Portraits to landscapes, Mary painted them all

Artist Mary Wheeler at work in a Western Plains woolshed.

OBITUARY / Mary Wheeler, artist, April 20,1938-February 15, 2022

ESCHEWING the chosen profession of her great-great-great-great grandfather Henry Wheeler who, at the age of 20, was transported to Australia for housebreaking offences, Mary Wheeler opted for the more genteel occupation of landscape artist.

Mary Wheeler’s portrait of Nancy Wake.

Henry escaped from a chain gang to engage in highway robbery, and was reprieved from a death sentence to spend eight years of penal servitude on Norfolk Island.

In pursuance of her artistic goal, Mary left her Dubbo birthplace to undertake years of part-time study at what was the East Sydney Technical College, later the National Art School, while employed as a display artist at Mark Foy’s department store in Sydney.

Tasked with completing major window exhibits celebrating events such as the Capt Cook Bicentennial and visit of US President Lyndon Johnson, her increasing expertise with portrait work led to accepting commissions to paint people ranging from retail entrepreneur Sir Frank McDowell, thalidomide expert Dr William McBride and accordionist /band leader Herbie Marks.

She also enjoyed doing rural landscapes and won prizes in regional art shows as well as holding solo exhibitions and, on moving to Canberra, was selected to paint the portraits of former Commonwealth Police and ACT Police commissioners Jack Davis and Reg Kennedy as well as Narcotics Bureau chief Harvey Bates for exhibition in the AFP Museum. These works were followed by her completing the portraits of four more federal police commissioners, which hang in the AFP Training College at Barton.

Among other personalities painted by Mary were Dawn Casey, when director of the National Museum in Canberra; Aboriginal magistrate Pat O’Shane and TV personality Del Cartwright.

Moving to Paris with her husband and family in 1981 for three years, she had three pieces accepted for showing among the prestigious Salon des Artists Français in the Grand Palais while painting scenes of Parisian life and individual portraits.

The portrait of World War I veteran Arthur Ebdon.

It was there that she met World War I Somme veteran Arthur Ebdon from Victoria who, in his 80s, often traveled to attend Anzac Day ceremonies at Villers-Bretonneux.

Doing a head study of Arthur, which now hangs in the VB College Victoria school museum, she made contact with him on returning to Australia and undertook a large-scale portrait that was chosen to be among 26 finalists in the 1987 Archibald Prize competition.

At the 1989 French Bicentennial dinner at Parliament House she met another war veteran in the form of Nancy Wake, the legendary World War II “White Mouse”, leading to a friendship that saw Nancy twice staying at Mary’s Fadden home while two portraits were completed. Contact with Nancy continued during her years in the Kew Royal Star and Garter Nursing Home in the UK until her death in 2011.

Mary often accompanied her husband to various Pacific islands, always taking her easel and paints, while also seen adding vibrant colors to canvases beside Lake Burley Griffin and Floriade, and including Dubbo and Coogee among her triangle of favorite venues.

However, as years progressed two childhood bouts of rheumatic fever took their toll on her cardiac functions and she passed away with family members by her side in February.

Her funeral service at Gowrie was well attended and included a large wreath from the AFP, while a later memorial function was held for family and friends at Dubbo’s Western Plains Cultural Center with more than a dozen of her local works on show.

She is survived by her husband, two children and three grandchildren.

–John Murray

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