Painted in February 1961 by an inmate of Pentridge Prison who signed his name J. G. Cust. Earlier this year, I was sent these photographs by a man whose father had been a warden at Pentridge in the 1960s. We know nothing else but hope to find out more. Please comment if you have any information.
I live close to the stone walls of the former Pentridge prison. I was living there when it was still operational. So my interest in this area is partly due to proximity (the rehabilitation of this former 19th-century prison is another story). I’m interested in art outside of the mainstream, from alternate exhibition spaces to graffiti.
The politics of prison art has three parts. Firstly, who is incarcerated? In Australia, Indigenous people are disproportionately incarcerated. What is the purpose of incarceration, and what is the purpose of art? Is it therapy, education, recreation, job training, or culture? These definitions are political and, in a prison, become structural and institutional.
Finally, there is the issue of who should profit from the art or literature created by prisoners. This final question only worries shallow vengeful politicians (of which there are many in Australia) who cannot separate the crime from the incarcerated person.
In this state, the Torch provides art training and the opportunity for sales to Indigenous people who are incarcerated and post-incarceration. I have been writing about their annual Confined exhibitions and other exhibitions organised by the Torch.
Here are all my posts on the art of the incarcerated (I must try to keep this up dated).
‘Inner Hum’ is a group exhibition at Divisions Gallery of painterly abstracts by Belinda Wiltshire, Karen Hew-Yin Eriksen, and Charlotte Ivey. All three artists enjoy paint, working it in different ways.
Painter and ceramicist Wiltshire is showing a series of five large works with tiny little details in one place, In Travelling Friend two tiny children lean in for a kiss in a yellow dot on a vast blue canvas. They are displayed in a circle, perhaps thinking of the work hanging of the Rothko chapel.
Ivey’s small paintings are compositions in a subdued palette of reds and browns that pay attention to their linen, boards and glass supports.
Hew-Yin Eriksen pushes phthalo green paint around into great curves and arcs. Stepping out of the abstract into materialism, she has included one, Sublime Light Now! with an LED fan.
Divisions Gallery is the new gallery in Pentridge Village. It is located alongside the small history interpretation centre on the second floor of the shopping mall. The gallery has a stockroom, a lot of windows and a balcony with views of a stone nineteenth-century prison block. There are three old prison wall spikes at the gallery desk set in an old piece of bluestone from the former Pentridge Prison.
In Pentridge Village, the aesthetics of carceral torture and a panopticon are decorative features. The panopticon no longer exists. The foundations were unearthed in 2014. This brutal modern prison was the first experiment in reforming prisoners. It had the opposite effect, but the architectural form was quickly adopted for schools and military barracks. A must-see for fans of Foucault and extreme irony.
There hasn’t been a gallery of any kind or any exhibitions in Coburg for years. Now there is Divisions Gallery and an exhibition space at Schoolhouse Studios in the old Coles supermarket. (These were the kind of posts that this blog was built on. I haven’t been doing enough local exhibitions. A sort of horizon scanning before the artist becomes known to the mainstream.)
I have participated and observed the arts in Moreland for three decades, mainly in the area of visual arts but also music and literature. Since 2008 I have written 84 blog posts about the visual arts in Moreland. Writing about visual arts has informed me about the variety of local art practices, from street art to contemporary. It is important to write about local culture, the emerging and the marginalised, rather than what everyone else is writing and talking about.
In 1960 in a corridor of F-Divison in Pentridge Prison a young 19- or 20-year-old artist was painting his largest and most important artwork. The young Gunai (Kurnai) artist was Elliot Ronald Bull, known as Ronald Bull, or Ben to his friends and family. Nobody is sure about why Bull was in prison; it might been for nothing as F-Division was used for both remand and short-term prisoners. He may have been in and out of there a couple of times for minor offences.
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.
In 1977 Chris Dyson was playing guitar with Paul Kelly in High Rise Bombers. However instead of pursuing music Dyson went on studying painting at Victorian College of the Arts and later Masters from Monash University. Dyson studied at the VCA 82-84 and then taught there until 1998. In the early 80s Chris Dyson saw an exhibition of aboriginal prison art at the VCA gallery school. He remembers a painting titled; “The park across the road from the bank I robbed.” A few years later Dyson was teaching art at Pentridge.
Pentridge Prison, Coburg
In 1986 Dyson gave art classes at the psych unit, G Division. Dyson felt that what he was doing was art therapy than art classes. That it was a chance for the prisoners to take pride in something. A chance for the prisoners to think about something else. A chance for them to talk about things that they wouldn’t normally talk about. Maybe that’s why the guards hated it so much.
