Who Is Charles William Bush?

December 30, 2022

Charles William Bush is a little-known artist of immense talent and legacy. This Australian native studied at the National Gallery School, but after being called to join the Australian Militia in 1941, he would unexpectedly travel the world, which had a major impact on his work.

Through his time with the Militia, Bush transferred to become employed as a war artist in 1943. As a result, his war art remains some of his most notable.

This article will provide a background and biography of Charles William Bush. We’ll also look at his lifelong partnership with the artist Phyllis Paulina Waterhouse, the influence of the war on his art, and discuss some of his notable works.

Who Is Charles William Bush?

Charles William Bush was born to parents Andrew Charles Thomas Bush and Alice Maude, née Rohsburn, in November 1919 in Melbourne.

Tragedy struck early in the artist’s life with the death of his younger brother Gordon in 1929 and the death of his mother in 1936 when the artist was just ten years old.

At the time he lost his mother, Bush was already enrolled at the National Gallery School, where he gained acceptance at the age of 14. Bush had an uneasy relationship with his father, who disapproved of his son’s artistic interests.

It was not all strife for the artist who would build relationships at the National Gallery School that would stay with him for life. One such relationship was his romance with fellow student and artist Phyllis Paulina Waterhouse.

Because of his father’s disapproval and their turbulent relationship, Bush moved in with Waterhouse and her family in Essendon. Later the couple rented a studio and took up residence together, not officially marrying until 1979.

Charles William Bush’s Time as a War Artist, 1940-1946

Bush’s first experience as a war artist was in 1939, but by May of 1940, he was drafted into Australia’s Army Militia. Bush was a part of the 2nd Survey Company of the Royal Australian Artillery and, in 1931, rose to the rank of Lance Bombardier.

The following year in 1942, Bush’s artistic talent caught the eye of his army superiors, and he was transferred to the army’s public relations bureau and later to the Military History Section of New Guinea Force Headquarters. 

Here, Bush assembled material for the Australian War Memorial, and contributed some of his own projects and illustrations to the project. He also used this time to submit his work more broadly to several outside publications.

By 1945, Bush had already been working as a war artist for some years and was finally given the position of an official war artist, with a promotion to the rank of Lieutenant.

With the invasion of Timor, Bush was set up in Koepang, Indonesia. The artist created a makeshift studio, describing it in a letter to Lieutenant Colonel Treloar as “a bombed house, excellent for storing materials and working.”

During this time, Bush described the atmosphere as clammy and raining, stating, “My colors as well as subject will be of value bringing these places back to the memory of those who were here.”

In 1946 Bush was in Darwin, attending the trials of Japanese soldiers who were being tried for war crimes in Timor. His works during this time reflected the trial proceedings. At the end of 1946, Bush’s commission as a war artist was complete, yet the war continued to influence his works for the rest of his life.

An Australian seascape.

Returning Home to Phyllis Paulina Waterhouse 

After returning from his commission, Bush and Waterhouse applied together for the Travelling Art Scholarship offered by the British Council Grant. This allowed Bush to study with the artist Bernard Meninsky. Meanwhile, Waterhouse won the competitive two-year Ballarat Crouch Prize.

Together the young artists used the grant to travel Europe extensively, exploring galleries in France, Italy, Spain, and throughout the UK.

The artists would return to Melbourne in 1953, where Bush would become a drawing master at the National Gallery School. Later, Bush began doing odd jobs, including representing Australia with a cultural delegation to China. After returning home, he hosted the television show “My Fair Lady,” on which he commented on women’s fashions.

In 1962, Bush, Phyllis Paulina Waterhouse, and June Davies founded the Leveson Street Gallery. The gallery represented one of the first artist-run spaces in Melbourne and became quite successful, allowing the artists to continue their overseas travels. In 1979, Waterhouse’s health was in decline, and the gallery was closed as a result.

At this time, the couple eloped. They chose to put their art first in all the years prior. Neither party was interested in having children; their priority was painting. They kept their marriage a secret, at Waterhouse’s behest, out of a desire to not spoil the Bohemian artistic image they had fostered over the years.

During a late-night walk in April of 1989, Waterhouse had a heart attack and died in Bush’s arms. Stricken with grief, Bush would also suffer from a heart attack and die just seven months later.

Charles William Bush’s Works

The colors in the artist’s work are fairly consistent throughout his career. His self-portraits are well known, as well as his nature scenes and still life paintings. One example of his self-portraits is the Self Portrait with Satchel and Bicycle (1939-1940).

Bush is known for his war art, like the Moresby Picture Show (1943), which depicts the lighter side of life in the war, as soldiers watch a Donald Duck movie in the rain. Bush preferred to present the day-to-day reality of life in the army.

Posthumously, Charles William Bush’s works were featured in two Australian exhibitions, most notably in 2014, the Vista II exhibit at the Charles Nodrum Gallery (Richmond, Australia) and in 2022, the Picture This show at the Horsham Regional Art Gallery (Horsham, Australia).

At auction, Bush’s work has emerged on multiple occasions, with sales ranging from $71 to $6418 USD.

As an Australian national treasure, Charles William Bush is a multiple prize-winning artist. Today, works by the artist are still featured at the National Gallery of Australia and the Australian War Memorial, as well as other galleries and private collections around the globe.

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