Review: Will Dyson: Australia's Radical Genius by Ross McMullin

will_dyson.jpg Ross McMullin
Scribe, 414 pp. (+ 34 pp. of notes and index + 8 colour plates)
Review by Perry Middlemiss

Over the past couple of weeks while I have been reading this book, I have been asking my friends and acquaintances if the name of "Will Dyson" rings any bells. Most look blankly, but a few know of him. Not well, just a passing familiarity. Which is a pity really, as the man deserves to be better known.

Will Dyson was born in September 1880 in Alfredton on the outskirts of Ballarat in Victoria. From an unassuming birth he was later to become Australia's first official war artist, poet, orator and a world-renown cartoonist. How he got there is the material for Ross McMullin's new biography, a reworking of his previous version published in 1984.

The early part of Dyson's life was spent in Melbourne and surrounds honing his craft and meeting and marrying Ruby Lindsay, the sister of Norman Lindsay. In fact the Lindsay and Dyson families, who grew up not very far apart near Ballarat, were both to become famous in artistic circles with Norman, Lionel, Percy and Ruby on the Lindsay side, and Edward, Will and Ambrose of the Dysons all achieving a degree of fame through their writing and art. In fact, the two families were later to become even more entwined through the marriage of Lionel to one of Will's sisters, which gives some indication of the closeness of the two groups.

By the time he was 29 Will had decided he needed to move to greener pastures in the form of London's literary life, a situation that he expected would provide him with greater opportunity for his cartooning. He was right. He achieved great fame in London before World War I but it was the Great War and its immediate following years that were the making, and in some ways, the breaking of Will Dyson. He forced himself into the role of official Australian war artist over the obstructions of the Australian military command and went on to produce some of his greatest works as he placed himself at the forefront of the fighting. His aim was simply to show life in war as it actually was, not the sanitised versions being peddled by some of his contemporaries. Needless to say he was something of a trouble-maker, rocking the military boat and producing the work that he saw appropriate rather than apply himself to topics dictated from above. And the Australian war record is the richer for it.

In the post-war years Will set about re-entering London artistic life and was regaining some of the ground lost though his absence at the war when his wife died in the influenza epidemic of 1919. He was devastated, turning to poetry and publishing Poems in Memory of a Wife. From this time on he was never really settled, returning to Australia for a five-year period in 1925-1930, then trying his luck in the USA before finally ending up back in London where he died in 1938.

McMullin has divided Will Dyson's life into 6 distinct periods and spends a chapter of this extensive work looking at each period in depth. There is a lot of material to be dealt with in Will's life and McMullin attempts to cover as much of it as he can. His research is exemplary, indicating investigative journeys through libraries and newspaper repositories in Australia and the UK, consultations with Australian War memorial material and a number of interviews with the subject's friends and relatives. Unfortunately, in the main, the book does not wear the fruits of this research lightly.

There almost appears to be two writers at work on this book: the one who follows the thread of Dyson's life when he, himself, is single-minded, and the other which allows himself to be distracted by surrounding events when Dyson is similarly distracted. The first chapter in the book, which deals with Dyson's early years up to his departure from Australia for London, comes across as very disjointed. The cast of characters introduced, which flit across the stage of Dyson's life, is rather overwhelming and allowing them all to step forward and have their say leaves the reader confused and uncertain as to the direction the book is taking. I have some understanding and knowledge of what was going on in Melbourne at this time, and I was getting continually confused as to what point the author was trying to make. It is almost a relief to find Dyson on the boat to England.

From there on the book picks up. McMullin is very good at incorporating the English politics of the day and the machinations of the military into his story, and he handles Dyson's work at the front-line very well. It is here we start to get an understanding of Dyson the man, rather than Dyson the gadfly we have been introduced to previously. Maybe this is true of most of us, that our true identities only become visible in times of stress and grief. In any event, Dyson's experiences at the war and the death of his wife appear to change McMullin's approach to his subject and change it for the better.

The best and most enduring of Dyson's work was produced during the first World War and McMullin is generous in reproducing a number of these pieces in the book. These, along with 8 pages of colour prints, enhance the look and feel of the book emphasising Dyson's art and giving it its correct status.

In the end I was impressed with this book and glad I read it. There are problems with it to be sure - the first chapter is an unfortunate introduction which I hope won't put too many people off - but overall you come away with a sense of the man, his work and times in which he lived. I'm not sure you can ask much more than that of any biography.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on May 12, 2006 3:32 PM.

That Book and Its Spin-Offs was the previous entry in this blog.

Poem: "Den" - A Memory by James Hackston (Hal Gye) is the next entry in this blog.

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