Stradbroke ferry, a reminder of Charles Blackman’s time in Brisbane


The Gallery holds a good selection of Charles Blackman’s work, the quality of Stradbroke ferry 1952 and its connection to the artists early formative Queensland years, and to other significant works in the Collection painted the same year make it one of Michael Hawker’s (Associate Curator, Australian Art) favourite Blackman paintings. The painting also makes a strong connection to the Queensland-inspired works by Sidney Nolan who had an important early influence on Blackman.

The time Charles Blackman spent in Queensland was central to his development as one of the most important Australian artists of his generation. It was during his early visits to Brisbane first in 1948 and then regularly from 1952 that the artist experienced the sense of intense personal discovery that was to launch his career trajectory. One of his most impressive works from this profoundly creative period is Stradbroke ferry 1952, which can be seen in the new Australian Galleries rehang.

In February 1948, Blackman visited the Moreton Galleries in Brisbane, and saw an exhibition of works by Sidney Nolan, inspired by Nolan’s time on Fraser Island (three of which can be seen in the Australian Collection).

Installation view of the Australian Collection, Queensland Art Gallery highlighting works from Sidney Nolan’s time on Fraser Island (far right)

Deeply impressed, Blackman later told curator Laurie Thomas: ‘What I liked about them was that they were dark, mysterious, almost surreal’.1 ‘Trapping the inner feeling in the paint’ was how he later described these and Nolan’s Queensland outback works.2 Nolan’s Moreton Galleries exhibition revealed to Blackman the power of a painting to articulate a clear and particular vision. Stradbroke ferry strongly references this Nolan influence, depicting the ferry to this popular island holiday spot at night, the application of paint evoking the jewel-like lights of the ship and coastal settlement reflected in the sea. Blackman rented a cottage on Stradbroke that year where he painted, sending ‘back to Sunday Reid about fifty small pictures on quarter size boards of birds, beaches, boys leaping off rocks, and shy white horses’.3 The environs of south east Queensland clearly inspired the young artist.

Charles Blackman, Australia b.1928 / Stradbroke ferry 1952 / Enamel and tempera on heavy cardboard / Gift of Barbara Blackman AO through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2016. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Charles Blackman 1952/ Licensed by Viscopy 2017

Through his friendship with Barrett Reid, Blackman was introduced to the art patrons John and Sunday Reed in Melbourne, and, through them, saw Nolan’s early St Kilda works.4 In 1952, before Blackman left Melbourne for Brisbane, Sunday Reed presented him with a leather plumber’s bag filled with brushes and small tins of Dulux enamel paint. That same year, once in Brisbane, Blackman painted Barnes Auto, Brisbane 1952 and City lights 1952. The bright, glossy surface of both suggests they may have been painted with house paints, possibly those given to him by Sunday Reed. Equally so with Stradbroke ferry which also uses enamel paints.

This painting effectively links the work of avant-garde artists and writers of 1940’s and 1950’s Brisbane with their southern counterparts and is an integral part of the story of Australian art in the years immediately following World War Two. The artistic expressions of this work are articulated through a strong and unique visual vocabulary focused on an inner, psychological reality, which found its inspiration in the artist’s immediate environment at the time.

Charles Blackman, Australia b.1928, Barnes Auto Brisbane 1952
Charles Blackman, Australia b.1928 / Barnes Auto, Brisbane 1952 / Oil and enamel on cardboard / Purchased 2008 with funds derived from the gifts of Maria Therese Treweeke, Lady Trout, SH Ervin, Sali Herman, Sir James (Robert) McGregor, Robert Wilson, Captain Neil McEacharn, Naomi and Simon Bracegirdle and Oscar Edwards / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Charles Raymond Blackman 1952. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2016
Charles Blackman, Australia b.1928, City lights 1952
Charles Blackman, Australia b.1928 / City lights 1952 / Oil and enamel on cardboard / Purchased 2005 with funds raised through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Blackman Art Appeal / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Charles Raymond Blackman 1952. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2016

