Transparent: Watercolour in Queensland 1850s-1980s

JJ Hilder, Australia 1881-1916 / Island schooner, Moreton Bay 1910 / Watercolour over pencil on wove paper on cardboard / Purchased 1967 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Transparent: Watercolour in Queensland 1850s–1980‘ presents an exploration of the breadth and diversity of watercolours held in the Collection. Watercolours appear in the earliest records of European exploration and settlement of Queensland. This new display demonstrates the medium’s important role in the state’s visual history.

Join us at the Queensland Art Gallery on Saturday 22 March for our opening weekend program.

12.00pm | In-conversation: Reflecting on the region
Michael Hawker, Associate Curator, Australian Art, reflects on the works in ‘Transparent’ with Glenn Cooke, Queensland heritage expert.

1.30pm | Conservation talk: Bringing watercolour to light
Join Samantha Shellard, Conservator, Works on Paper, in this exploration of watercolour materials, paints and paper throughout history.

The exhibition publication Transparent: Watercolour in Queensland 1850s–1980s presents the first comprehensive survey of the Gallery’s watercolour collection, bringing to light many never before seen works from our substantial holdings from the mid nineteenth century to the 1980s.

Watercolour’s continuous presence in the history of Australian art has seen it change and evolve with shifts in culture, as well as with the demands and innovations of its practitioners. The early importance of the medium is evident in the Queensland work of Conrad Martens and Harriet Jane Neville-Rolfe. Both produced important works based on the British watercolour tradition, a medium respected for the recording of fine detail and favoured for its portability and convenience. Martens embarked on a sketching tour of northern New South Wales in 1851. He travelled throughout the Darling Downs and surrounding areas sketching homesteads and landscapes in the hope of gaining painting commissions.1 On his return to Sydney, Martens completed commissions for watercolours by working from the pencil drawings and notes he had completed in the field. A fine example of this work is View of Brisbane (in 1851) 1862, which he worked up at a later date. In September 1883, Neville-Rolfe sailed to Queensland to stay with her brother Charles, the manager of ‘Alpha’, a remote cattle station west of Rockhampton. She also chose to capture her impressions in watercolour, which relied on just a few easily transportable materials. The works she produced over the next two years — largely of the local Aboriginal community, flora and fauna, and life on the land, such as family picnics and the breaking-in of horses — endure as documents of colonial life.

CGS Hirst, Australia c.1826-1890 / Erin’s home, Boggo Queensland 1876 / Watercolour on paper / Purchased 2003. The Queensland Government’s special Centenary Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

As the Queensland colony grew, a new group of artists emerged. Naive in style, their impressions documented the lives of smaller land owners and a burgeoning civic pride. This style finds one of its most eloquent expressions in A view of the new Post Office & School of Arts, Bourbong St. Bundaberg from Barolin St. Augt. 1st 1891, Queensland 1891. While the artist remains unidentified, this work is a visual manifestation in watercolour of the material and cultural riches of the regional city of Bundaberg at the time, and is typical of many similar attempts to picture the colony’s prosperity. One particular artist we do know of is CGS (Charles) Hirst, who worked mainly in south-east Queensland from the early 1870s and produced a series of charming, naive renderings of houses and public buildings in Brisbane, Ipswich and Toowoomba, of which Erin’s home, Boggo Queensland 1876 is a fine example. It seems that property owners commissioned the artist to paint views of their holdings, so Hirst performed the same function, in effect, as had Conrad Martens some 20 years earlier (though Hirst’s clientele comprised the numerous small landholders of the Brisbane Valley rather than the wealthy property owners of the Darling Downs).

Unknown, Australia / A view of the new Post Office & School of Arts, Bourbong St. Bundaberg from Barolin St., Augt. 1st 1891, Queensland 1891 / Watercolour, pencil and wash on paper / Purchased 2007. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, as the infrastructure of the colony improved, Brisbane began to acquire facilities found in larger cities, including formal structures for teaching and education.

The emerging teaching system attracted artists like R Godfrey Rivers and FJ Martyn Roberts. Watercolour was an ideal medium in which these artist–teachers could perfect their own skills and they encouraged their students to exploit its versatility. This training often engendered an intense appreciation of watercolour, as can be seen in the early works of Vida Lahey, a student of Rivers. Her mastery of the medium would lead to her using watercolour throughout her career, developing her own highly distinctive, colourful, decorative style.

Vida Lahey, Australia 1882-1968 / Building the bridge 1931 / Watercolour and gouache over pencil on wove paper on cardboard / Gift from the estate of Mrs Gladys Powell 1941 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © QAGOMA

While the early twentieth century saw the rise and rapid dissemination of modernist art and ideas, traditional styles lingered in Queensland, as expressed in the pensive watercolours of Toowoomba-born artist JJ Hilder. The consummate watercolourist, Hilder used the medium for the pure enjoyment of its properties, as in Island schooner, Moreton Bay 1910 where he uses the colour to collect in the textured grain of the paper, casting shadows and creating lyrical effects. However, Australian artists began to increasingly look overseas for inspiration, travelling to Europe to study and often to stay for long periods. Ipswich-born artist Bessie Gibson was one, settling in France in 1906 and not returning to Brisbane until 1947. Artists including Gibson used the medium to record impressions of their travels, just as an earlier generation of British watercolourists had responded to their experiences of Australia.

