‘My father, Ralph Trafford Walker, is now 85 years old. He comes from a line of ministers and is an artist who has not cared to flaunt his ego on the commercial stage. He studied for some 15 years and has worked prolifically for many decades. He has had only nine exhibitions.’
Lines from a letter from one of Ralph Trafford Walker’s proud sons. Not the first I’d received from the family urging me to visit Ralph, to see his work. And I was to discover that Ralph had produced [many] works in his long career. Drawings, watercolours, oils and an endless, animated procession of sculptures in terracotta and bronze ... almost all of which seemed to be crammed into his Sydney home. When I finally accepted the repeated invitations, the entreaties from Ralph’s wife and kids, and drove over the bridge to Balgowlah, I found a charming house not so much surrounded by eucalypts as held tenderly within them. It was as if the modest, self-effacing Ralph had asked for their help in camouflaging him from the outside world.
But the inside world? Look, I like to live in profusion. My place is chockers with the detritus of dead civilizations, with the flotsam and jetsam of the millenia. But the Walker house makes mine look as understated as a Zen Buddhist temple. There isn’t an inch of wall space that’s not occupied by a Walker painting, either one of Ralph’s or his even more self-effacing wife, Jean. And the spaces between the frames are crowded with ethnographic art, as if the jungle was trying to reclaim civilization. Cupboards ooze with artefacts, benches groan with maquettes, tables wheeze beneath the weight of books and ceramics. And that’s before you go into Ralph’s studio.
I felt a bit like Howard Carter pushing into that famous tomb, wading through Tutankhamen’s unimaginable, unprecedented splendours. If the Walker’s lounge and dining rooms were crowded, it was overwhelming here ... principally an endless chorus line of dancing, prancing figures, mainly female, round of bum and big of bosom, in every possible and impossible pose, mostly in clay but some either bronze or paint-patinated, I felt like a bull in a china shop, afraid to move lest I brought a hundred of the little mannequins - or, to be accurate, womannequins - crashing down. Afraid to breathe or speak lest a few excited words caused an avalanche of Ralph’s terracotta figures.
Disinterested in the market, or reluctant to sell things, Ralph has kept everything with him, just like Tutankhamen in the boudoir prepared for his eternity in the Valley of Kings. You feel Ralph’s affection for his progeny as clearly as you feel their joy in life.
Because that’s the impression to get from all these frisky nudes - not any oppressive sense of eroticism but an exuberant response to existence.
Ralph has left gold to the Pharoahs. Almost everything you see was negotiated from clay by kneading fingers - and the terracotta gives his work a likeable ancient quality. They’re like the Greek and Etruscan figures sitting around me as I dictate these words. What separates Ralph’s terracottas from the ancients’ is their sprightliness, their cheek, their vivacity, their sexiness, their humour. The terracottas of the ancient world are, by and large, formalities. It’s not only their age that gives them solemnity but their poses, their purposes.
Yet not everything was happy here. I was suddenly confronted by painting after painting of convicts - men and women of the hulks who’d suffered transportation. Ralph explained that this series began in the 1970s, inspired by discovery of his convict ancestry ...
Manning Clark loved his work, writing "the historians of Australia have never been able to agree with the convicts who helped plant European civilization here. Some here painted them as the victims of a vicious class system in England. They have denounced the British landed aristocracies as the real criminals, and betrayed the convicts as the ones who laid the foundations of democracy in Australia. The historians and other moralizers have presented us with types: Walker has shown us bodies and faces."
Faces. The faces of Manning Clark and the face of Ralph Trafford Walker resemble each other. There’s the same halo of hair, the same quality of being forever back-lit.
Ralph, like Manning, looks marvelously prophetic. He sits among the evidence of his fecundity - his ... drawings, paintings, convicts, little dancers and prancers, his mothers and children, his Aborigines, his sketches of naked women mounting horses, his curiously theatrical landscapes - and is as still as they are exuberant. And he chooses silence. The rest of the family does the talking - Jean and the sons are angry that his work is comparatively unknown and unhonoured. They feel it’s a matter of urgency that this 85-year-old be acknowledged. Amused and indifferent to it all, Ralph endures their attentions and my praise. He’s not the first artist I’ve known who’s retreated from the fray.
... Ralph is an enigma. He doesn’t seek applause. And I think he needs it. But the family resents the attentions paid to the less deserving, to the self-promoting. It’s clear that the fleeting, evanescent talents of the artists of the year, of the month, of the hour, do drown out the achievements of artists such as Ralph. The same phenomenon can be observed, of course, in many fields.
Sitting quietly beneath his halo of hair, Ralph is clearly impatient. He wants to get back to drawing more generously bummed nudes draping themselves over deftly sketched horses. Or more of the halfway houses, with human and horse blending into centaur-like creatures.
Ralph’s work reminds us what a marvelous thing the bum is. Particularly, of course, that seat of power, the female bum. While the profundity of these hemispheres had entralled such politically incorrect artists as Renoir and Rodin, I’m here to tell you that no-one has drawn better bums, more bountiful bums, bums of more beatific expression, than Ralph. With the possible exception of Picasso.
Jean drags out some old albums of Ralph’s work. Where the recent material is frequently drawn with brush, fast and furious, producing images that blur and hint, Ralph’s earlier drawings, those he did as a war artist, are absolutely precise. Other people’s skills are always mysterious and often astonishing. Here are classic drawings, meticulous, fine-nibbed works in ink, principally of young soldiers. The 50 intervening years vanish and you’re there with Ralph looking at those kids, many of whom were doomed to die in Borneo or New Guinea. Or have died subsequently from old age. It’s hard to remember photographs as urgent and immediate as these sketches. Not that sketches begin to describe them. They’re too considered, too intensely observed.
Rembrandt, Delacroix and Rodin drew like Ralph. I’ve always preferred drawings to paintings and have rarely seen better than these. The eye traces the line and the line becomes feeling, emotion. The pen is not mightier than the sword; anyone who believes that will cop the dubious proposition of the meek inheriting the earth. But in Ralph’s hands a pen puts up a very good fight.
... Proud, protective Jean shows me endorsements from the late Peter Fuller, one of Britain’s most influential critics, who died before he could find a place for Ralph in his Modern Painters quarterly. From Gisella Scheinberg of the Holdsworth Galleries expressing astonishment that Ralph had been "hiding in Australia ... Each line is perfect ... Amongst the best work I’ve seen." Fred Williams urged the Art Gallery of NSW to purchase Ralph’s work in the 1970s, describing it as "brilliant". Or Joseph Brown, who said "It’s all about PR, but I’d put Ralph in the top three, easily."
Born in Sydney in 1912, he studied at East Sydney Tech under Raynor Hoff and at the Royal Art Society School under Sydney Long and Datillo Rubbo. You can see Ralph’s skills on the huge bronze doors at the State Library in Sydney. Film Australia has made a film of his convict drawings.
Now it’s time to pay honour to this marvelous old bloke ... Confronted by Ralph’s talent, and in particular, by his bums, how can the art world continue to sit on theirs?