In 1932 Napier Waller painted this portrait of his artist wife, Christian (1894–1954) seated on the ground, in the company of her Airedale terriers. It was a time when Napier was becoming a man of the world, while Christian was retreating into an esoteric religion.
The frieze-like precision of this painting and its cool, crisp colours underscore the formality of their marriage. Christian sits on the grass in front of their Arts and Crafts style home, situated on the banks of the Darebin Creek at Fairy Hills, a picturesque enclave in suburban Melbourne. She is dressed in white and looks directly at the viewer with an expression of quiet resignation. The dogs’ wavy hair matches her own, and one lies at her feet with its head resting dolefully on the ground. The other two dogs, however, are lively and alert, seeming to want Christian to join them at play. The painting, almost of mural proportions, was the centrepiece of their dining room, hanging over the massive fireplace; it was also visible from the minstrels’ gallery.
The early 1920s and 1930s were years of professional acclaim for both husband and wife. Serving in France from the end of 1916, Waller was wounded in action in 1917 and lost his right arm. Despite this, he became a successful mural and mosaic artist and printmaker. In his linocut self-portrait The man in black, he posed himself in front of his commissioned mural for the State Library of Victoria. In 1929–30 Napier and Christian travelled together to England and Europe to study stained-glass design and production—Christian also seeking out William Butler Yeats, a leading Irish devotee of the Golden Dawn movement. During the 1920s Christian Waller became a notable book illustrator, and also produced woodcuts and linocuts. In 1932 she published her book on theosophical ideas The great breath, containing a series of linocuts that received an enthusiastic response.
Appropriately, for an artist steeped in symbolism, Waller used the decorative form of branches of elongated leaves of the willow tree (long associated with sadness and isolation) to frame the elements of his composition.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010