Menzies Art Brands



Waterpond, Cottlesbridge 1976, is from an accomplished group of paintings that Fred Williams produced over 1975 and 1976. This was a period of renewed formal experimentation in his work and a reacquaintance with key subjects and motifs that were accessible within a short drive from his Melbourne base. It was also a time in which Williamss work was being successfully introduced to an international audience, culminating in 1977 with a solo exhibition of gouache paintings held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Waterpond, Cottlesbridge was painted at a favourite site at Dunmoochin, about 30 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. On 21 September, Williams recorded in his diary that the work was painted and that he was pleased with the result.(1) It was later worked on further in the studio. For the first time since the work re-entered the market, in 1978-79, the painting is presented with its correct title.

Dunmoochin was significant to Willliams for several reasons. He first visited there in 1969 as a guest of his artist-friend Clifton Pugh, so it held good memories and close personal associations. Pugh had established a vibrant artist community that consisted of outbuildings and studios spread over two hundred acres. Artists such as Williams, John Olsen (born 1928) and Rick Amor (born 1948) all gravitated there and, in the process, produced some of their finest works.

Fred Williams was particularly taken by the dense crops of wattle in bloom in the Dunmoochin area, stating in his diary in July 1969 that he would like to return to paint the golden yellow flowering native trees as they grew to their maturity.(2) Williams was also intrigued by the landscape that surrounded Dunmoochin. Ken Wach has eloquently described this terrain as made up of hills and slopes of shale and gravel soil its vegetation is sparse and scrubby with many stands of hardy wattle trees.(3)

Williams quickly saw the potential. For him the Dunmoochin landscape presented possibilities that were consistent with his unique take on the scrubby foliage of the Australian bush and the simplification and flattening of the fore and middle-ground of the landscape in his paintings. The sky is rarely apparent in these works as Williams concentrated on a cross-section of nature that was neither picturesque nor conventional in the way that it was chosen or treated.

Williams also responded to the scattered ponds, creeks and pools of water at Dunmoochin, and in several other areas on the fringes of Melbourne. Williamss fascination with water and how it shaped and punctuated Australias topography was something that came to the fore during the 1960s and 1970s. His work was undergoing dramatic change and water provided him with a good subject to draw out innovative approaches and techniques. While the desert, mountain and plain offered Williams a feeling of boundless space and open skies, the secluded pond environment offered him the ability to look down and into the subject simultaneously.

The more enclosed and concentrated motif of water draws in and focuses the viewers attention Williams consistently developed this idea in his You Yangs, Upwey and Lysterfield paintings, culminating in the Werribee Gorge and Kew Billabong series of 1975-76. He was also attracted to the alluring contrasts of colour and the seemingly abstract forms of the ponds that were set at oblique angles into hills and paddocks.

The first major example of the pond in the landscape motif at Dunmoochin is a gouache painting from 1969. This sparsely rendered landscape has an ochre background consistent with his more minimal work of the period and his celebrated Australian landscapes. By 1975, the pared-back approach is replaced by more exuberant details and an expansive range of colours in works such as Cottlesbridge Landscape with Derelict Car. Williamss change from a tonal to colour palette is particularly apparent. Strong blues punctuate the foliage at sky level, while delicate passages of mauve, purple, green and black enliven the bush setting and enhance the overall composition.

Waterpond, Cottlesbridge 1976 adopts a similar compositional focus and palette. In Williamss hands the bush pond is tucked away and enveloped, almost protectively, in the folds of the pink and yellow shale hills and the surrounding trees. The brackish water is counterbalanced by a carefully balanced palette consisting of an ochre under-paint and more brightly highlighted areas applied as dappled brushwork, drags and swirls. Williams uses open weave on the canvas, showing how the illusion of depth can be suggested but also contained on a two-dimensional plane.

The colour contrasts pitted an assortment of colours against one another so that they vibrated individually. Williams often referred to chemist and proto-Impressionist theorist Michel Eugne Chevreuls (1786-1889) influential 1839 treatise The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colour and his concept of how colours change their value depending upon their placement near other colours. In Chevreuls words: In the case where the eye sees at the same time two contiguous colours, they will appear as dissimilar as possible, both in their optical composition [hue] and in the height of their tone [mixture with white or black]. Williams used these ideas to develop his own colour charts and wheels and this in turn informed the development of works such as Waterpond, Cottlesbridge.(4)

Williams also shows his mastery of how the Australian landscape could be thoughtfully composed through strongly articulated line and the presence of strong diagonal lunges and drives. From the top right of the painting, the road reaches down towards an abrupt intersection with a hill that in turn darts away to the left. The composition is divided into three sections but not in the traditional way of ascribing equal value to successive horizontal bands. In this respect, Williams seems to be consciously recalling the pioneering landscapes of Paul Czanne (1839-1907), and works featuring country roads that start at the top of the work and lead into the centre of the picture. The radical foreshortening in these paintings could be seen from Czannes own favourite retreat, his studio nestled on the Lauves hill in Aix en Provence.

A second painting produced at around this time reveals how Williams also set up his painting position to establish new and different points of view. The aptly named Bush Pond 1976, is painted at closer range than Waterpond, Cottlesbridge and focuses on the pond and its immediate surrounds at the same time of the year.

Williams clearly enjoyed the Dunmoochin bush pond, hill and foreshortened motif so much that he returned and completed another major painting Cootamundra Wattles 1977, in the following year. Together, these works reveal how Williams frequently returned to locations that he felt an affinity with to interpret the same place at contrasting times of the year. Waterpond, Cottlesbridge breathes of the artists appreciation of a private and secluded landscape and the magical seasonal variations and colours that the Australian bush can offer. It is a celebration of Williamss confidence in a brighter palette and the dancing of paint across the surface.


1. Williams, L., Correspondence with Rodney James, 21 September 2017.

2. Williams, F., quoted in Mollison, J., A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1989, p.174.

3. Wach, K., Menzies, Important Australian and International Fine Art and Sculpture, Sydney, 10/12/2015, Lot No.40.

4. Chevreul, M., The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colour, 1839, (reprinted in English in 1854).


Rodney James BA (Hons); MA


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