1 Thomas, Laurie. ‘The Most Noble Art of Them All: The Writings of Laurie Thomas’, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Qld, 1976, p.171.
2 St John Moore, Felicity. ‘Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls and Angels: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Charles Blackman’ [exhibition catalogue], NGV, Melbourne, 1993, p.5; Nolan’s Queensland outback works from 1948 were viewed by Blackman at the David Jones Art Gallery in Sydney in 1949.
3 Ibid, p. 17.
4 Examples of Nolan’s St Kilda works were held by the Reeds at their home in Heide.

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Michael Hawker is Associate Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA
Feature image detail: Charles Blackman’s Stradbroke ferry

Journeys North Revisited

blog-1987.173.021_001 Max Pam low-res
Max Pam, Australia b.1949 / Backyard on Sunday, Mooloolabah (from ‘Journeys north’ portfolio) (detail) 1986 / Gelatin silver photograph / Purchased 1987 with the financial assistance of the Australian Bicentennial Authority to commemorate Australia’s Bicentenary in 1988 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

In the mid 1980s, with the financial assistance of the Australian Bicentennial Authority, the Queensland Art Gallery commissioned six photographers to produce a portfolio of black and white works on the theme of community life in Queensland. First exhibited in 1988, the Gallery now presents a comprehensive selection from this portfolio, allowing us to see how Queensland has, and hasn’t, changed in the intervening 28 years.

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Glen O’Malley, Australia b.1948 / Camooweal – Mrs Steele is in her eighties and has worked as a drover for most of her life (from ‘Journeys north’ portfolio) 1987 / Gelatin silver photograph / Purchased 1987 with the financial assistance of the Australian Bicentennial Authority to commemorate Australia’s Bicentenary in 1988 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

In the foreword to the original exhibition’s publication, Doug Hall, AM, then director of the Gallery, wrote that ‘Journeys North’ was ‘one of the most adventurous commissions undertaken by the Queensland Art Gallery’, and that ‘although the commission was conceived as a Bicentennial project, its importance will extend long after 1988’.1 The opportunity now to see a significant selection of these works reinforces Hall’s statement that ‘not only will the images and the commission as a whole remain as an important artistic achievement, but also the themes explored will undoubtedly remain with us for years to come’.2 The state has changed in myriad ways in the intervening years, but the fascinating observation to be made in viewing these rich images again is how much the lifestyles and landscapes depicted still resonate with us.

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Graham Burstow, Australia b.1927 / Cheer squad, Carrara (from ‘Journeys north’ portfolio) 1986–87 / Gelatin silver photograph / Purchased 1987 with the financial assistance of the Australian Bicentennial Authority to commemorate Australia’s Bicentenary in 1988 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

‘Journeys North’ focused on Queensland photography; all of the photographers involved were long-term residents of Queensland or had strong associations with the state. Graham Burstow, Lin Martin, Robert Mercer, Glen O’Malley, Charles Page and Max Pam each travelled to different regions of the state where, over a period of around 18 months, they documented the lifestyles, attitudes and values of Queensland society in the late 1980s.

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Lin Martin, Australia b.1953 / Bobby Lees, sculptor/performer/builder, Sunshine Beach (from ‘Journeys north’ portfolio) 1986–87 / Gelatin silver photograph / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / Purchased 1987 with the financial assistance of the Australian Bicentennial Authority to commemorate Australia’s Bicentenary in 1988 / © The artist

Lin Martin produced a series of portraits that captured unique characters in their own environments, prompting curator Claire Williamson to note in her 1988 catalogue essay that, ‘while in many ways [Lin’s] subjects appear as “typical” Queenslanders, each has a unique personality which emerges from the rapport developed between photographer and sitter’.3 Max Pam, inspired by his memories of childhood family holidays to the Gold Coast, chose to record his experiences through the eyes of a holidaying family. Here we see the great physical variety of the landscape, as well as an often humorous account of their holiday on the move. Glen O’Malley travelled extensively through the state, from Brisbane to Cape York and west to Camooweal, Quilpie and Cunnamulla. He concentrated on the theme of domesticity, going into Queensland homes and recording their daily experiences, from watching television to watering the garden.

