Fred Williams: Painter, Printmaker

Fred Williams, Australia 1927–1982 / Burnt ferns 1969 / Oil on canvas / Purchased 1970 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © QAGOMA

Fred Williams: Painter, Printmaker explores the Gallery’s significant holdings of works by Fred Williams (1927–82): dating from the 1940s and 50s to the portfolio ‘Fred Williams lithographs 1976–1978’, his last great print series. Comprising more than 90 works, many never before shown at the Gallery, this is a reassessment of a kind — a way for audiences to revisit Williams’s extraordinary achievements, as both painter and printmaker.

Join Angela Goddard, Curator, Australian Art to 1975 on Thursday 13 March for insights into the artist’s work before the exhibition closes on Sunday 16 March at 5pm.

Seeing the Australian land in a completely fresh way was Williams’s great life’s work. Living in Melbourne from 1956 until the end of his life, he roamed the near-city locations he could reach by train, since he did not drive a car. He devoted a day each week to painting directly from the landscape, and his work clearly evolved from this ongoing personal experience of the bush. His painting sites included Sherbrooke Forest in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, the You Yangs Regional Park, Yellingbo, Lysterfield, the Mornington Peninsula and Upwey, where he lived from 1963; much later, he travelled further afield, to Queensland in the early 1970s and to the Pilbara between 1979 and 1981.

This sustained looking at the land, and thinking about how to depict it, led Williams to adopt pictorial forms as various as the country he saw. Seven fine paintings, from the early spare Echuca landscape 1961 to the important, very reduced and almost abstract Australian landscape III 1969, are in the open double-height Gallery 5 at QAG, allowing their distinctive visual languages to sing out across the space. This is a rare opportunity to see one artist working through the painterly problems set by Australian landscapes, with their wide planes and deceptive distances. Burnt ferns 1969, with its glorious splotches of thick paint on a pristine ground, has a more personal resonance: in 1968 and 1969, he and his family survived two deadly bushfire seasons. The only slightly later Yan yean 1970 is luscious, almost edible — Williams could be very sensual in his approach to paint.

2-1611_001 Echuca
Fred Williams, Australia 1927–1982 / Echuca landscape 1961 / Drypoint, engraving and aquatint on wove paper / Gift of Mrs Lyn Williams 1982 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Estate of Fred Williams
Fred Williams, Australia 1927–1982 / Glasshouse Mountains III 1971 / Gouache on paper / Purchased 1995 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Estate of Fred Williams

Two fine gouaches from Williams’s trips to Queensland — Glasshouse Mountains III of 1971, made on his first visit, and Mangrove rootlings, from his second in 1973 — are important inclusions in the display. They show Williams’s eagerness to explore the challenges of new types of country: at the time, he noted that his journey north had ‘changed my colour considerably — it should stand me in well for the future!’

However, while he is celebrated as a painter, Williams also excelled as a printmaker. What he saw in the open air provided him with endlessly fascinating material for experimentation in a variety of printmaking forms. Etching was, however, the key technique, and the majority of his works in the Collection are etchings, many of which have been generously gifted to the Gallery by James Mollison, AO. This was a crucial medium for the artist: working in etching often allowed Williams to resolve compositional issues that would then flow onto his paintings.

While he has become celebrated for his remarkable contribution to the picturing of the Australian landscape, Williams started as a figurative artist, studying at the National Gallery School in Melbourne from 1943 and later with George Bell, whose influence can be seen in the large drawing of a nude made around 1947.1 Between 1952 and 1956, while he was living and studying in London, Williams took refuge from the cold and austerity of the postwar city in the warm embrace of its surviving music halls, making the many prints and paintings of his ‘Music Hall’ series. As Barry Humphries noted in 1998, ‘Fred Williams’s music hall prints . . . perfectly capture the cavernous density of these old, condemned theatres and the poignant vulnerability of the actors’. Equally tender is his painting of an unnamed cellist who probably worked in the halls, which has recently entered the Collection through the generosity of Geoffrey and Lawrence Hirst. The first of Williams’s many series on a theme, his ‘Music Hall’ works marked the emergence of a distinctive working method, which he brought back with him to Australia and used for his later major landscape series.

]Fred Williams, Australia 1927–1982 / Cellist 1952 / Gouache on card / Gift of Geoffrey and Lawrence Hirst in memory of their parents Dr Paul Hirst and Mrs Fritzi Hirst through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2009. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Estate of Fred Williams
Fred Williams, Australia 1927–1982 / Max Miller (from ‘Music hall’ series) 1966 / Etching, engraving, aquatint, drypoint on pale grey laid paper / Purchased 1981 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Estate of Fred Williams

Fred Williams died in 1982 at the early age of 55, having achieved in 25 years an enduring body of work. Few Australian artists in any period or medium have made a comparable contribution to the national imaginary. In his eulogy at Williams’s funeral, artist and long-time friend John Brack noted that: Fred brought us a new vision of Australia’s landscape at least as valid and impressive as any of the two or three major illuminations which went before it. He changed the way we see our country: an achievement which will live long after all of us are gone.2

1  This work has recently been correctly dated with the kind assistance of Mrs Lyn Williams.
2  John Brack, quoted in Judith White, ‘Fred Williams: A life in landscape’, Australian Art Collector, no.8, April–June 1999, p.76,<>, viewed 11 October 2013.