on its walls. Prisoners had painted some of the yard walls of the Jika Jika unit. On the ceiling and walls of one cell an unknown, probably aboriginal artist had painted goanna with tracks leading up the wall and onto the ceiling. The simple elegance of this design helped humanized a dehumanising cell.

Towards the end of its long life Pentridge Prison did have various art programs for prisoners run by art educator, Dr Max Darby and painter, Margaret Miles. (See Dr Max Darby’s “My Days In Prison”.)There was also at least one prisoner art exhibition in a CBD bank – so if anyone knows anymore details about prisoner art in Pentridge Prison please comment before the details are lost to history and redevelopment.

About Mark Holsworth

Arts administrator, artist, musician, philosopher and writer. Writes Black Mark - Melbourne Art and Culture Critic. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

4 responses to “Prison Art @ Pentridge

  • Dr. Max Darby

    The art programs run by Max Darby at Pentridge Prison were primarily for students taking VCE studies. The sessions were designed to help in the student’s folio preparation and examination preparation. Some additional free sessions were taken for other students who might have wanted to study VCE Art in future years. Most were just people seriously interested in doing something of value to themselves. Many works were paintings that showed the understandable frustration and angst of being incarcerated with little hope for the future. I know, because I’m that Max.
    Dr. Max Darby, Arts Education Consultant.

  • Pentridge Rehabilitated « Black Mark

    [...] The historic entrance and other parts of the historic precinct of the old Pentridge Prison are yet to be rehabilitated. The front of the prison still stands looking abandoned with heritage issues yet to be resolved. There are no statues yet in this redevelopment and the front of the prison definitely needs a suitable statue that is sensitive to the history without being mawkish. (For information on the art of prisoners see my post about Prison Art @ Pentridge) [...]

  • Pentridge – more on prison art | Black Mark

    […] 1964) Elliot Bull painted the mural with ordinary house paint in “F” Division. (See my post on Prison Art @ Pentridge.) Although Bull’s mural at Pentridge is his most important surviving artwork (S. Kleinert, […]

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