Many of the prisoners were so heavily medicated they were like zombies for most of the month. Dyson regarded most of the prisoners in G Division as people who couldn’t deal with the outside world. They painted dicks or marijuana leaves in acrylics. No oil paint was allowed due to fears from the guards at what other uses the prisoners could make of them. There was no music therapy after Gary Web David swallowed the metal guitar strings.
He wasn’t there for long somewhere between a year and eighteen months on shitty pay. He felt intimidated; the memo about the body search option, the missing art materials and general harassment from the guards. One day they wouldn’t let him go in with his cigarette and a prisoner ends up giving him a White Ox cigarette. Then the guards question him about what he is going to give the prisoner in return for the cigarette. He considered teaching jobs elsewhere in the Pentridge and later in other private prisons but corruption and lack of support from the guards weighed against that.
Dyson felt that the guards were worse than the prisoners. He only remembers seeing the guards body building with the gym equipment, never the prisoners who were all over weight from the stogy prison food and the side effects of psychiatric medication.
Using his old connections Dyson did get Paul Kelly to perform at Pentridge. He remembers the afternoon as a great performance followed by a BBQ.
This is some of my research for a chapter on prison art for my book about art and crime. The book is planned to be published later in the year, so I have been working on that and neglecting this blog. I don’t think that much this will end up in the book except as background because that chapter is taking a different direction, so I thought that it would make a good blog post.
At the Melbourne Museum I saw Yannae Wirrate Weelam, The Journey Home in the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre. The exhibition was organised by The Torch, who are very actively exhibiting. In January I saw their exhibition, Confined 8 at the St. Kilda Town Hall Gallery. They also have an exhibition, Dhumbadha Munga (Talking Knowledge) at the Alliance Francaise’s Eildon Gallery that looks at the two-way relationship between the arts workers and the artists they support.
The exhibition, Yannae Wirrate Weelam, The Journey Home had a very short history about the far too many aboriginal artists in prison along with work by people in the current The Torch program.
All of the artists in the exhibition took such care and time with their art but a few of the artists are outstanding. Robby Knight, of the Wergaia/Wotjobaluk, has so much creative energy and talent when working in both paint and many other materials. And Knight’s work with other materials gets frighteningly awesome and powerful. The paintings by Jeffrey Jackson, of the Mutti Mutti, are so powerful and beautiful. I was also impressed with the pokerwork, burning wood with a hot bit of metal, by Roger Sims, of the Barkindji, proving that you can do a contemporary illustration of a Murray Cod with fantastic detail in that media.
Jeffrey Jackson, Knowing Country
Robby Knight, The Mask of Njaud Njaud
Robby Knight, The Cloak of Njaud Njaud
This was research for my next book which is about true art crimes in Melbourne. For along with art theft, art forgery and art vandalism I also want to write about prison art and other places where art the criminal justice system intersect.
Prison art has not been an easy topic to write about for a number of reasons, chiefly I don’t have much information. I have been able to interview a couple of prison art educators and I expect to interview some more.
To add to the difficultly I want to focus on Aboriginal prison art including the artist Ronald Bull who painted the mural in Pentridge Prison’s “F” Division. In the 1970s Ronald Bull was described in advertisement in The Age: “Hailed by many as the foremost and most versatile landscape painter of the present time. Showing the often unseen beauty of our countryside, an artist with turbulent talent. Capable of becoming Australia’s premier painter.” Yet few people have heard of him today; I don’t want his life and art, along with others like him, to be forgotten so I am writing about it.
At the bottom of a box of old books, mostly about Africa that my parents brought over to my house I found Denton Prout and Fred Feely, 50 Years Hard, the story of Pentridge Gaol from 1850 to 1900 (Rigby Limited,1967, Adelaide).
It was an enjoyable read although not entirely focused on Pentridge Prison, there is a lot of other details about the Melbourne colony. Sometimes the book lost focus but I wasn’t bored, there is a dramatic short story about a night ride from Geelong to Melbourne that was indirectly connected to Pentridge. Towards the end there is a bit of an examination of nineteenth century penal theory and practice but the book is more about historical story telling than any overall thesis.
There were also a few more anecdotal details about William Stanford, the convict who carved the granite fountain in Gordon Reserve (above Parliament Station) including speculations on who was the model for the boy. However, amongst all these details the authors fail to mention, the crucial detail that Stanford had been an apprentice stonemason before immigrating to Australia.