blog-1987.164.019_002 Robert Mercer low-res
Robert Mercer, Ireland/Australia b.1949 / Jermaine Luke, David Freier, Ben Yam, Gibson Yam, Kowanyama, Cape York (from ‘Journeys north’ portfolio) 1987 / Gelatin silver photograph / Purchased 1987 with the financial assistance of the Australian Bicentennial Authority to commemorate Australia’s Bicentenary in 1988 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Graham Burstow looked at outdoor activities and particularly leisure activities, documenting Anzac Day parades, surf-lifesaving carnivals and car-part swap meets. Robert Mercer recorded Indigenous Queenslanders of the far north, focusing on local cultures and events, and particularly the importance of ceremony and dance in these communities. Charles Page chose to examine the important place of the mining industry, visiting underground and open‑cut operations in all the large mining centres of the state. His photographs examine the unique lifestyles but also the environmental impact of mining.

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Charles Page, Australia b.1946 / Riverside mine (from ‘Journeys north’ portfolio), 1986 / Gelatin silver photograph / Purchased 1987 with the financial assistance of the Australian Bicentennial Authority to commemorate Australia’s Bicentenary in 1988 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Individuality is evident in each artist’s contributions. Overall, however, these images present a coherent record of both the natural and social features of the state during this period. While some of the images questioned attitudes that had long been accepted in Australian community life, others reaffirmed the unique qualities of the Australian lifestyle and environment. Even though the lives of Queenslanders have clearly changed over the past three decades, the themes explored by these six photographers remain relevant to us today.

1  Doug Hall, ‘Foreword’, Journeys North, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 1988, p.3.
2  Hall, p.3.
3  Claire Williamson, ‘Photographic practice in Queensland in the 1980s: One aspect’, Journeys North, p.6.

Journeys North Revisited
In 1998 six photographers each produced a portfolio on the theme of community life in Queensland.
20 February – 3 July 2016

This is an extract from the upcoming Artlines magazine. Keep up to date with the Gallery’s seasonal publication delivered each quarter.

Lure of the Sun

Charles Blackman, Australia b.1928 / The bouquet 1961 / Oil and enamel on composition board / Purchased 1996 with support from Dr W Ross Johnston through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Charles Raymond Blackman. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2015

The time Charles Blackman spent in Queensland in the 1950s, late 1960s and the 1980s — and the friendships he made there — were central to his development as one of the most important Australian artists of his generation.

Brisbane beckoned us . . . painter mates in the city . . . and poet friends on their mountain.’ 1

During his time in Queensland, Charles Blackman was nurtured by several notable friendships with creative locals, who encouraged him to do some of his most innovative work. This diverse group of talented people included poet Judith Wright and her philosopher husband Jack McKinney; fellow artist Jon Molvig; gallery owners Marjorie and Brian Johnstone; modernist architect James Birrell; and the University of Queensland Press’s Frank Thompson.

Wright and McKinney had a considerable effect on the self-taught Blackman, coming to know him through Blackman’s wife, Barbara, who had developed a connection with Judith. Barbara recalls their first meeting, at which she and Blackman were the guests of a group of young Brisbane writers who produced the literary magazine Barjai:

. . . of all the Barjai guests, two magnetised me. Judith Wright, almost twice my young age, deaf with her awkward off-range voice . . . read her first book of unpublished poems, and JP McKinney, non-academic philosopher, gave a paper on ‘emotional honesty’. Both lifted me sky high and thereafter Jack-n-Judith became lifetime friends.2

Much later, Blackman also noted:

