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Thirteen Australian pictures: 1825 to 1975

Joseph Lycett 1775-1828 Lived in Australia: 1814-1822
Distant View of Hobart Town Van Diemen’s Land from Blufhead 1825
Hand-coloured aquatint and etching on paper (17 x 27 cm)
Joseph Brown Collection National Gallery of Victoria Federation Square (NVG (A)) Melbourne
Lycett spent eight years in Australia after convictions for forgery, including a conviction gained in Australia. He was an accomplished watercolourist and his work provides a record of early Australia. Most of his work appeared as sets of prints in England- some hand-coloured as in this example-after his return.
Here two hunters survey the conquering hand of the European on the landscape. A city lies in the middle distance and further signs of agriculture and settlement are visible along the shore. Like many early 19th century artists Lycett has idealised the landscape to make it more acceptable to prospective travellers- these works were often used to promote the virtues of emigration to the colonies. Also the vegetation bears more relation to that found at home than overseas another comforting device used for promotion.

Eugene von Guerard 1811-1901 (Lived in Australia- 1852-1882)
Yalla-y-Poora 1864 (72 x 122 cm)
Oil on Canvas
Joseph Brown Collection NVG (A)
Von Guerard was an accomplished artist producing many fine drawings, watercolours and oils of the south-east Australian landscape. His pictures provide an accurate historical record of early settlement in the Colony especially of goldfields, towns and large properties such as the one shown here.
Nature is accurately depicted here -40 years after the Lycett picture we started with. The European is still seen as the tamer of the landscape. Certainly the countryside is majestic but so is the station property occupying the centre of the picture. Windmills, haystacks, orchards, fences and a drover or shepherd attest to the deliverance of the land from savage chaos to ordered productivity.

Frederick McCubbin 1855-1917
Lost 1886 (116 x 74 cm)
Oil on Canvas
National Gallery of Victoria: Melbourne
Strongly influenced by the French Impressionists and their ‘Plein air” working habits, McCubbin became one of the foremost artists working in the late 19th century in Australia. Together with Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts he led the local art scene away from simple representation towards more atmospheric composition which was invigorated by detail and the play of light. The work of these three was seminal in moving the local art scene towards the more modern ideas coming out of Europe.
A small child has become lost whilst out in the bush collecting flowers. Since she is collecting flowers we may assume that she is fairly close to home and perhaps the situation is not as serious as her tears might at first lead us to think. Meanwhile the picture is a symphony of vegetation detail and its interaction with light. A patch of bright sunlight illuminates the girl which might also lead us to be optimistic about her eventual fate. Nowhere is the bush threatening. The young tree trunks reflect light and warm colours lead us around the picture. Here McCubbin has emphasised detail unlike the earlier painters, for instance von Guerard, who concentrated on the grandness of the landscape. This was a significant departure from the earlier style, leading the viewer to appreciate the Australian scene rather that trying to impose European viewpoints on it.

George Lambert 1873-1930
A Sergeant of the Light Horse in Palestine. 1920
Oil on Canvas (78 x 61 cm)
National Gallery of Victoria: Melbourne
Lambert was employed as a War Artist by the Australian government and worked mainly in Palestine with the Australian Light Horse. The Light Horse had become famous for making the last cavalry charge of the First World War at Beersheba and one of the last in history. It loomed large in the national psyche.
In this clever picture Lambert has placed his subject in a prominent position over a landscape of scrubby hills. However the figure is not at all in tune with domination. He rests wistfully looking out of the picture to his right, holding his plumed hat the symbol of the regiment and leaning on his chevroned jacket. As a sergeant he would have been at the forefront of organising and urging his men before the great charge at Beersheba with its orgy of killing and destruction. Now reflective, perhaps of home and of what has passed he shows a sensitive view of an Australian male. This was one of the first ever pictures to show the Australian man as anything but conqueror, bushranger, tycoon or emphatic individual.
Lambert and his son Constant, a considerable musician, and Constant’s son Kit- a rock music star-all died prematurely from alcohol and drug abuse.


