Notes on Tom Wills Paintings

By Richard Webber

*The Predestination of Tom Wills (Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 60 inch)

*Tom Wills Death Scene (Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 60 inch)

Thomas Wentworth (Tom) Wills has been popularized as the iconic (heroic?) personality behind the inception of Australian Rules Football. The AFL ‘Tom Wills’ Round, an MCG statue, Geoffrey Blainey’s ‘A Game of Our Own’, and the more recent ‘The Australian Game of Football’ (various contributors), all suggest his importance as the spark behind the prototype of today’s footy. As Greg De Moore’s ‘Tom Wills : his spectacular rise and tragic fall’ tells in excellently researched detail, he was a far more complex figure than the culturally convenient portrait of heroism both allows or has time for.

The tragedy of his life lead to, and became his death: suicide through stabbing himself in the chest 3 times with a pair of scissors. According to Greg De Moore, there were significant hints of a personality disorder through his life, but his death can be attributed retrospectively to an organic psychosis born of his alcoholism, preventable in the modern world. As such, I have used the scissors and their bloody consequence to different effect in both paintings.

*Tom’s cap is that of the ‘I Zingari’, the gypsy-like band of professional cricketeers he was long a part of. (I Zingari history and current activities can be found online)

*The tie-belt in ‘Predestination’ is in the colours of The Rugby School, where Tom was sent, only to find that sport interested him much more than academia, much to his father’s distaste. Rugby School’s historical sporting significance is self explanatory.

*The first written rules (now at MCG National Sports Museum) lie at Tom’s feet, from which the clubs forming the current AFL derive. The club order in both paintings is from chronological inception. (Port Adelaide as originally, and Brisbane as Fitzroy). I decided to put the University club in, as they seem to be the one member of the original VFA cruelled by history (WW1), at least in that form (now a member of the VAFA).

*The quartet of leaves next to the Rules symbolise the other 4 men at the meeting where the Rules were written.

*The gum trunks are goalposts, and I wanted Tom’s bare feet on the red ochre to suggest the earthy genesis of his presumed influence.

*The boomerang in the tree fork suggests Tom’s complicated relationship with Indigenous Australians. He is thought to have grown up in direct contact with the indigenous people around Moyston (Western Victoria), and it is suggested he both spoke local dialect and that he and his family had a good relationship with the locals. More controversial is the idea that his potential contact with Marngrook influenced the genesis of footy. An idea never to be resolved I think. Later, in his twenties, Tom and his father left to set up a new cattle station in virgin farming land in Queensland with a camp of fellow workers. Tom left the camp later on the premise of sourcing supplies, but really to play cricket, as was his want. On his return, 19 members (including his father) of the camp had been killed by the indigenous locals. The falling leaf at his left elbow has 19 scars on it. Years later, on his return to Victoria, Tom became coach/manager of the inaugural all-indigenous Australian cricket team ( a precursor to the first touring Australian team to England). Remarkably for the time, Tom seemed to bear no racial grudge from the violent events of his past, suggesting a degree of humanist enlightenment.

*First and foremost, Tom Wills was a career cricketer, and much of his life was determined by this and his alcoholism. He was however a hugely popular and charismatic figure at his peak, and in the absence of any consistency (other than facial hair) in photographs and paintings as to his ‘likeness’, I have taken carte blanche with his ‘looks’. In ‘Predestination’ he is therefore deliberately handsome, whereas in the Death Scene, despite being more impressionistic generally, I have tried to soften and bloat his face a little, albeit with the tranquility of death.

*The Death Scene quilt means to create both a sense of comfort in eternal rest, and suggest the warmth I feel for his sporting legacy. It should also carry a hint of the pastoral in its hills and valleys, again suggestive of his history.

*The pied Currawong with the boomerang echoes my own sentiments to Indigenous spiritualism, and birds represent the observant chorus of nature.

*The flame red goalposts should suggest the hot forge from which football came and continues to evolve. Love it or loathe it, footy is and has always been an igniter of passion.

*As the heroic, genesis figure he has been popularised as, both paintings have him with a large, right, god-like hand, the generous giver of life to our national game.


  1. Gorgeous pieces. I would love a print of ‘Predestination’ on my study wall. Strikingly proud and noble. Full of meaning in every aspect. I can appreciate the “Death Scene’ but a little morbid for the wall.

    Who best represents Wills spirit among modern footballers. Ben Cousins or Jonathon Brown – the larrikins and wild spirits? Brett Kirk – the spiritual warrior? Who is a white player that champions indigenous rights?

    As for multi-sport geniuses – the professionalisation of footy seems to have taken this dimension. Keith Miller, Neil Hawke, Eric Freeman – played cricket for Australia and top level VFL/WAFL/SANFL footy. Freeman is late 60’s/early 70’s – and is the last Test Cricketer I can remember to play top level footy. Peter Bedford played footy for South Melbourne and State Cricket? Who is the last State cricketer to play top level footy?

    What about footy and another top level sport? I see Gary Player told Ricky Ponting recently that he was wasting his time playing cricket and should become a golfer. Shades of Michael Jordan? I think Ricky is less ego driven than Michael, and would be a better judge of his capacities.

    Any thoughts almanacers? Who fills Wills’ shoes today? No-one person obviously, which shows his genius and the simpler times that allowed men to be multi-faceted.

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