The influence of talking to Jack and Judith was a very strong one. Probably I spent as much time listening to them talking about poetry as in doing anything else . . . Jack was at his peak then, a great talker — and he helped me a great deal; he informed a lot of my interests in writing.3

Charles Blackman / The family c.1955 / Oil and enamel on masonite / Gift of Barbara Blackman 2000, donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra / © Charles Raymond Blackman. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2015

The work that most honours the friendship they shared is Blackman’s painting The family 1955 (of Judith Wright, Jack McKinney and their daughter, Meredith McKinney), in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. The painting recalls a winter’s day picnic at Cedar Creek near Mount Tamborine. Meredith McKinney commented that:

. . . for Charles, my father was probably . . . well to say ‘father figure’ is a very simplistic thing, but the talks that he and my father had were things that sort of drew Charles into new and exciting directions.4

Blackman appears to acknowledge this link in his Portrait of Jack McKinney 1955, painted after spending the winter looking after their house at Mount Tamborine.

Regarded as one of Australia’s finest expressionist artists, Jon Molvig came to Brisbane in 1953–54 to stay with his former East Sydney Technical College classmate, John Rigby. He returned the following year and made the city his permanent home until his death in 1970. As fellow painters, it seems inevitable now that Blackman and Molvig would meet and develop a mutual respect and friendship. In the last months of 1959, Molvig persuaded Blackman to establish an art school some kilometres from Burleigh Heads. Blackman agreed to spend weekends at the school while spending the week days at his studio in Brisbane. He recalled being driven at a furious pace to and from the Gold Coast, perched precariously beside Molvig in a diminutive Goggomobil.5 Sadly, the art school project was doomed to fail, as Betty Churcher relates in her book Molvig: The Lost Antipodean (1984): ‘The venture ended dramatically after a grass fire (started accidently during an outdoor painting class) had threatened to destroy the house and the surrounding cane farms’.6 Acknowledging Molvig’s influence, Blackman said:

I got a lot from him although he and I are just about dead opposites. I was concerned with understanding and sympathy with human beings, whereas Molvig was more concerned with the human conflict.7

Jon Molvig, Australia 1923–70 / Charles Blackman 1957 / Oil on composition board / Gift of Miss Pamela Bell in honour of Marjorie and Brian Johnstone 1986 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Cornelia Bartzis

Molvig’s 1957 portrait of Blackman alludes to this friendship, but also significantly to some of Blackman’s paintings created in the same year. Surrounded by flowers and accompanied by a white rabbit, the portrait of Blackman is ‘a parody of the imagery in some of the Alice paintings’.8

In The Third Metropolis: Imagining Brisbane through Art and Literature 1940–1970, published in 2007, William Hatherell notes that:

. . . perhaps the most important cultural institutions to develop in Brisbane during the postwar period were concerned with cultural distribution rather than production, and were located (at least partly) in the commercial sphere rather than either the governmental or the volunteer cultural spheres. These were the publishing houses Jacaranda Press and the University of Queensland Press (UQP), and the commercial art galleries, particularly the Johnstone Gallery. These institutions were particularly important for progressive individual artists in the context of a Brisbane cultural life that was predominately conservative in governmental cultural institutions such as the Queensland Art Gallery and in its volunteer ‘cultural civil society’.9

Charles Blackman / George Johnston c.1964 / Charcoal / Gift of Miss Pamela Bell in honour of Marjorie and Brian Johnstone / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Charles Blackman c.1964. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2015

The Johnstone Gallery had a national reputation and was also a significant force in promoting Blackman’s work. This shared support and appreciation is most clearly expressed in 1986 by poet Pamela Bell,10 who gifted to the Queensland Art Gallery Molvig’s portrait of 1957 and, the following year, Blackman’s charcoal drawing of Australian writer George Johnston (c.1964).11 She made these gifts in honour of Marjorie and Brian Johnstone in recognition of the huge contribution they made to the knowledge and awareness of contemporary Australian art in Brisbane in the 1950s and 60s and to Blackman’s career. Bell wrote of Blackman’s work:

