Up a ladder in F-Divison in Pentridge Prison in 1960, a young 19- or 20-year-old artist was painting his largest and most important artwork. It is on a wall above the external door with the barred gate. The colours stand in contrast to the rest of the walls which are painted white. He is above a nineteenth-century granite floor of the long corridor that ran down the length of the two-storey building, Jika, the original prison building. His mural is level with the landing on the stairs partway down the corridor.
The young Gunai (Kurnai) artist was Elliot Ronald Bull, known as Ronald Bull, who would be promoted as the next Albert Namatjira. Nobody is sure why Bull was in prison, as F-Division was used for both short-term prisoners and as an overflow for when remand became overcrowded.
While Bull was in prison painted a mural that is still visible today. In it he depicted an idealised Aboriginal camp scene with three lean and muscled men. In the background there is a variety of trees and other vegetation. The landscape has hidden images of kangaroo heads; something extra in the painting for those with time to look. Hidden faces and bodies in the landscape were a feature of Bull’s paintings.
In the mural, Bull depicts an idea of life before European colonisation. It was not a scene that he was at all familiar with, but rather an idealised traditional life. Bull was a member of the Stolen Generation; he had twice been removed from his family, who lived at the notorious government-run Lake Tyers Station. The first time he was taken he was only four months old; in the legal process of this removal Bull would have acquired his first police record, one that would influence all later interactions with the courts and police. He was returned for primary school only to be sent to Tally Ho Boys Training Farm, a Methodist Church institution in Burwood East when he turned 12. At the age of 15 he was fostered out in Melbourne. Along the way he became very interested in art.
His 3 metre long and 2 metre high mural in Pentridge is painted with ordinary house paint on a terracotta orange background that also serves as the sky. The other colours stand out against this orange background and, along with the confident painting technique, shows that Bull, although young, was no self-taught painter. Indeed, Bull hadn’t learnt to paint in prison; prior to his incarceration he had studied painting with Melbourne painter Ernest Buckmaster and exchanged letters with the Adelaide-based landscape painter of great eucalyptus trees, Hans Heysen.
Bull’s mural was followed by others in K- and G-divisions at Pentridge. Based on their content, they all appear to have been painted by Indigenous artists, although none were as talented a painter as Ronald Bull. Although it is not currently on public display, Bull’s mural was preserved after Pentridge Prison was closed in 1997. The mural is on the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register and protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006, as well as the Heritage Act 1995, because it is on the Victorian Heritage Register as part of Pentridge Prison.
Ronald Bull’s first exhibition was at Morwell in 1965; the same year that he married Lynette Davies. In 1966–67 he exhibited with Keith Namatjira, the fourth son of Albert Namatjira. In 1973 he sold a landscape painting for $1,150 at the Melbourne Art Show. By the 1970s Bull was exhibiting regularly in Melbourne galleries with notable, non-Indigenous artists, including Ernest Vogel and Pro Hart. I have been able to piece together information about his career from newspaper advertisements.
In 1975 on Sunday afternoon 25 October, Sir Douglas Nicholls, a Yorta Yorta man, footballer, pastor and Aboriginal rights activist, opened An exhibition of Paintings by Ronald Bull at Kew Gallery on Cotham Road. At the time Bull was not called as an ‘Aboriginal’ artist; an advertisement in 1981 described him as: ‘Australia’s greatest Native artist’.
A 1976 advertisement described the ‘the tranquil paintings by Ronald Bull from $95 regarded by many as one of the finest and most gifted landscape artists of the present time’ ($95 then is worth about $550 today). In the ads Bull’s paintings were claimed ‘To Increase 100% in Value’. This all seems over the top given that Bull’s paintings were not expensive to start with; a 1979 advertisement offered Ronald Bull paintings ‘from $65’ (that’s about $280 today and you can buy one for under $300, they have just kept pace with inflation).
Melbourne’s art world was far less sophisticated in the 1970s and early ’80s. It’s hard to imagine buying one of Bull’s paintings from a private sale in Surrey Hills along with paintings by Heysen, Bell and Streeton; or purchasing them from the 1983 Brighton Art Exhibition, a classy affair with an opening night preview hosted by celebrity chef Peter Russell-Clarke and featuring a chicken and champagne supper and a body painting demonstration.
In 1979 Bull was not a well man; ominously a clearance auction of his art was held on Saturday morning 30 June 1979 in the Plaza Arcade in the run-down eastern suburb of Clayton. On 8 September 1979, Ronald Bull died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease at his home at Mont Albert. He was survived by his wife and daughter, Katrina.
Bull’s art was almost forgotten as two new wave of Indigenous Australian artists emerged during the 1980s. Conventional European landscape paintings, like those of Albert Namatjira and Ronald Bull were out of fashion, replaced by Central Desert dot painting by the likes of Michael Jagamara (also spelt Jagamarra or Tjakamarra) and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. It was the popularity of these Central Desert dot paintings that would develop into a generic Aboriginal ‘prison art’ style. At the same time, there were urban Indigenous artists, like Gordon Bennett, Lin Onus and many others, who were continuing Bull’s practice of using European media and techniques.