Grace Crossington-Smith 1892-1984
Interior 1958 (92 x 58 cm)
Queensland Art Gallery
Crossington-Smith was an early member of the Modernist group of Australian painters. She studied in Australia and in Europe and was familiar with the latest European trends. She was influenced by post-impressionist painters, notably Van Gogh and her painting style owes much to his thickly-applied paint methods.
Much of Crossington-Smith’s work centred on domestic scenes especially the family home in Sydney. Her brightly coloured interiors were themselves studies in colour and form and lend authenticity to how we live as a vehicle for describing both. Optimism pervaded much of her work. Here we may assume that as well as having technical reasons for completing “Interiors” she also wished us to celebrate everyday life and the objects which make it up. Things which we surround ourselves with are important. They are vehicles which we use to facilitate living and help define us and our place.

Noel Counihan 1913-1986
The Lady With the Fox Fur coat 1942
Oil on canvas (61 x 68 cm)
Joseph Brown Collection NVG (A)
Counihan began as a cartoonist and illustrator and made prints and drawings. This work painted in 1945 is one of his first paintings. He was at least left-leaning politically and for a time was a member of the Communist party in Melbourne. Much of his work highlighted social inequality.
A fur-coated, woman, her upper body made more threateningly bulky by the coat stands by as a sack-laden worker shuffles past. Redolent with privilege the woman’s image dominates the left of this somewhat gloomy streetscape; She avoids looking at the worker who appears to be unaware of her anyway. Probably homeless, drunk and down and out he represents the other end of the social scale to that of the woman. The picture reinforces the social disparity which prevailed in Melbourne at the end of the great depression and as a result of shortages caused by war.


Albert Tucker 1914-1999
Victory Girls 1943
Oil on composition board (65 x 59 cm)
National Gallery Of Australia: Canberra
Tucker like Boyd and Nolan spent some time in the Australian Army during the early forties. Tucker was deeply affected by the effects he saw war having on men who had been on active service and he saw one of the principle consequences of war as being a desensitising of the human spirit and culture.
Two “Victory Girls”, probably prostitutes are being mauled by men one of whose faces we can see but not the other. Clumsy hands invade the girls whose triangular faces with bared teeth and over-rouged lips add a nightmare quality to the scene. Tucker is dismayed at the downward spiral which the war has caused in civic behaviour. The girls’ patriotically-coloured dresses do not convince us that this is acceptable behaviour.

Sydney Nolan 1917-1992
Death of Constable Scanlon 1946
Enamel on board (93 x 122 cm)
National Gallery of Victoria: Melbourne
Nolan was one of Australia’s pre-eminent painters in the second half of the 20th century. A world figure, he lived much of his life in London and he is probably the best known internationally of Australian painters. Nolan painted only after exhaustive research into his subjects and being of Anglo-Irish ancestry it is not surprising that he took an interest in the Irish Ned Kelly: Australia’s best known bush ranger. Nolan painted several series of pictures retailing the gangster’s life. One complete set is to be found in the National Gallery of Australia
Ned Kelly in his home-made armour dominates the front of the picture. The eyes, visible through the slits in the helmet seem to be disconnected from the scene as though things have passed out of control. Certainly the event just passed has transformed Kelly from a dashing young folk hero to murderer; worse a killer of a policeman. He was to murder two more police at the same site shortly after. One of the prospective victims can be seen in the lower left centre of the picture. From now on Kelly would be pursued by a vengeful police force supported at large by the population.
We see the event just after Kelly’s weapon has discharged. Scanlon is no more his fate emphasised by his floating upside down, a horse shies at the sound. For the rest the landscape is undisturbed this is an event which has only concerned the humans. The picture is cleverly composed. Our eye is lead past the dreadful murder through the trees and around the horizon. Not one element is superfluous

Russell Drysdale 1912-1981
Man Feeding His Dogs 1941
Oil on canvas (51 x 61 cm)
Queensland Art Gallery: Brisbane
Drysdale more than any other Australian painter brought the outback into the city. His pictures have an empty silence and deserted quality that are unmistakeably Australian and nowhere else. He painted heroes of both sexes, but particularly women stoically enduring privation to look after their men and children. Dramatic, barren landscape, deserted buildings and towns tell of the hardship which endures once the safety of the city is left.
Here a rabbit catcher feeds his dogs in a sparse landscape of earth, dead trees and flaming sky. The day is over and the dogs are to have their reward: a fellow-worker watches from a distance. The action seems to take place on a stage with just one point of perspective reinforcing the temporary nature of man’s tenure in this hostile landscape. The stick-figure men and plunging, lean dogs emphasise the difficulty of survival. This is a desperate, lonely, unforgiving place and the two figures are separated strengthening the atmosphere of isolation. A broken cart wheel tells of failed industry. Rabbits had destroyed large tracts of country since their introduction in the 19th century and the picture uses this dismal outcome as its basis.

