Artist, environmentalist and advocate of Aboriginal reconciliation, William Ricketts is one of the most original, not to say eccentric, figures in 20th century Australian culture. Born in Melbourne in inner-city, working-class Richmond, Ricketts was the son of an iron moulder, and was himself apprenticed in his teens, as a jeweller. Around the same time he began to learn the violin, which he later played in motion picture theatre orchestras and dance bands. In his early twenties he began working at the Australian Porcelain Insulator Company, and he learned both wheel throwing and ceramic modelling in the firm's studio pottery section. At around this time he also took lessons from sculptor Gustav Pillig, and had some contact with the artists Marguerite Mahood and Ola Cohn.
With the Great Depression, the advent of the talkies and the end of his work as a cinema musician, Ricketts and his widowed mother moved out of the city and up to Mount Dandenong. There, in the still relatively unspoilt bushland environment, he found his paradise at 'Potter's Sanctuary', where he began producing the ceramic jugs, plates, plaques and larger sculptures for which he became famous. Designed in a somewhat retardetaire, fundamentally Art Nouveau manner, with flowing, whiplash lines and native floral and faunal motifs, Ricketts's vessels recall those of Merric Boyd. (Interestingly, Boyd was also a former employee of the Australian Porcelain Insulator Co.)
What makes Ricketts's work different, and particularly distinctive in the history of Australian decorative arts, is its focus on Aboriginal people and their stories, whether in portrait heads, in full-length figures, or as mythic 'kangaroo men' and 'moon men'.
While he was later to become close friends with Aboriginal leaders such as David Unaipon and Bill Onus, and travelled to Central Australia on several occasions from the late 1940s, Ricketts's initial understanding of traditional Indigenous culture came entirely from published sources. In the 1930s Pillig introduced him to Baldwin Spencer and F.J. Gillen's classic text The Arunta: a study of a stone age people (1). Ricketts later recalled: 'He pulled the book off the shelf and opened it – and it was like the key to my life. He opened the door to my life.' (2) Ricketts quickly adopted both the images of noble, naked, bearded Arrernte tjilpis that appeared in Spencer's photographs, and the traditional stories recounted by Spencer and other anthropologists, working them together into a symbolic vocabulary that would last him a lifetime.
Ricketts paid conscious tribute to Spencer in several works. An image of Aboriginal men explaining secret/sacred matters to the scientist exists both as a figure group (1940, private collection) and on the lid of a vase (1937, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney). The present work is a more direct, iconic, eulogistic portrait, with the standing figure of Spencer flanked by supporting figures of squatting Arrernte elders. In its iconography, technique and substantial scale, it is a fine example of Ricketts's mature style, but it also has this further and particular significance: in it the artist explicitly acknowledges the critical inspiration of Baldwin Spencer, one of the greatest of Australia's early scientific anthropologists.
(1) Baldwin Spencer and F.J. Gillen, The Arunta:a study of a stone age people, Macmillan, London, 1927
(2) Quoted in Peter Brady, Whitefella Dreaming: the authorised biography of William Ricketts, Preferred Image, Olinda, 1994, p. 34
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