Napier Waller – a great public artist

By David Thompson

Few people passing Newspaper House at 247 Collins St notice the colourful mosaic spanning the exterior of the first floor. 

It is the work of Napier Waller, a Melbourne artist who is too little known and some of whose major works are on public view around the CBD. This 1933 mosaic portrays contemporary innovations in technology and communications and is surmounted by the quotation from Shakespeare – “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth”. It is one of Melbourne’s outstanding public artworks.

Napier Waller was born in Western Victoria in 1893. In 1913 he enrolled in drawing and painting classes at the National Gallery of Victoria. He won a number of art prizes but his career was interrupted by the Great War and Waller joined the artillery. In 1916 he married Christian Yandell and shortly afterwards sailed to England. In May 1917 he was badly wounded at Bullecourt. His right arm (he was right-handed) had to be amputated at the shoulder.

During his convalescence Waller taught himself to draw and paint with his left hand, stating that “… an artist draws with his head, not his hands.” In late 1917 he returned to Australia and resumed his painting, mostly in watercolours.

He later turned to mural painting with commissions for the Menzies Hotel in Melbourne, Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne Public Library, and the T&G Building at the corner of Russell and Collins streets. The library, town hall and T&G murals can still be seen by the public but the Menzies Hotel murals passed into private hands when the hotel was demolished in 1969.

In 1928 Waller began working in stained glass and in 1929 he and Christian went to England to study the medium. The Wallers also visited Italy where Napier was fascinated by the mosaics on show in Ravenna’s churches. 

Back in Melbourne, Waller created stained glass works that were mostly religious. His windows, like the Pioneers’ Window in Wesley Church, grace a number of churches in and around Melbourne. Two secular works, both at the University of Melbourne, were the Leckie Window in Wilson Hall and the Orchid Window in the Department of Botany. 

The Leckie Window survived the fire which destroyed Wilson Hall in 1951 and has recently been restored. It is on display in the Ian Potter Museum of Art. The Orchid Window is still extant. Post World War II, Waller created windows in St Peter’s Eastern Hill Anglican Church commemorating the martyrdom of priests and nurses executed in New Guinea.

In 1935 Waller completed a series of murals for the walls of the dining hall in the Myer Emporium. Commissioned by Sidney Myer himself, the 10 murals cover a wide range of subjects and are still in existence. Although the dining hall is now a private function centre, the murals can still be viewed occasionally by the public during events like Melbourne’s Open Week.

In 1940 Waller produced two murals for the new Royal Insurance Building. The murals illustrate the development of Australian life since European settlement. The first mural, illustrated here, covers pastoral, agricultural and mining industries and includes the figures of pioneer sheep breeder John Macarthur, and early Portland settler Edward Henty. 

The second mural is devoted to Australian explorers, construction and industry. The Royal Insurance Building was demolished in the early 1960s but the murals were saved and are now on display in the library of the Melbourne School of Design at the University of Melbourne.

Waller’s first major mosaic was a work for the University of Western Australia, completed in 1931, but his first big mosaic in Melbourne was the commission for Newspaper House. He completed two more mosaics in the CBD. One in the foyer of Temple Court at 422 Collins St was finished in 1963. This mosaic portrays aboriginal and European men who featured in Melbourne’s early history. 

It still exists but is currently concealed behind a wall. The second mosaic, completed in 1967, was in the foyer of Monash House in William St, the headquarters of the State Electricity Commission. It is an image of Prometheus, symbolizing fire, earth and the release of energy. This was Waller’s last mosaic before his death in 1972 and is still visible in the lobby of 15 William St.

In 1937 Waller was chosen to design decorative elements for the Hall of Memory in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. These elements included stained glass windows, installed between 1947 and 1950, and wall mosaics, installed between 1955 and 1958. The artworks show impressive and moving images of service personnel in WWI uniforms in the case of the windows and WWII uniforms in the case of the mosaics. 

The Hall of Memory windows and mosaics represent the crowning achievements of Napier Waller, one of Australia’s foremost exponents of large-scale public art. So next time you pass Newspaper House look up and admire Waller’s artistry and be grateful that it has so far managed to escape the sledgehammer and the wrecker’s ball.

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