I consider it to be a drawing of Charles at his best . . . It represents for me a time of mutual friendship between us all . . . and commemorates a memorable lunch, the Blackmans, Judith Wright, George and I, so again it is in the tradition of the works I am in the process of gifting to the Gallery, which in differing ways are about friendships and eras in the cultural life of Queensland.12

Blackman was also involved in a number of UQP collaborations, which sprang from his friendship with Frank Thompson, the energetic manager of the press. UQP produced a number of significant books in the 1960s, including Ian Fairweather’s translation and illustration of The Drunken Buddha in 1965 and the artists in the ‘Queensland’ series (interview-based monographs on Blackman, Judith Wright, Milton Moon and Andrew Sibley) in 1967. Thompson first met Blackman after returning from his Helena Rubinstein Travelling Art Scholarship in 1966, and they would often meet at the Royal Exchange Hotel in Toowong. They became close friends, and when Blackman moved to Sydney, Thompson’s interstate travel for work meant that they frequently caught up. This enabled a number of book collaborations, which included the publication of Barbara Blackman’s Certain Chairs in 1968, to which Blackman contributed drawings, illustrating Barbara’s account of their lives in various homes, in which familiar pieces of furniture gave continuity. In 1971, UQP also published Apparition: Poems by A. Alvarez, Paintings by Charles Blackman. The English poet and critic Alvarez originally met Blackman in London ten years earlier, and the publication was the outcome of their close friendship. The seven vivid gouaches, which are reproduced at their original size in the publication, were painted in response to Alvarez’s poems. Queensland modernist architect James Birrell first met Blackman in Melbourne in the early 1950s through the Contemporary Arts Society. He tells stories of sketching classes and Sunday lunches at Blackman’s home in Chrystobel Cresent, Hawthorn. In Life in Architecture: Beyond the Ugliness (2013), Birrell recalls walks with Blackman to designer and sculptor Clement (Clem) Meadmore’s place for a ‘drink and conversation’. Meadmore lived upstairs in a Victorian terrace house that overlooked industrial buildings and railway yards, where ‘schoolgirls walked past, sometimes skipped, in their hats and uniforms’, and ‘we studied art books with de Chirico prints in them’.13 (It was Birrell who introduced Blackman to Frank Thompson after his return from England.) They met up again by chance in 1979 on a street in Maroochydore, and Blackman wrote:

‘I loved the area and its climate and I loved meeting my friend James, who lived in an old wooden house right by the Maroochy River’.14 Birrell also introduced Blackman to the history and natural beauties of the region and encouraged him to explore the landscape, which would become a source of inspiration for Blackman’s art in the 1980s.

James Birrell’s enthusiasm for Charles Blackman as an artist was indicative of all of his Queensland contacts: regardless of vocation, they shared a deep appreciation and love of visual art and literature, and their mutual interests supported and fed Blackman’s creative process.

Lure of the Sun: Charles Blackman in Queensland‘ is at QAG from 7 November 2015 to 31 January 2016.

Charles Blackman / The Blue Alice 1956–57 / Tempera, oil and household enamel on composition board / Purchased 2000. The Queensland Government’s special Centenary Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Charles Raymond Blackman. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2015


