Menzies Art Brands



William Robinson was born in Brisbane and as a young man he showed considerable promise as a musician to the point that, in 1957, he was a State Finalist in the ABC Concerto and Vocal Competition, which led to a position playing piano for the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Music has remained a large part of his life to this day, but his long-established love of the visual arts eventually prevailed. Consequently, in 1954, he undertook the study of art at the Queensland Teachers College and the Central Technical College in Brisbane. After graduation, he embarked upon a long and very successful career of teaching visual art at the Central Technical College, the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education and the North Brisbane College of Advanced Education. He was appointed Head of the Painting Department of the Queensland University of Technology in 1982 and retired from that position in 1989 to devote himself to painting.

Robinsons early Farmyard paintings of 1979 to 1986 present many scenes with no horizon lines. The depicted animals and fowls within the frame are almost abstract elements set into a flat pictorial space. The Farmyard works are almost all viewed from a high perspective; one that places their pictorial elements within an indeterminate space that leads the viewer to see the images in the painting almost as one would the painterly marks and daubs of a Fred Williams (19271982) painting. It is obvious that Robinsons Farmyard series was an important transitional and pivotal phase that led into the unusual perspectival and compositional characteristics of his later forest and environmental series of the 1990s. The composition of Robinsons accomplished oil painting Tweed Valley, Rainforest Ridge and Beechmont of 1999 shows signs of the hidden compositional finesse of his later paintings in that its central section is made up of a triangular arrangement of pictorial elements that centres the eye and reminds one that the whole painting is an aesthetic rather than naturalistic composition. All in all, this is not a simple scene painting. Robinson attempts to show the symphonic majesty of Nature rather than the details of any particular scene. Tweed Valley, Rainforest Ridge and Beechmont arises from a semi-meditational and contemplative appreciation of the attributes of local realities, as did the earlier paintings of the Farmyard series. The painting presents a heady mix of perspectives and swirling forms that challenge normal viewing and impel the viewers awareness into the paintings in ways that draw attention to small details, to light effects and to the vegetative richness of the scene.

Robinsons highly original use of a fish-eye lens composition seems to have had its origins in a simple yet profound personal experience. At some time during the Nineties, Robinson recalls looking downwards at a puddle of water and being mesmerised by the reflection of the sky, stars and trees in its smooth surface. It was as though there was something magical about looking downwards to see upwards it was as though the simple refected and contained the complex. There was something numinous, otherworldly and spiritual about this interaction between the microscopic and macroscopic and Robinsons pictorial compositions changed correspondingly. From that point onwards his paintings tended to concentrate upon imaginary compactions and inversions of the landscape. The overall distinction of his new puddle of water series of paintings centred upon their sense of inclusiveness in that parts seemed to stand for wholes. The small part at ones feet stood in for the large part over ones head. All this sounds remarkably close to the sentiments found in Williams Blakes (1757-1827) magnificent lines from his wonderful poem Auguries of Innocence (1803-1807):

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

And yet, it is something more than this.  Blakes sentiments are propelled by a deep sense of humble respect for the life of birds, insects and animals, but this admirable attitude is rarely intimated at in Robinsons works, even though on the evidence of his paintings and his published interviews he would certainly fully agree with Blakes words:

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity ... and some scarce see Nature at all.  But to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is imagination itself.

Despite these philosophical similarities Robinsons attitude is closer to the thoughts of the American Transcendentalist writer Henry Thoreau (1817-1862) whose thoughts in his famous novel Walden, or Life in the Woods of 1854, describes natural and personal insights informed by inward guiding spirit; a correspondence between things in Nature and thoughts in the mind. The condition of a leaf reveals the condition of a tree and condition of the tree reflects the condition of the climate. A circular energy contains all living things.

Robinsons paintings draw the viewer in and could belong to the ocean, with its seagrass, kelp and anemones, as well as the air, as they possess shifting forms that have no focus and mesmerise the viewer with subtle changes of colour, shifts of tone and grades of chromatic subtlety. The pictorial structure and visual effects are awe inspiring and almost Romantic in the manner of the nineteenth-century English artist John Martin (1789-1854), whose sweeping landscapes bear apocalyptic or didactic elements entirely absent from Robinson. Robinsons paintings are not naturalistic, literary or didactic and they arise from purely personal responses to his rainforest environment:

With me, mystery is never related to a kind of Tolkien imagery nor one where Merlin might lurk. If anything the mysteries of natural forces are private evocations for me in a similar way that music creates feelings. But observers of my world do not live in the country and relate their understandings through reading of other material. The difficult thing to explain remains the same and that is that the works are about sensation rather than description. I view the earth as a living organism of which we are a part, that is ideally part of its complete unity and complexity. I believe my paintings reflect this in some way by the inclusion of the viewer. The viewer is in fact an important element in the whole understanding of the work.1

One gleans more of the power of Robinsons identification with Nature by making two instructive comparisons. Robinsons closely related painting entitled Tweed Valley and Numinbah from Springbrook of 1998, in a private collection, reveals a rich tapestry of vegetative effects and colouristic flourishes that ranges over farmland on the left, forest density in the centre to a sunlit clouded sky to the right. The whole composition is viewed as though from a cave opening and the painting seems to envelop the viewer with verdancy. This sense of envelopment is all the more present in Robinsons oil painting entitled Springbrook with Lifting Fog of 1999, in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Its density of forms and subtle colours with their close range of tones weaves a web of interlocking trees, branches and foliage that presents a visual analogy of the fecundity of Nature. Robinsons own words fill out these sentiments, in ways that apply to all three paintings:

What I hope to give the viewers of this painting is the feeling that they are themselves surrounded by this light, gentle fog. If they are truly in the landscape and not merely passers-by at the picture in a gallery, they should feel that there is a sensation of fog into which they have moved. They are then looking out of this mist I tried to reveal gentleness in the landscape with the trees emerging slowly and warmly in sunlight. I have tried to include the viewer in the work to live in the vision itself.2

Tweed Valley, Rainforest Ridge and Beechmont is an important painting by an artist at his best.  It was created at a pivotal point in Robinsons life and it is the mature result of aesthetic reflections and meditations that go back many years. Robinson is a painter of sensation rather than scenery and his empathy with Nature and intuitive approach to his local rainforest environment are seen at their most accomplished in this sweeping empathetic vista.


1. Klepac, L., William Robinson Paintings 1987-2000, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2001, p.139
2. Ibid., p.152


Bonyhady, T., Images in Opposition 1801-1890, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985
Hawley, J., William Robinsons Mature Perspectives, The Age Magazine, Melbourne, 20 August, 1994, p.33
Klepac, L., William Robinson Paintings 1987-2000, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2001
Klepac, L., Australian Painters of the Twentieth Century, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2000
Maloon, T., Robinson achieves a Worldly Touch in Rural Isolation, The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, 6 July 1985
Sear. L., Darkness and Light, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2001


Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Former Principal Research Fellow and Head,
School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne


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