Photographic portrait of Lieutenant Will Dyson sketching in the 'Caterpillar', near Ville-sur Ancre, in France, 1918, Reference number E02437Lieutenant Will Dyson, Australian Official Artist, sketching in the 'Caterpillar',
near Ville-sur Ancre, in France, 1918
E02437

Date of birth: 3 September, 1880
Place of birth: Alfredton, Victoria
Date of death: 31 January, 1938
Place of death: Chelsea, London, England

William ‘Will’ Henry Dyson was a cartoonist, writer and Australia’s first official war artist. Born at Alfredton, Victoria, he was the ninth of eleven children. His talents for drawing and writing were encouraged and influenced by his elder brothers Ted and Ambrose, as well as illustrator Tom Durkin, who were all regular contributors to the Sydney Bulletin. Dyson’s first cartoon was published in the Bulletin in 1897 and, by the turn of the century, he was a regular contributor to multiple papers, including Adelaide’s the Critic and Melbourne’s Punch, the Gadfly and the Clarion.

In September 1909, Dyson married Ruby Lindsay, a recognised illustrator in her own right and together they sailed to England. Dyson worked first with London’s New Age, later with the Labour Party paper, the Daily Herald and, in 1916, the Daily Sketch. Dyson's distinctive biting satire was aimed at war and later directly at Kaiser Wilhelm, meaning that his works were seen as epitomising prevalent anti-German sentiment. A series of these caricatures, titled Kultur Cartoon, was published in 1915.

Dyson was a committed Australian nationalist and it was this dedication that informed his application to join the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) as an artist. In 1916, he wrote to AIF commander General Birdwood, stating his aim “would be to interpret in a series of drawings, for national preservation, the sentiments and special Australian characteristics of our Army”. Without pay and allowance, he was granted a position as honorary lieutenant and in December 1916 travelled to the Western Front. In May 1917, he was formally appointed as the first official war artist attached to the AIF. 

Will Dyson, Going up to the line near Vaux, 1917 ART02272 Will Dyson, Going up to the line near Vaux, 1917
ART02272

Dyson was not interested in portraying great battle scenes, but instead offered compassionate, engaging representations of the ordinary Australian soldier. Unlike his earlier, satirical cartoons that exaggerated and mocked the physical characteristics of a subject, in his war art pose and gesture are used as powerful expressions of a soldier’s experience. Slumped shoulders, drooping heads and vacant stares demonstrate sheer physical exhaustion and complete mental fatigue, as with Coming out on the Somme. Depicting life away from the frontline, Dyson also shows the distinctive swagger and charm of young Australian men, in such works as The batman (Compree washing madame).

From 5-19 January 1918, an exhibition of Dyson’s drawings, Australia at War: drawing on the Western Front, was held at The Leicester Galleries in London. Later that year a collection of his works Australia at war: drawing at the front was published; he also completed a series of 32 lithographs with 50 sets, published by the Australian High Commission. He continued working as an official war artist, being wounded at both Messines and Zonnebeke before the war ended.  His commission was terminated in March 1920. Following the death of his wife in 1919, Dyson returned to Australia where he worked on a variety of newspaper projects, though most achieved limited success. He returned to London in 1930 where he died in 1938.

 

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