1  Barbara Blackman, Glass After Glass: Autobiographical Reflections, Viking, Penguin Books Australia, Victoria, 1997, p.230.
2  Blackman, p.110.
3  Thomas Shapcott, Focus on Charles Blackman, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1967, p.15.
4  Transcript of video interview with Meredith McKinney, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, <>, viewed on 25 May 2015.
5  Betty Churcher, Molvig: The Lost Antipodean, Penguin, Ringwood, Victoria, 1984, p.92.
6  Churcher, p.92.
7  Laurie Thomas, The Most Noble Art of Them All: The Writings of Laurie Thomas, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1976, p.171.
8  Churcher, p.69.
9  William Hatherell, The Third Metropolis: Imagining Brisbane through Art and Literature 1940–1970, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2007, p.118.
10  Pamela Bell served on the first Council of the Australian National Gallery for seven years and on the Board of the Queensland Art Gallery for four years. She published articles in Hemisphere, Art in Australia, and was art critic for the Australian newspaper.
11  George Henry Johnston (1912–70), journalist and author, best known for his autobiographical novel My Brother Jack (London, 1964). Hailed as a landmark Australian novel, it has been a great favourite with generations of Australian readers.
12  Pamela Bell, letter to the Deputy Director, Queensland Art Gallery, date 28 January 1987, held in the QAGOMA Research Library.
13  James Birrell, A Life in Architecture: Beyond the Ugliness, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2013, p.30.
14  Charles Blackman and Al Alvarez, Rainforest, The Christensen Fund, MacMillan, Melbourne, 1988, p.4

The Photograph and Australia

David Moore, Australia 1927–2003 / Migrants arriving in Sydney 1966 / Silver gelatin photograph / Gift of the artist 1997 / Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales / © Lisa, Karen, Michael and Matthew Moore

‘The Photograph and Australia’, touring to QAGOMA from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is a comprehensive exploration of how our understanding of Australia has been shaped by the medium of photography. Drawing on her extensive knowledge, exhibition curator Judy Annear tells a story of the social and political power of photography in an Australian context, with a particular focus on the representation of people and country.

The exhibition opens at the Queensland Art Gallery this weekend. Tickets are on sale now. Adults $12, Concession $10 and Members $9. Bookings fees apply to all tickets booked in advance. Across the opening weekend of the exhibition, the Gallery will host a rich program of events, including an exhibition introduction and tour with Judy Annear, Senior Curator, Photographs, AGNSW, and Michael Hawker, and talks with exhibiting artists Patrick Pound and Rowan McNaught. Sunday 5 July sees the first in a series of monthly ‘Beyond the Lens’ floor talks with Michael Aird, ‘The Photograph and Australia’ publication contributor and freelance curator, researcher and writer.

The development of photography in the 1840s parallels the growth of the colonies and settler relations with Indigenous Australians. In ‘The Photograph and Australia’, Judy Annear, Senior Curator, Photographs, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, charts photography from its nineteenth-century wellspring through to the present day, depicting the radically diverse artistic and documentary approaches to photographic practice, what they say and what they help to define regarding Australia and its inhabitants. By doing so, Annear assembles a powerful amalgam of historical and contemporary photographic images prompting questions about how photography has fundamentally shaped our perceptions of national identity, of the world at large, and of each other.

What the exhibition so effectively captures is the phenomenal reach of photography: as historical and contemporary record; tool of mass communication; and esoteric, highly individualised art form. Annear has said that ‘there is nothing else quite like it, except perhaps the word, in terms of flexibility, visibility and ubiquity’.1 It is impressive that this encyclopaedic collection of images — potentially overwhelming in the context of a display — is so sympathetically presented to reveal photography’s aesthetic and technical evolutions.

‘The Photograph and Australia’ is assembled thematically rather than chronologically. Photographic groupings highlight different dynamics: the dialogue between photographer and subject; the construction of place; depictions of family and personal relationships; and the collection, classifying and distribution of images. We see also the dynamic between the amateur and the professional studio photographer. These juxtapositions ask us to reassess social and cultural constructs of people, place and identity.