Kenneth MacQueen, Australia 1897-1960 / Hills and dam c.1930 / Watercolour with pencil, heightened with white on paper adhered to cardboard / Purchased 2002 with funds from Leighton Contractors Pty Limited through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Kenneth Macqueen Estate

The importance of the watercolour medium is mirrored in the establishment of the Australian Watercolour Institute in Sydney in 1924. There is little doubt that Queenslanders Vida Lahey and Kenneth Macqueen, who were both elected to the society in 1926, were the outstanding watercolour practitioners in Queensland at the time. Both used the medium expertly and almost exclusively, achieving national reputations as a result. Lesser known but highly skilled watercolourists working in Queensland at the time included William Bustard, Roy Parkinson and FW (Wal) Potts.

Roy Parkinson, Australia 1901-1945 / The coast at Port Macquarie c.1933 / Watercolour and gouache over pencil on wove paper on cardboard / Gift of public subscribers through Miss Jeanettie Sheldon, Gainsborough Gallery, Brisbane 1934 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Watercolour’s immediacy and vibrancy gave it new impetus during World War Two, where its ‘economy of materials and ease of transport made it an ideal medium for the rapid sketch of impression, for work in the field during war’.2 For example, Douglas Annand was engaged as an RAAF camouflage officer in north Queensland (1941–44). There he endured long and isolated leisure hours, which he filled with painting, producing enough works to hold a number of solo exhibitions at Sydney’s David Jones Gallery in 1944–45, and at the Canberra Hotel, Brisbane, in 1945. Wartime shortages and the scarcity of art materials were not limited to the experience of military personnel. Many artists had to adapt their practices to include watercolour on paper due to availability. One of the most important watercolour painters of the 1940s in Queensland was WG Grant, who came to the medium relatively late in his career, when it became difficult to secure oil paints during the war. Grant’s watercolour style is characterised by its free exploration of brushwork and colour, as in Woman with blue parasol c.1950, which expresses a sense of Brisbane’s unique light.

In the 1950s, a different, more descriptive strain of watercolour expression, which harnessed the powerful connection of Aboriginal Australians with the land, emerged in the work of Joe Rootsey. While Grant’s art focused on Brisbane and its environs, Rootsey’s was based firmly in his country in north Queensland. Inevitably compared with Albert Namatjira, who used Western watercolour techniques to paint his country in central Australia, Rootsey similarly used the medium to paint his own affiliation with country.

The 1960s saw an emergence of a local school of Expressionism in Queensland, which was fully realised in the freely executed watercolours of Joy Roggenkamp. Her technique, although appearing deceptively simple, demonstrated a dazzling handling of the medium, and her work expressed an acute interest in nature, largely exploring the local landscape. A particularly fine example is the late work Thunder and lightning, Glasshouse valley c.1990, where the fluidity of watercolour is an instinctive response to the rhythms and shapes occurring in nature. The beautiful, light liquid washes of the artist’s paintings evoke a highly personal vision of Queensland light, atmosphere and place. A strong counterpoint to earlier uses as a means of record and documentation, Roggenkamp’s works demonstrate watercolour’s seemingly limitless potential for expression.

. . . watercolour painting has been an energetic area of artistic production in Queensland . . .

Joy Roggenkamp, Australia 1928-1999 / Thunder and lightning, Glasshouse Valley c.1990 / Watercolour / Proposed gift to the Queensland Art Gallery Collection

For more than a century and a half, watercolour painting has been an energetic area of artistic production in Queensland, reflecting the history of the state’s development following European settlement. Since its beginnings as a tool of documentation, watercolour has revealed over many years its versatility in the expression of individual artistic visions. In ‘Transparent’, these qualities are revealed in the considerable achievements of Queensland’s watercolour artists who occupy a significant place in the history of Australian art.

1  Martens completed well over 100 drawings and watercolours during his journey, many executed on site. These artworks now form a valuable topographical record of the Queensland landscape only ten years after European settlement.
2  Jean Campbell, ‘A tribute’, in Douglas Annand Watercolours 1935–50, Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, Townsville, 1988, unpaginated.

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The exhibition publication is available from the QAGOMA store and online


  1. They are not Queenslanders but any watercolour retro should include an attempt by the Gallery
    to borrow from the Northern Territory Gallery some of the full boards produced by Otto Paraoultja,
    an Arunta tribesman and of Albert’s period.

    Otto, it seemed to me took a free hand to the medium and takes us back the that prehistoric urge to decorate with lines, in this case, of the landscape.

    Some of his, works held by NT. Gallery are rarely seen. His approach to the medium is ‘cutting edge’
    stuff and takes a firm hold on any thinking watercolourist.