Wall was a mid 20th century Sydney and New Zealand illustrator and author whose published work, while considerable, does not accurately reflect just how much work she actually produced. Wall is undoubtedly best known as the author and creator of Blinky Bill.
illustrator and author, was born on 12 January 1894 at Kilburnie, Wellington, second of the four daughters of Charles James William Wall, designer and draughtsman (acc McVitty), and Lillian, adopted daughter of Harold Palethorpe, an English wood engraver, and his wife, Charlotte. In 1905 the family moved to Christchurch, where her father taught plaster modelling and woodcarving at Canterbury Technical School. In 1906, aged 12 (McVitty, 3), Dorothy won a scholarship to the School of Art, Canterbury College (now School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury). A year later the family returned to Wellington and she transferred her scholarship to Wellington Technical College where she completed her secondary education and her art training under Maud Sherwood . She also had private lessons from a family friend, Lindley Richardson, R.A. [sic, McVitty, 4]. In 1912-14 she was employed in Pringle’s art shop, making copper and enamel jewellery and designing stencilling patterns for fabrics to be made into cushions, curtains, tablecloths etc for sale in the shop. Then she migrated to Sydney (where Sherwood had been living since 1913. They presumably remained friends since Sherwood did a watercolour of Dee Why in 1923, then a remote bushland suburb where Wall was living after her marriage).
Dorothy managed to earn a living as a freelance artist in Sydney, mainly by doing fashion and household drawings for catalogues published by large department stores such as Anthony Horderns, Mark Foys and David Jones. On 1 October 1914, she had her first signed illustration, The Cheat , published in Lone Hand (p.335). It is a black and white drawing of four odd looking elves playing cards at night seated around a mushroom. A watercolour drawing of similar elves in a bushland scene is also known (ill. McVitty, 9). During WWI she wrote Horrie Kiwi and the Kids , which was not published until 1983 after the manuscript turned up in the A & R Papers (ML). Even then her original cover design was not used, while [the obsolete figure of the nanny] Penny Penguin was chopped out of a drawing of the kiwi twins in their pram.
In 1919 Dorothy revisited her family in NZ, returning with her younger sister Muriel, known as 'Wuz’. They rented a self-contained flat at Bomera, Potts Point, a converted mansion that had once served as Admiralty House. Wuz kept house and helped Dorothy in the production of the handmade greeting cards, bookmarks, calendars and other gift items she sold through the Sydney stationers H.C. Swain, in particular turning out Tommy Bear products to complement Dorothy’s first published children’s book, Tommy Bear and the Zookies (16 pp, 7 only of text), which appeared in 1920. The following year, J.J. Hall’s The Crystal Bowl (Whitcombe and Tombs) was published with what McVitty considers to be Dorothy’s finest early illustrations – strongly influenced by the Danish fantasy illustrator Kay Nielsen.
On 4 November 1921, at St Alban’s Church of England, Five Dock, Dorothy Wall married Andrew Delfosse (Del) Badgery, a former World War I pilot and another tenant at Bomera. After numerous moves, they purchased to an isolated bush shack at Dee Why. Their only child, Peter, was born in Manly Hospital in 1925. Between 1922 and 1924 Dorothy contributed illustrations and display headings to the Commonwealth Bank’s staff magazine, Bank Notes (examples McVitty, p.30), along with other Sydney illustrators, including Vernon Lorimer , Stan Cross and D.H. Souter . In May 1927 H.C. Swain sponsored an exhibition of her paintings in his Sydney gallery, most of the exhibits being her original drawings for Bridget and the Bees , a book she wrote and illustrated while living at Dee Why that was not published until 1934. (The SMH review of the exhibition on 31 May 1927 is quoted in McVitty, p.32.)
Throughout the 1920s Dorothy sent freelance contributions to various newspapers, including the Sun and Smith’s Weekly . Ill fitted for the role of housewife and with little interest in anything but her art, she soon found married life intolerable and left Del in 1928. The Dee Why house was sold and she finally moved back to Bomera with Peter. In 1929 she had a regular job designing and illustrating the first page of the colour supplement to the Sunday Sun , to which she sometimes contributed short articles as well. Due to editorial policy none carries her signature but the style of her vibrant designs and lively drawings is unmistakeable in comparison to the dull work by other artists (says McVitty), e.g. her design for 'Autumn Beauty’, 10 March 1929 (ill. McVitty 43). She also did fashion illustrations such as 'Wear more wool’, Sydney Mail 16 April 1930, 14.