Richard Daintree. England/Australia 1832–78 / Midday camp 1864–70 / Photograph overpainted with oils / Collection: Queensland Museum, Brisbane

Nineteenth-century photography was largely about recording what was encountered — the people and the landscape — as seen in the Queensland photographs of Richard Daintree. The early twentieth century witnessed greater artistic interpretation of the medium. Harold Cazneaux was one of the talented photographers who rose out of this movement, developing a unique style that foreshadowed the next wave of photographers, such as Max Dupain with his depiction of a rapidly changing Australia. This change was at its most confrontational point during the protest movements of the 1960s and 70s, with the emergence of the youth-orientated counterculture, the women’s movement and indigenous land rights. This period encouraged a new type of photographer, one who used the medium as a means of personal and artistic expression as well as a potent tool for recording relationships, and the concept of our time and place in the world. A powerful example of this is the diaristic and durational photography of Sue Ford. Photography as a practice underwent scholarly and curatorial re-evaluation in the 1970s and began to be collected seriously by public galleries. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, dynamic photographic practices, often studio-based, emerged and were informed by the theoretical discourses of postmodernism and feminism, in particular, and related the history of visual art to the various traditions of photography. Diverse new works challenged the way we looked at subject and medium, and proposed new social and artistic contexts for visual expression that continue to the present day.

Harold Cazneaux, Australia 1878–1953 / Spirit of endurance 1937 / Silver gelatin photograph / Gift of the Cazneaux family 1975 / Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales

The Photograph and Australia’ is accompanied by an impressive publication, which acts as a comprehensive exploration of the subject. Nothing of this scope has been produced since Gael Newton’s Shades of Light (National Gallery of Australia, 1988). Essays by scholars of photography accompany this lavishly illustrated publication, cementing its importance not just for experts but for all lovers of photographic image.

An Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition

Margaret Olley ‘The banana cutters’

Margaret Olley, Australia 1923-2011 / The banana cutters 1963 / Oil on board / Purchased 2014 with funds from Drs Philip and Lenna Smith through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Estate of Margaret Olley

Acquired with the generous assistance of Drs Philip and Lenna Smith, this rare figurative work by the much loved Australian artist Margaret Olley is an intriguing and valuable addition to our Collection.

Working in the second half of the twentieth century, Margaret Olley made traditional still life and interior subjects uniquely her own. It was in Brisbane in the 1960s that she first established what would become a national reputation. Arguably one of her most productive and creative periods, a number of works from the Brisbane period drew their inspiration from the human figure. However, as curator Barry Pearce has noted, Olley’s interest in the figure did not last:

. . .over time, figure painting began to recede from her repertoire, with the exception of her own image, a detached observer occasionally seen reflected from a mirror, or amongst objects of her domestic surroundings.1

Between 1960 and 1963, Olley painted several figurative works, including some that feature Aboriginal girls as subjects, several of which were awarded prizes and garnered her further critical acclaim. Olley’s 1962 exhibition at the Johnstone Gallery in Brisbane created nationwide publicity with the information that paintings to the value of L3000 were sold, doubling the previous record for a woman artist. Reviewing the 1962 exhibition for the Bulletin, Dr JV Duhig remarked ‘Margaret Olley has reached the flood tide of her art and has stepped up to the top ranks of our artists’.2

Painted in 1963, Olley’s The banana cutters is historically significant because of its combination of uniquely Queensland subject matter and exemplary figure painting. Pearce notes that ‘1959 marked a crucial turning point in her career when she gave up drinking and set herself towards becoming a better artist’.3 The early 1960s were tremendously successful for Olley: with a new found enthusiasm and energy she became more confident in her compositional design and use of colour. The banana cutters embodies these qualities, and was awarded first prize at Brisbane’s 1963 Royal National and Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland Exhibition of Art.

