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 Ben 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, although numerous people have told me it was for car stealing. Cars were easy to steal at the time and were used for transport and then abandoned.
In the mural, Bull depicts an idea of life before European colonisation with three lean and muscled men. One man is seated cross-legged in front of a bush shelter making a fire. Near him there are a couple of boomerangs. On the left, a man stands, holding several spears over his shoulder and carrying a woomera, a spear thrower, in his right hand. On the right side, a third man has returned from a hunt with a kangaroo draped over his shoulder. 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 regular 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’s own family lived at the notorious government-run Lake Tyers Station. Not that he was allowed to live with them. A member of the Stolen Generation, a genocidal government policy to destroy Indigenous people by removing their children. Bull was twice removed from his family. 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 to his parents during primary school only to be sent to Tally Ho Boys Training Farm, a Methodist Church institution in Burwood East, when he turned 12. Another boy remembers Bull as his friend and saviour who protected him from bullies. He was also in Baltara, a state institution in Parkville for children taken into state care, where his one solace was to memorise the Rubiyat of Omar Kayan. At the age of 15, Bull was fostered out in Melbourne.
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.
Buckmaster was a conventional painter who did portraits, still lifes and landscapes. He won the Archibald Prize in 1923. In 1945 he was commissioned to paint the Japanese surrender at Singapore, and even though he had arrived two days after the surrender, he completed twenty-five paintings depicting the event. Like Buckmaster, Bull painted conventional landscapes and was similarly prolific. During his life, he painted around 2000 works, mostly on those Windsor and Newton canvas-covered boards; the kind that you can still buy at any art supply shop.
After his release, Bull got a job. In 1964 he worked at Turner Manufacturing in Lilydale, which made washing machines. He was a pipe-smoking man of his time, generous and kind and an awesome table tennis player. He gave his paintings to friends for wedding presents and donated them as a raffle prize for the Turner Manufacturing social club.
Ronald Bull’s first exhibition was at Morwell in 1965; the same year that he married Lynette Davies. They had a daughter called Catrina. He said that he changed from watercolours to oils so that he could easily stop and start his paintings when he was looking after his daughter.
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.
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 his paintings ‘from $65’ (that’s about $280 today and you can buy one for under $300, they have just kept pace with inflation). Bull was using the money to support his own family in Melbourne and his extended family at Lake Tyers.
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 former wife and daughter, Catrina. He is buried at the Emerald/Macclesfield cemetery in the Dandenongs.
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. And Bull was a mentor to Lin Onus, who went on to have a stellar art career.
Thanks to everyone who has shared their memories of Ben Bull in the comments on this post. I have been able to updated it thanks to their input.
October 5th, 2018 at 7:15 PM
Great story Mark! I siged the petition. Let’s hope Ronald Bull’s mural is looked after!
October 5th, 2018 at 11:34 PM
Cheers, thanks Jamit, it is part of my forthcoming art and crime book.
November 2nd, 2018 at 10:41 PM
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.
November 2nd, 2018 at 10:56 PM
I hope that more people get to see it, both online and in person (if the remains of Pentridge are ever properly restored.)
September 18th, 2019 at 3:45 PM
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
September 18th, 2019 at 6:38 PM
Thank you. Good to hear from someone who has lived with his painting for decades.
April 14th, 2020 at 10:44 AM
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
April 14th, 2020 at 1:15 PM
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.
May 2nd, 2020 at 7:24 PM
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
May 2nd, 2020 at 7:29 PM
Thanks Wayne, I didn’t know that he painted anything other than Australian landscapes.
October 18th, 2020 at 7:22 PM
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.
October 18th, 2020 at 9:59 PM
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.
August 30th, 2021 at 5:31 PM
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.
August 30th, 2021 at 6:51 PM
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.
December 23rd, 2021 at 4:37 PM
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
December 23rd, 2021 at 6:52 PM
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.
January 27th, 2023 at 9:43 AM
[…] For more about Bull and his mural see my post, the life and art of Ronald Bull. […]
February 10th, 2023 at 4:15 PM
Fantastic article. Good art history
February 10th, 2023 at 6:17 PM
Thanks. It is important to remember artists like Bull.
March 23rd, 2023 at 5:04 PM
Just for the record Ronald Bull is buried in the Emerald/Macclesfield cemetery which is between Avonsleigh and Macclesfield in the Dandenongs.
March 23rd, 2023 at 5:52 PM
Thank you Bill, readers, like you are helping complete Ronald Bull’s story.
May 30th, 2023 at 9:26 AM
My cousin Lynette Davies married Ben in 1965. They had a daughter called Catrina, but later separated.
Ben was intelligent & kind, but had a traumatic upbringing. This included being taken into ‘care’ from his large Aboriginal family in Lake Tyers by the Victorian Aboriginal Protection (!) Authority. He told me once that to endure his time in Baltara (a state institution in Parkville for children taken into state care, he learnt the Rubiyat of Omar Kayan. An extraordinary man & a superb artist.
May 30th, 2023 at 9:47 AM
Thank you so much for your memories, especially as your memory fills in a couple of gaps in his story. Only yesterday, I thought I must rewrite my post to incorporate the details from all these memories, but I didn’t have the details of his marriage. I feel a great responsibility being entrusted with these memories and to be able to tell people about his art and life.