In 1930 Dorothy returned to live at Manly with Peter. From June 1930 to January 1932 she drew all the covers of Woman’s Budget as well as many of its illustrations. In 1933 she and Peter moved to Warrimoo in the Blue Mountains, where she continued to send cartoons to Smith’s Weekly , eg 'PUSS: “Grace is rather fond of summer sports.”/ CAT: “Yes, she usually has two or three hanging around her” 28 January 1933, 12. Del served a decree nisi on her in 1934 and the marriage was dissolved at the end of 1935.
Some time before 1934 Dorothy Wall produced a series of eight risque drawings under the exotic, genderless signature 'Rèvèsz’: two large watercolours – Detained at the Office (a beaming middle-aged man taking off a sock while a glamorous redheaded vamp reclining on a bed pulls up the sheet with one hand revealing that she has removed the top half of her flimsy camisole with the other) and The Sugar Daddy – and six smaller two-colour line drawings: Thyroid Treatment ; Pearls before Swine (which her son recalls as showing the same red-headed vamp having a string of pearls dangled before her eyes by a well-dressed man standing behind her); Home on the Pig’s Back ; Gold Digging ; Rejuvenation and The Connoisseur . They were considered too daring for publication, even in London or New York where Walter Cousins of A & R, acting as Dorothy’s highly confidential agent, tried to sell them (including Esquire ). They were returned from America, unsold, in March 1937 and as a last resort Cousins suggested Man , which had first appeared in December 1936. They were returned in May and she made no further effort to sell them. Detained at the Office , which Dorothy gave to her sister Muriel who was staying with her at Springwood in 1937, is the only one known to have survived (ill. McVitty, p.129). It is a quite comical drawing, as McVitty comments (p.127), 'because the picture suggests that he is the one being seduced, his face reflecting not so much the look of a lecher but the sheer delight of a man who can hardly believe his luck.’
Illustrating Jacko the Broadcasting Kookaburra (1933) by Brooke Nicholls did much to inspire Dorothy’s most famous book, Blinky Bill: The Quaint Little Australian (1933), based on Peter’s escapades and on stories she told him. Blinky Bill Grows Up (1934) and Blinky Bill and Nutsy (1937) followed. The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill , first published in 1939, was reprinted 15 times between 1940 and 1965. Generations of children – especially boys – have identified with the boy-koala’s amorality, impudence and curiosity and his adventures among lively anthropomorphised animals in the Australian bush. Yet despite Blinky’s success, the Australian market was too small to offer financial security. Wall struggled to survive professionally and financially after her divorce. As she wrote to her publisher at Angus & Robertson: 'I’ve never cared for the honour and glory of seeing my work in print… £.s.d. is what matters to me now’. In 1937 she sold her copyright to A & R, primarily to settle the large debt she had accrued from their regular small advances on future royalties.
Dorothy Wall drew various comic strips, most notably a Blinky Bill one in 1937 called Blinky Bill’s Escapades (ill. McVitty), which told of the adventures of Blinky, Nutsy (the girl koala) and the kangaroo Splodge as they left Australia for the Coronation of George VI. Angus and Robertson made plates of four strips to entice publishers, but, after considerable procrastination, the Sydney Morning Herald turned it down. She persisted with the Herald for years along with the SundayTelegraph (though she is said to have lost the opportunity to get in on the ground floor with the Telegraph 's new Sunday paper and comic section due to her preference for the Herald ). She drew new comics, including some full-page strips, in full colour, of Blinky Bill. Splodge & Co. in the army, called Our Squad (possibily an echo of Us Fellers, the original title of the Ginger Meggs comic strip). An unfinished ink and pencil draft of a strip about a rabbit is in the A & R papers. Largely because of the cost and rariety of paper during the war, none was ever published. The Telegraph 's comic supplement brought out in November 1939 was an American product, reproduction rights being far less than the cost of local production.
