On 17 April 1887, Roland Shakespeare Wakelin was born in Greytown, in the Wairarapa Valley, New Zealand. At the age of fourteen he received a scholarship to attend Wellington College and in 1903 passed the civil service examinations. In 1904 Wakelin began working with a commercial firm as an office boy and then as a clerk with the Stamps Office. During this time, he continued his painting studies under Henri Bastings at the Wellington Technical School. After visiting his brother in Sydney between 1908 and 1909, Wakelin became inspired by the harbour landscape and decided to move to Australia; he did so in 1912. In 1910, Wakelin’s works were exhibited for the first time with the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts.

In 1913, Wakelin studied painting under Antonio Dattilo Rubbo and Norman Carter at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales, Sydney. During this time Wakelin resided in rooms at Milson’s Point, but after discovering that the painter Geoffrey Keith Townshend was living in nearby Waruda Street he decided to move there. Interestingly, it was here that Wakelin met Estelle Robinson whom he was to marry on 15 October 1913. From 1914, Wakelin worked as a ticket writer for Mark Foy’s and David Jones, and exhibited his work for the first time in a group exhibition titled 'The Toilers’ at the Society of Artists. On 5 December 1914, Estelle gave birth to their son, Roland, and the family moved to Woollahra. In 1915, Wakelin was involved in a group exhibition at the Royal Art Society in which his paintings were exhibited alongside the modernist Grace Cossington Smith , a colleague and fellow student of Rubbo. Inspired by an article on Paul Cézanne by W. H. Huntington that explained the artist’s revolutionary use of colour and expressive brushwork, Wakelin began painting the surrounds of his new locale, Bay Road in Waverton, in a distinctively different style. He also joined the Royal Art Society’s council, for an annual tenure, and began working for the commercial art firm Smith & Julius where he met Lloyd Rees .

In 1918, after first meeting him several years earlier, Wakelin came into closer contact with Roy De Maistre and became interested in colour theory in relation to music. Wakelin and de Maistre had also read W. H. Wright’s Modern Painting , which included a chapter on synchromism by the author’s brother S. MacDonald-Wright. Around this time the two artists befriended John Young, the owner of a picture framing business on Little George Street, and began attending the daily discussions Young hosted.
The visit of Melbourne based painter Max Meldrum in 1920 persuasively influenced Wakelin and de Maistre towards departing from their investigations into colour in favour of his systematic theory of tonalism. Between 1920 and 1921, Wakelin exhibited tonalist works with the Society of Artists and in 1922 held his first solo exhibition at Anthony Horderns’ Fine Art Galleries in Sydney, displaying forty-five works.

In February 1922, Wakelin and his family travelled to London where he began working as a freelance commercial artist. There Wakelin met the art critic P.G. Konody, who took him to the Burlington Fine Arts Club where, for the first time, Wakelin saw works by Cézanne. After visiting Paris in early 1924, Wakelin returned to Sydney and took up residence in Dee Why. In October 1924, Wakelin commenced working at O’Brien Publicity Co. where he remained until 1941. In 1925, Wakelin exhibited forty-three paintings he had produced in London and Paris in an exhibition at Macquarie Galleries, which was accompanied by a catalogue introduction by Margaret Preston .
On 2 June 1926, Wakelin and Estelle’s daughter, Judith was born and the family moved to the Sydney suburb of Chatswood. He exhibited at Grosvenor Galleries in 1926, and at Macquarie Galleries in 1928, after which an important article on Wakelin and the Australian modern movement was published in Art and Australia . The first retrospective comprising seventy-three of Wakelin’s paintings was held in 1930 at Ball Green in Turramurra. Successive annual exhibitions of his work were held between 1934 and 1941 at Macquarie Galleries and on 4 May 1942, a second retrospective exhibition, showing sixty-six of his works from 1916 to 1942 was held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

In 1947, Wakelin was awarded the Society of Artists Medal and was elected to be one of two vice-presidents of the Contemporary Art Society. He began teaching in 1951 at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, and in 1952 held positions teaching art with the School of Architecture at the University of Sydney and tutoring for the Department of Adult Education. Wakelin’s work was included in a survey show of Australian Post-Impressionists at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1959 and later, in Matson Lines’ exhibition of Australian Art at the California Palace of Legion of Honour in San Francisco and the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery. A third retrospective exhibition, 'Tribute to Roland Wakelin’, was held at the Bank of New South Wales on the corner of Pitt and O’Connell Streets, Sydney, in 1962 before his last major retrospective during his lifetime, again with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, on 5 April 1967. Wakelin passed away on 28 May 1971, after which a memorial exhibition of his works was held at Macquarie Galleries in 1972.

William Sturrock
Date written:
Last updated: