The life and art of Ronald Bull

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.

Detail of Ronald Bull’s mural in Pentridge

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.

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

17 responses to “The life and art of Ronald Bull

  • Jamit

    Great story Mark! I siged the petition. Let’s hope Ronald Bull’s mural is looked after!

  • Michael

    A wondrous work of art. I captured it today, so much better than the first time I was there. led lights made it come alive.

  • Sue Agar

    This is a most interesting article – I googled Ronald Bull to see what came up as I have a wonderful landscape painting of his and I love it. It is my favourite painting. The gum trees the light – it is called Misty Morning in Gembrook. I also love it because when I bought it (about 1978-9) I was told that Ronald changed from using just water colours to oils to paint his landscapes so his children could play around him as he painted meaning oils take longer to dry if he needed to stop. What a kind thoughtful man. Sue

  • David Harrison

    My father was in prison with Ronald during this time my Dad and Ronald became very close friends, to the point my grandmother even came to the prison to visit with him. She would bring him in paints other stuff he needed, we still have a letter he wrote to my Grandmother, thanking her… He attended my Mum and Dad’s wedding, and painted a large painting for them as a gift, this hung over the fireplace for many years, heat from the fireplace causing it to loose its color over the years, During dinner Ben noticed that the painting needed a touch up, and asked to take it home to restore it, Dad agreed, However Ben got sick and passed before this could be done. The painting was never returned. Sadly

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thank you for sharing these memories with everyone. I wondered who brought him paints when he was in prison. Shame about the painting but very interesting that Ben was planned to touch it up. All of these stories help to fill out the story of a life that should be remembered more.

  • Wayne

    I have 3 painting done by him . And the best one that I like is a copy of a painting the my grandmother sister had of a castle that I guess came from Germany in the 1800

  • hector cruickshank

    i had the pleasure of being employed at a company called Turner Manufacturing in Lilydale in 1964. Ronald Bull and a mate of his worked in the factory for a short time , he donated paintings to our social club to be used as raffles. I used to play table tennis in our canteen with Ronald at lunch times and after work , he was a very talented painter but an awesome table tennis player . He lived in the Dandenongs for a while after he left our work place . My memories of him were here was a very talented young man who should have been recognised for his artistic talents , he should never have been working in a factory . I was deeply saddened when i read of his passing. I would have been 17 years old at the time i new him but have always remembered our time at Turner’s.

    regards Hec

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thanks, Hec for your memories. I am so appreciative of people telling their bit about Ronald Bull because it is always good to hear more about his life. And this is the first time I’ve heard about his table tennis talents. As you said deserves a lot more recognition for his art; the story of his life needs to be told and to be more widely known.

  • Denver Harris.

    I was incarcerated at the Tally Ho boys village when i was 13 yrs old roughly the same time as Ronald Bull and for for the 9 months i spent there i was never badly treated by the cottage parents who were Messrs Snell ( who owned a (2 dr coupe Sunbeam Rapier ) I was put to work in the market gardens with other boys.

    but i was often bullied severely by 2 other boys one day an aboriginal named Benny Bull stopped them beating on me and from that day on he was my Friend and Savior and no more bullying from anybody.

    i have Never forgotten Benny and i was wondering if Ronald bull who was that very quiet boy, is one and the same..i had heard in later years of this same person being an Artist.
    i am now in my last seventies now and i have Never forgotten his Friendship and Kindness.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Good to hear about someone standing up against bullies, Ronald, Benny or were they the same – and how many boys from Tally Ho went on to become artists? so I think your right in your assumption.

  • Graeme Anthony

    I was at Langi kal kal prison in the early sixties and there was a young man Elliott bull there and we got on real well

  • Mark Holsworth

    Thanks Graeme, reading about your memory of Elliott Bull helps understand his life and art better. You will be happy to hear that he is finally getting a retrospective exhibition next year.

  • Whitewashing Pentridge Prison History | Black Mark

    […] For more about Bull and his mural see my post, the life and art of Ronald Bull. […]

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