Elizabeth and Richard Wallwork were associated as artists for nearly 60 years. He was born on 2 January 1882 in Stretford, Lancashire, England, the son of Richard Wallwork, a leatherworks manager, and his wife, Mary Smith. Elizabeth Donaldson was born at Broughton, Lancashire, on 20 July 1883. She was the sixth of nine children of Elizabeth Ann Hibbert and her husband, John Donaldson, a wholesale fishmonger.
Richard and Elizabeth were contemporaries at the Municipal School of Art, Manchester, from 1899 to 1906. In 1906 Richard entered the Royal College of Art, South Kensington, and in 1908 was awarded an associateship in its school of decorative painting. He later gained a Royal College of Art scholarship. The college authorities appreciated Wallwork's services as a student teacher of considerable ability who was able to grasp the requirements of students and teach intelligently. Elizabeth Donaldson entered the Slade School of Fine Art, University of London, in 1906. In 1907–8 she gained two first-class certificates in drawing and in painting, the only qualification offered by the school at this time.
Their differing careers as students may have been influenced by their respective financial circumstances. Richard held maintenance scholarships for 9½ years and took examinations that covered architecture, design, modelling and painting. He also studied in Paris and Brussels. Some of Elizabeth’s study was only part time. She sat comparatively few examinations, but won the Lady Whitworth Scholarship. Both won prestigious national prizes.
Elizabeth returned to Manchester in 1909 and by the end of 1910 she and Richard had exhibited together there and in Liverpool. Richard also exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, and both exhibited at the Salon in Paris. In 1910 Richard accepted a teaching position at the City School of Art, Liverpool. He and Elizabeth married at Cheetham Hill, Manchester, on 16 July that year. Richard was then offered the position of life master at the Canterbury College School of Art, Christchurch. They sailed for New Zealand in December, arriving in time to begin the 1911 teaching year.
The Wallworks soon became registered working members of the Canterbury Society of Arts, and embarked upon a series of trips to explore and paint their adopted country. Richard served as an office holder with the society for 42 years: he was a council member (1913–19), vice president (1920–26), president (1927 and 1928), and honorary treasurer (1929–55). He joined the Savage Club in 1911, and was on the Robert McDougall Art Gallery's advisory committee from its inception in 1932.
In 1925 Richard took a year's leave without pay to visit Great Britain. He visited many institutions, reported on the nature of teacher-training courses, and helped to choose James Johnstone as arts and crafts master of the Canterbury school.
His greatest contribution to art in New Zealand was as a teacher and as the director of the Canterbury College School of Art, a position in which he succeeded Archibald Nicoll in 1928. Respected but not always popular, Richard Wallwork implemented the diploma in fine arts, which Nicoll had sought as an equivalent to a British qualification. He also maintained the staffing necessary to provide a wide range of subject matter for students of varying ages and for a variety of educational purposes, and piloted the school through the depression and the Second World War. His commitment to the principles of the South Kensington system of art teaching contributed to the fine reputation that the School of Art held for many years. Wallwork was regarded by pupils as conventional but an articulate and sensitive art teacher, a thorough art historian and an excellent critic, and a fair and scrupulous examiner. In 1931 he was admitted to the college's professional board. He retired as director at the end of 1945, anticipating the change that would see the school drop its junior classes and train teachers as well as artists. He taught part time from 1946 to 1948.
Elizabeth and Richard Wallwork exhibited regularly at the Canterbury Society of Arts and the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts until they were in their 70s, and less frequently at the other art society exhibitions. A versatile artist, Richard worked with a variety of media and genres. Considered a Canterbury regional landscape artist, he also painted men at work in the Barbizon tradition. He drew upon classical and Maori legend to create narrative figure compositions and was also known for his portraits. As early as 1913 he taught etching at Canterbury, exhibiting at the Australian Painter-Etchers' Society in Sydney and Melbourne in 1921. He painted a mural for the Winter Gardens ballroom about 1921, and another for the 1924–25 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. His poster work for the Empire Marketing Board was displayed at Queen Anne's Gate in London in 1928 and he illustrated Johannes Andersen's Myths & legends of the Polynesians.
As a working artist, Elizabeth Wallwork established a career in portraiture mainly for private clients. She was described as one of the foremost exponents of pastel portraiture in New Zealand. She also painted in oil: miniatures and portraits of women, children and, as her reputation grew, many prominent Christchurch people. She painted and exhibited landscapes, and in later life submitted impressionistic flower paintings to the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. Like her husband, she exhibited as far afield as Sydney, and at the 1924–25 British Empire Exhibition. In 1933, with Richard, she contributed work towards the inauguration of the Christchurch Technical College hall and she was represented in the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition of 1940. She taught some classes at the Canterbury College School of Art in 1925 and 1946. She visited Britain in 1938.
Richard Wallwork died at Christchurch on 14 April 1955. Elizabeth continued to work professionally, accepting the occasional portrait commission. She was an enthusiastic bridge player and an accomplished pianist. She outlived their only child, Margot, by three years, dying at Christchurch on 4 June 1969.
Richard and Elizabeth Wallwork enjoyed long and successful careers, painting well into their retirement. The courage and determination which brought them to New Zealand was reflected in their commitment to their profession and to their adopted country.