Arthur Boyd 1920-1999
Bride and Groom Near a Creek c1960 (107 x 137 cm)
Oil on Composition board
Joseph Brown Collection NGV(A)
Arthur Boyd was a member of the gifted family which produced painters, ceramicists and writers. He lived much of his adult life overseas, notably in London but returned to Australia to establish a country property in southern New South Wales and to exhibit. This picture, painted before he first went overseas shows him beginning to experiment with dream-like subjects and incorporating mythology in his work.
A white bride searches for her lost aboriginal groom in a fantastic landscape inhabited by predatory birds. Marriage between aboriginals and white women was a taboo subject in Australia in 1948. She hovers above her lost lover whose body is half immersed in the creek. Threatening birds hop dangerously close, the nearer with a large red penetratingly-observant eye. Perhaps the birds represent a disapproving populace ready to pounce if things get too far out of hand. Misty landscape features blur the coalescence of the figures and threatening clouds add to our sense of foreboding.

Fred Williams 1927-1982
Yan Yean 1970 (208 x 105 cm)
Queensland Art Gallery
Fred William’ life ended prematurely at 54. He was the pre-eminent Australian painter, coming closer than any other European extract painter of his age to evolving a distinctly Australian school of painting. Fortunately he enjoyed considerable notice during his lifetime.
Williams painted a spare, minimalist vision of the Australian landscape. Many of his pictures, including this one, show the effect of water. Vegetation is often merely hinted at and we may be invited to view the landscape from both above and within. Colour is used as an indicator of feature but also to define what colours we might expect in the landscape as shown in the typical Williams splodges above the horizon. This large picture also has a grandeur and majesty about it in the slope of the hill. We see the pool or stream as though we are right at the water’s edge and it appears to lay over the lower part of the landscape- another Williams device to encourage us to see landscape as something we should see from all directions and perspectives.

Jeffrey Smart b 1921
Central Station 1974-1975
Synthetic Polymer paint on canvas (86 x 100cm)
Art Gallery of New South Wales: Sydney
Smart’s flawless technique and apparently everyday subjects lull us into thinking that we are in for a pleasant experience when we investigate his pictures. We soon find ourselves in bewildering situations no better illustrated than in “Central Station”. A man runs crazily up a lane- presumably on his way to the station. His cityscape surroundings are etched against the sky appearing monumentally threatening and does the lane go on for ever? Litter says that others have passed this way before him but where are they now- gone without trace! The runner’s shadow spookily looks around the corner it is the only other sign of life in this otherwise alien landscape. A sign on the right says: no admittance.

Brett Whiteley 1939-1992
The Balcony 2 1975
Oil on Canvas (204 x 365 cm)
Art Gallery of new South Wales: Sydney
Whiteley lived life in a very fast lane eventually dying a heroin-related death in 1992. He spent some time overseas enjoying success in England but not in America. Returning to Australia in 1970 he took a studio on Sydney Harbour, a subject which he painted many times before his death.
We look down on the harbour from a balcony. Sluices of white show the wakes of boats and the harbour bridge arches away on the left taking us across the water to the other side. A tree anchors us on this side of the harbour serving to start our eye along the journey to the bridge. Spits of land fail to dim the ultra-marine blue of the water which ripples away towards the picture’s centre. A promontory on the right balances the brown of the tree on the front left. This large picture is cleverly contrived relying on colour and shape for its success. Flecks of white indicating reflections, sails and the movement of boats ensure that our eye travels all around the hemispherical-feeling composition.

Ralph Balson 1890 England-1964 arrived Australia 1913.
Painting 1954
Oil on composition board
Joseph Brown Collection NGV(A)
Balson made a living as a house painter; making art in his spare time. He is now known as one of Australia’s first purely abstract painters.
This picture is determinably two-dimensional. Where the rectangles overlap the image of the lower panel is left rather than being extinguished which would introduce depth into the composition. The shapes rotate around the red rectangle to the right of centre. This is particularly obvious in the lower right where the yellow shape appears to be about to be flung out of the picture. Harmonious shape and colour complement the movement and the picture seems capable of rotating in perpetuity.