Richard Willmott is certain his love of art is in his DNA. From his interest in genealogy, he’s traced his ancestors back to Morocco, France and England.
‘The Cave of Altamira (in Spain) was a place where primitive man left records of their existence on the planet simply by drawing in the cave, so it was born into me and I just knew right from the word go, that that's what I was going to do,’ Richard says.
Born in West Coburg in 1939, Richard was finishing high school just as the Victorian Government was scrambling for more teachers.
‘I was paid a bursary of £50 to undertake teacher training. I started teaching in 1960 as a generalist, teaching high school students geography, history, some maths, English, physical education, woodwork, metal craft — that was just the first year.’
His first posting was to Seymour, where he met his future wife Marie, who was working at the bank. But after one term, he was asked to transfer to Rainbow on the edge of the Ninety Mile Desert.
‘I thought, “Oh God do I have any say in this?”, and the word came back, “No”.’
It turned out the chap he was replacing had spun the headmaster a tale of Richard being a great footballer player so he could swap places with him.
‘That stinker got to Seymour in my place and did a line for Marie. He knew about me going out with Marie and he deliberately chatted her up.
End of the Rainbow
‘I got out of Rainbow in three years. I became sort of involved in the town, but it was a challenging place. I couldn't race out of school at four o'clock fast enough on a Friday to drive to Melbourne.’
Once his stint in Rainbow finished, Richard rekindled his relationship with Marie.
‘Putting it romantically, this was the girl for me.’ The couple had a three-year long-distance engagement before marrying in Seymour and moving to Elsternwick, where they had three children.
In 1956, Richard had an epiphany whilst at an Impressionist exhibition.
‘For the first time I saw painting as it really was. There was Monet, Pissarro, Lautrec, Degas, Renoir and all of these paintings were the real stuff from the Louvre in Paris, and it just overwhelmed me. I just knew that I wasn't doing justice to the (school) kids because I didn't really have the depth of knowledge I should have of art. So, I decided to go do further studies.’
He went back to RMIT to study art part-time, topping his third and fourth year. After earning a commercial award for illustration, he had a call from Harold Freeman (later awarded an OAM and the title of the first ‘State Artist of Victoria’) who asked him to be an apprentice for a painting.
‘I said, what painting is this? He said, “I'm producing a mural on behalf of the Victorian Government, and I'd like you to be my draughts person”.’
The 36 by 7.2 metre mural was to depict Victoria’s transport from 1835 to 1935 and be displayed at what was Spencer Street Station, now Southern Cross.*
‘We'd go travelling around Victoria, stopping at farms looking for old relics. My job was to get the drawings done and then we'd put them onto a screen, and we would project them onto this mural and we're on scaffolding that we can roll from side to side and put it up and down as we want to.’
Unfortunately, Richard had artistic differences with Harold about the use of perspective and he returned to teaching.
‘At the end of my career, I was at Melbourne High School and I was teaching graphic communication and technical drafting. I loved it.’
Richard is proud of passing on his love of art to others.
‘The kids who I taught at the end of my career got a lot from me. They were good artists.’
Richard still paints for pleasure.
‘I've never thought of exhibiting. I just paint because I love it.’
*The mural can still be viewed at the Southern Cross DFO.
Listen to Richard's story
Reviewed 12 September 2022