In June 1938, depressed and again in debt to her publisher, Dorothy recrossed the Tasman to become an illustrator for the New Zealand Herald and its associated paper, the Auckland Weekly News . Apart from political cartoonist Gordon Menhinnick, she was the only artist employed on the paper. A major part of her job was designing and illustrating the weekend supplement, which had a children’s page ('a blot on the landscape’) that she hoped to be allowed to draw comic strips for – but, like Woman and the Sydney Sun – it already carried syndicated strips by Walt Disney and May Gibbs . When she was finally allowed to do a comic strip, it was only as part of her regular work. Since she wanted to make money from it and was already too busy with other work, it never happened, although she continued to press for an Australian newspaper to take up a strip, but this never appeared either (cf Gibbs, with two strips running simultaneously in Australia and NZ, including the papers on which Dorothy Wall worked. One of them, Bib and Bub , survived for 42 years unbroken, stopping only when Gibbs reached the age of 90.)
Dorothy spent her nights and weekends working on a new book, The Most Beatiful , but paid commissions such as a second Commonwealth Bank booklet to encourage Australian schoolchildren to save (commissioned for the substantial fee of £80) and wartime restrictions intervened and the book was abandoned. As well as doing further proposed comic strips, she began a Blinky Bill and Nutsy colouring-in book with verse accompaniment but gave up after two pages, venting her frustration in a berserk self-portrait accompanied by the verse:
Look at me gnashing my pearly teeth
They’re all my own you know
Just look at my hair! It’s a wicked shame,
Permed but a month ago.
P.S. I’m too upset to make up more poetry
I’m going to tell Mrs Koala.
Even so, by mid-1939 she had cleared her debt to A & R and was beginning to amass an Australian 'nest-egg’ for her 'old age’. In 1940 she decided her priority had to be a new Blinky Bill book with A & R: 'I’ll have to do my utmost to get a new Blinky book out for next Christmas. I could do a good story with Blinky on National Service, providing the war continues – but I am not that wicked to wish such a thing’, she wrote to her publisher, Walter Cousins. In February 1940 she sent him the completed text for Blinky Bill Joins the Army . Four A & R readers were unimpressed by her story of Blinky as an enlisted soldier, calling it 'heavy going’ and a too obvious exploitation of 'patriotic fervour’. Dorothy tore up the manuscript and wrote an entirely new version where Blinky remains in his familiar bush setting until the final pages then goes off to join the army – as a mascot. The new version was finished by the end of April 1940, less than a month after the first had been rejected. It was immediately accepted and published for Christmas 1940. In 1940 she also wrote a new book, The Skeleton in the Cupboard , about six skeletons deciding to go on a cruise and the complications that ensued when they swapped houses on their return, but it was far too sophisticated for children and was turned down. Like virtually all her unpublished material, the manuscript has disappeared.
For years Dorothy designed novelty items featuring Blinky et al., including embroidered tray cloths, but most were stored away by Walter Cousins in a cupboard at A & R and forgotten. The original tray clothes are held in private collection; Dromkeen Children’s Literature Collection at Riddell, Vic., owns her traced design of a lobster-fishing scene; and other designs, including a balloon imprinted with Blinky’s face, some masks and a moneybox Splodge, are with the A& R Papers in ML (McVitty, p.186). She also considered jigsaw puzzles, stationery, sunshades, handkerchiefs, buckets and spades, watering cans, toys, brooches, purses, handbags – even a Blinky Bill catapult (or shanghai, as they were usually called). A few finally went into production in Sydney, including a Blinky Bill Dress-Up Book (published for Christmas 1942), but Dorothy was dead before they appeared.
The NZ job had given her financial security for the first time, but the illustrated supplement shrank as the war progressed, along with job security and satisfaction. Dorothy also missed Australia. She resigned in June 1941 and in July returned to Sydney. Six months later, on 21 January 1942 in a private hospital at Cremorne, she died of pneumonia.
Dorothy Wall wrote and illustrated 13 books in her 48 years, six being about Blinky. She illustrated five books by other writers and provided hundreds of drawings for newspapers and magazines, mostly for children. As McVitty notes (p.vii), 'Although [Wall] was a popular author in her own time and gave Australia one of its best-loved children’s classics, she regarded her life as a failure, as she never succeeded in achieving her modest ambition of earning a comfortable and worry-free living from her work. Her financial situation was always precarious… She had no time to pursue art for art’s sake: she saw herself as a trained artist, no more and no less, and turned her hand to whatever work suited her talents. That she was able to support herself by her skills, in an era when few women were able to do this, let alone survive the Depression doing it, fills one with admiration for her courage and determination.’