Stanford Fountain, Melbourne
“Stanford was allowed the use of a shed for his work. The magistrate also supplied him with a kit of tools, and when the artist wanted a model for the eagles which were to ornament the rim of the fountain , he arranged for a stuffed eagle hawk to be sent to Pentridge from Bendigo. Mr Paton also came to Stanford’s aid when he wanted a child to act as model for the nude figure forming the finial of the work – a youth holding up a basket of flowers. Stanford, it is said, made many request to the warders to allow one of their children to pose for the nude, although the warders were willing their womenfolk had other views.” (p.139-40)
The vast site of the old Pentridge prison continues to be rehabilitated and redeveloped into a housing estate. However, apart from the residential development and a few eateries there is little going on in the area. I notice that people keep on searching for ghosts in the grounds of Pentridge prison but it appears rather soulless in the daylight. The old carved granite bluestones retain character but the development appears lifeless. Stone work was a major feature of Pentridge’s prison regime in the early years of the prison, some of it perhaps carved with William Stanford himself.
Walking around Pentridge Village, as it is now called, I thought that I had finally found the preserved mural by the aboriginal artist, Elliot Ronald Bull (1942-1979) that I heard about. Like Stanford, Bull already had already studied painting before being sent to prison. In 1960 (or 1962 or 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, ‘‘‘Blood from a Stone”: Ronald Bull’s Mural in Pentridge Prison’, Australian Journal of Art, 14, no 2, 1999, p 93).
I was wrong Bull is not the artist responsible for this painting. The unnamed artist in a yet unnamed lane, between Pentridge Blvd and Sentry Lane. Now I think that it might have come from the Jika Jika Division exercise yard, as it has steel reinforcing bars embedded in the concrete. There was nothing about its history and it probably adds less to the lane than it did to the prison yard.
Pentridge Prison has been rehabilitated. Pentridge Prison was built in 1850 to cope with the over crowded Melbourne Gaol and the prison hulks in Port Phillip Bay. The prison closed on the 1st May 1997; wreaking historian Richard Broome’s 1987 prediction that the “it is likely to last another 136 years.” Richard Broome, Coburg – between two creeks, (Lothian, 1987)
Penal history is a major feature of Australian colonial history and Pentridge Prison is the gravesite of Australia’s most famous folk hero/outlaw, Ned Kelly. Although some Australians take pride in a convict past the residents of Coburg didn’t and repeatedly called for the removal of the prison. Pentridge Prison haunted the upwardly mobile aspirations of the homeowners and residents of Coburg for generations. The city changed its name attempting to disassociate the city from the prison. Now Coburg won’t be forgetting Pentridge with parts of the prison now being classified for its heritage value and other parts being replaced by a slowing growing housing estate. The rehabilitation of the former Pentridge Prison into Pentridge Village has slowly progressing for several years.
I am not interested in spruiking the real estate; I am interested in the cultural issues of this urban redevelopment. I am interested in the mix of historic, residential and retail that the transformation includes. At least Pentridge Village is not another anonymous housing estate or apartment block; there is plenty of the prison’s character preserved and the new residents won’t forget the history of the place. This is not to suggest that the architecture of a 19th Century prison does not have its charm or that the new flats and apartments look like a prison. The better bluestone construction has been preserved; the granite “bluestone” was mostly quarried, cut and built by prison labour (except for the external walls for obvious reasons). Barred windows, old signs and other features are being preserved as the prison is being rehabilitated. Some streets have been named after part of the prison like “Warden’s Walk” but others are just bizarre property development words.
Pentridge Village does feature some new innovations; Warden’s Walk utilizes permeable paving to capture of storm-water runoff. The storm-water harvesting and reuse (I saw some enormous water tanks) is used, in part, to water the extensive rose bush planting as a symbolic reference to the past (the prisoners maintained a rose garden within the prison as well as poetic reference). Some of Pentridge is still a building site and wasteland and in other parts residents have been living there for years. The spaces for shops and businesses are still vacant except for one restaurant. Although the heritage space has been used for fashion shows and old cells transformed in to boutique wine cellars according to Style Melbourne.
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 very close to the prison walls. I also saw and photographed parts of the prison shortly after it closed. The escape proof Jika Jika Unit that looked like Space Station Despair has been demolished; although the architects could build on the nostalgic ambiance of the 19th Century parts of the prison, the modern penal architecture of the Jika Jika Unit could never be reformed.
Pentridge Prison, Coburg
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)
Perhaps saying that Pentridge Prison has been rehabilitated is going too far; it scrubs up well and has taken significant steps to reform its character but it is still a work in progress.