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Margaret Olley / Susan with flowers 1962 / Oil on canvas / Gift of Finney Isles and Co. Ltd. 1964 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © QAG

Three male workers appear on a banana plantation. The figures interact with each other through the labour at hand, one hoisting the bright green banana stem on his shoulder while the others cut and sort bananas into a box. The viewer’s eye is drawn from the shadowed interior of the shed to the bright light and vegetation outside, framed by the window and doorway. At the time of painting, three of Olley’s major prizes were for flower and figure studies. They included the 1963 Bendigo Prize for Girl with daturas, the 1963 Finney’s Centenary Art Prize for Susan with flowers (QAG Collection), and the 1965 Redcliffe Art Contest for Patricia with fruit and flowers. The banana cutters follows this figure-and-still-life format but with a uniquely masculine working subject. The male figures, like the Indigenous subject of Susan with flowers, are depicted with an innate, quiet dignity that is enhanced by Olley’s choice of harmonious colour relationships.

The workers may be of South Sea Islander descent, pointing to the history the South Sea Islanders recruited — or abducted — from across Melanesia between 1863 and 1904, and brought to work across Queensland and northern New South Wales. It is interesting to compare their depiction here with that of artist Donald Friend, who previously travelled with Olley to north Queensland to paint and who presented his Islander subjects in a more romanticised, idyllic style. Olley’s figures are represented by a straightforward realism, in the performance of their labour.

From a period in Margaret Olley’s career marked for its vitality and creative freedom, The banana cutters adds great depth to the Gallery’s holdings. Through its intriguing subject matter and masterly rendering of colour and light, the painting is an invaluable addition to the Collection by this much loved Australian artist.

1  Barry Pearce, Margaret Olley, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1996, p.19.
2  JV Duhig, ‘The flood tide’, Bulletin, Sydney, 3 November 1962.
3  Pearce, p.17.

George W Lambert’s War composition

George W Lambert, Australia/England 1873-1930 / (War composition) c.1922 / Oil on canvas / Gift of Philip Bacon, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2013. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

To mark the centenary of the beginning of World War One, a work by George W Lambert, (War composition) c.1922, has been generously donated to the Gallery by Philip Bacon, AM.

Australian war artists have made a rich contribution to Australian art, while playing a significant role in Australia’s interpretation of its wartime history. One of Australia’s earliest and most respected was George W Lambert, who produced a number of notable war works, including the Gallery’s Walk (An incident at Romani) 1919–22, which was commissioned and gifted to the Gallery by the 2nd Light Horse Ambulance in memory of comrades who did not return from the war.

(War composition) c.1922 was painted after Lambert had completed his appointment as a war artist and had returned to Australia in 1921. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Lambert, unable to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force in London, spent most of the war years in the Voluntary Training Corps, where he taught horse-riding, and later as a divisional works officer supervising timber-getting in Wales. It was not until December 1917 that he was appointed as an official war artist, AIF, with the honorary rank of lieutenant, and commissioned to execute 25 sketches and to paint TheCharge of the Light Horse at Beersheba on 31 October 1917. This was an intense period of artistic activity that involved travelling to Egypt, Gallipoli and Palestine.

Anne Gray, Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia, believes (War composition) may have been cut down from a larger, unresolved painting, which initially included a scene of figures in a similar landscape, with this painting occupying the top right-hand corner. The larger painting was possibly a preliminary concept for the War Memorial mural competition for the State Library of Victoria. There is other evidence of Lambert recycling works: the Collection painting Portrait of Thea Proctor 1905, which features the head of the sitter, is in actuality a small section cut from a much larger painting originally entitled Alethea (also 1905). Another painting by Lambert in the Collection that has been cropped from a larger original is The artist and his wife 1904. Evidence suggests that the work was in the artist’s studio at the time of his death and exhibited at Anthony Horderns Gallery, Sydney, in 1930.

We have no knowledge of Lambert travelling to the battlefields in France, so we can assume that (War composition) may have been inspired by a photograph or perhaps a press description. This tranquil rural scene of wheat sheaves and fields is marred by the blasted stump of a tree, broken fence palings and the carcass of a horse. In the background, the open fields appear to be marked by what could be trenches and bomb craters; the only sign of potential life is a group of buildings. The painting depicts a different theatre of war from Lambert’s Walk (An incident at Romani), so usefully expands our holdings depicting World War One.