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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Macleod, William (1850–1929)

by B. G. Andrews

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

William Macleod (1850-1929), artist and businessman, was born on 27 October 1850 in London, son of William Macleod, cordwainer, and his wife Juliana, née Exness (or Esner). The family followed the gold rush to Victoria and after her husband's death in 1855 Julia settled in Sydney, where she married the portrait painter James Anderson. His drinking excesses caused Macleod to seek work from the age of 12; trained by Edmund Thomas at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts and known first as William Macleod Anderson or James Anderson junior, he had his first artistic contribution published in 1866 in the Illustrated Sydney News. Over the next decade he travelled widely and won a reputation as a painter of portraits and cattle, a designer of stained-glass windows, and as illustrator with a strong line for such journals as the Sydney Mail, the Australian Town and Country Journal and Sydney and Queensland Punch. On 29 January 1873 he married Emily Collins at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney.

In January 1880 Macleod illustrated the first lead-story of the new Sydney Bulletin. In March he and another artist, Samuel Begg, jointly secured a third share in the journal but relinquished it when the financial affairs of J. F. Archibald and John Haynes improved. A prominent freelance contributor of robust cartoons to the Bulletin and the designer of its new pink cover in 1883, Macleod purchased part of Haynes's holding in April 1884. After extensive involvement in the Picturesque atlas of Australasia (1886) project—he executed many of the portraits used and was chairman of its publishing company—Macleod joined the Bulletin full time in 1886 in response to a plea from Archibald following the departure of W. H. Traill. They became joint owners in 1887; Macleod was the Bulletin's manager or managing director for the next forty years.

'He sits there like a dob of mud' was Victor Daley's oft-reported comment on Macleod at the Bulletin. The comment suggests Macleod's settled stoutness, but is more generally cited as evidence of a stolidness and lack of imagination which is contrasted with Archibald's nervy, sensitive flair. Yet Macleod's sobriety complemented Archibald's editorial brilliance: while the one was the 'literary cobbler', the other cautiously and conscientiously controlled business affairs. Macleod also contributed much to the Bulletin's artistic successes through his friendship with Livingston Hopkins and his encouragement of talents such as David Low's; and despite his renowned lack of interest in poetry and fiction he supported the publishing activities of A. G. Stephens. It was Stephens who provided the proper corrective to Daley: 'Without Archibald, after Traill left, there would have been no Bulletin. Without Macleod, there would have been no Bulletin long'.

If Macleod presided over the Bulletin's most famous years, he also presided over the start of its decline, particularly after the departure of Archibald in 1903 and Stephens in 1906. In 1910 he resigned as manager in favour of his son Norman; another son Ronald became manager of the Melbourne office. The deaths of his daughter Ada and of Norman from influenza in 1919 affected Macleod greatly; his involvement in the Bulletin declined and in 1927 he sold out his major shareholding to the next Bulletin family of significance, that of S. H. Prior.

Macleod was of medium height, thickset, brown eyed, round faced and bearded. He worked in a variety of art forms from stained glass to black-and-white drawing, oils, watercolour, engraving, lithography, clay modelling and sculpture. His strength was as an illustrator in the days of wood-engraving, but he possessed the adaptability and keen commercial sense to succeed even before his management of the Bulletin; his estimated annual income was £1500 in the late 1870s and his eventual estate was valued for probate at over £232,000.

In later life Macleod lived at Dunvegan, Mosman, where he painted, played bowls with zeal, and was a genial and kindly host. He possessed a fine collection of Australian art, including John Longstaff's 'Breaking the News'. He died on 24 June 1929 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by a son and two daughters, and by his second wife Agnes Conor O'Brien, whom he had married on 10 April 1911 at Pymble Catholic Church. She was a Bulletin journalist who wrote the highly sympathetic Macleod of 'the Bulletin' (1931). Samples of his stained glass work include the memorial window to Robert Campbell in the Anglican Church of St John the Baptist, Canberra, and he is represented in the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • G. A. Taylor, Those Were the Days (Syd, 1918)
  • M. Mahood, The Loaded Line (Melb, 1973)
  • P. Rolfe, The Journalistic Javelin (Syd, 1979)
  • S. Lawson, The Archibald Paradox (Melb, 1983)
  • Scottish Australasian, 1 Apr 1911
  • Newspaper News, 1 July 1929
  • Bowyang, 7, 1982
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 21 June 1924
  • Bulletin, 26 June 1929
  • manuscript catalogue under Macleod (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

B. G. Andrews, 'Macleod, William (1850–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 28 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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