Under the jacaranda: Queensland’s favourite painting


Kerry Gillett shares her thoughts on Queensland’s favourite painting Under the jacaranda 1903 by R Godfrey Riversand also one of Gillett’s favourite works in the Collection.

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R. Godfrey Rivers, England/Australia 1858-1925 / Under the jacaranda 1903 / Oil on canvas / Purchased 1903 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Asking me which is my Collection favourite is like asking me which is my favourite child. I have a favourite choice in each of QAGOMA’s four collecting areas. Like many visitors to the Gallery, I always pause to contemplate the beauty of R Godfrey Rivers’s painting Under the jacaranda 1903.

Richard Godfrey Rivers (1858–1925), an English painter educated at the Slade School of Art London, received a prize for landscape painting in 1883 and exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London before immigrating to Australia in 1889.

From 1890 to 1915, Rivers dominated cultural life in Queensland, as an artist, teacher, and advocate of the state’s first art gallery. Under the jacaranda is a visual record of the artist’s fundamental role in Brisbane’s cultural life during his time in Brisbane and Queensland’s growth as a state post-Federation. Ever since the large oil on canvas entered the Queensland Art Gallery Collection in 1903, it has remained one of the Gallery’s iconic artworks.

Rivers married Selina Jane, née Bell, in St John’s Cathedral in 1901. It is not surprising that Under the jacaranda, his most popular work, features his wife. The painting depicts the couple being served afternoon refreshments in the shade of a flowering jacaranda tree.

‘Old Kiosk’, Brisbane Botanic Gardens, c.1898. / Photograph courtesy: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Brisbane

Contemporary art critics at the time wrote that Rivers’s ‘paintings are strikingly vivid and harmonious’. The artistic composition of this gilt-framed beauty communicates the artist’s skills of landscape painting and portraiture, plus the image of respectability and gentility that Brisbane society aspired to as a newly federated state. The painting not only depicts the popular European tradition of ‘taking tea’ but also showcases his argument that painters who had studied in Europe needed to adapt their colour palette for both the intense sunlight sunlight and distinctive dark lines for shadows to highlight the magnificent violet-blue canopy.

Rivers’s jacaranda is believed to be the first jacaranda grown in Australia. The tree was blown over by a cyclone in 1979, but many jacarandas now growing in Brisbane are from the seeds and cuttings of this first jacaranda.

Some readers will know Under the jacaranda intimately, others less well, and for some it remains a treat to be seen. Next time you are at the Gallery, it is certainly worth visiting.

Kerry Gillett is an art historian and writer, and a QAGOMA Foundation member since 2010

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