Menzies Art Brands



Fred Williams was always reluctant to exhibit his work. His modest temperament meant that he felt uncomfortable about baring all of what he always considered to be a private activity, born of personal convictions. One might feel the same about revealing the contents of ones private diary.

Despite this, Williams was always considered by his contemporaries to be a painters painter. He remains one of the most respected names in Australian art history.

Williamss paintings are held by every State gallery and most regional galleries in Australia, as well as existing in prominent private and institutional collections. New Yorks Metropolitan Museum of Art holds one of Williamss paintings, Melbournes National Gallery of Victoria holds seven and fourteen are held in the Tate Gallery in London. He has held numerous solo exhibitions and his solo exhibition entitled Fred Williams Landscapes of a Continent at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, successfully introduced his works to a wider international public in 1977.

The present painting, Bush Road with Cootamundras was created during that same year, just five years before his very much lamented and untimely death from lung cancer.

The actual thematic subject matter of Williamss Bush Road with Cootamundras arose, most probably, from the characteristic features of the area around Dunmoochin, an artists community (Williamss artist friend Clifton Pugh (1924-1990), who set up the colony in 1953, was the best known) near Cottlesbridge an area thirty kilometres north-east of Melbourne. Its terrain is made up of hills and slopes of shale and gravel soil its vegetation is sparse and scrubby with many stands of hardy wattle trees. The early blooming Cootamundra wattles (Acacia baileyana) depicted in the present painting indicates that it was painted during the July of 1977 (wattles generally bloom in mid to late Winter), approximately eight years after he started incorporating the tree and the colour of its butter-yellow blossoms in his Cottlesbridge area paintings.

This rare and limited series of paintings have been much sought after for example, Williamss almost identically proportioned Wattles at Dunmoochin of the same year sold at Sothebys for $366,000 (including buyers premium), as long ago as 2007. It is worth noting that the present painting is only the third oil on canvas work publically offered at auction nation-wide in the last twenty-three years.

Williamss Bush Road with Cootamundras shows a close to square rectangular view of land whose vegetational features are characteristic of the Cottlesbridge area. The paintings scumbled paint layer suggests an open profusion of native scrub and saplings that crowd the upper section of the canvas, as if to accentuate the steep rise of the upward slope of the dense brushwood growth of the foreground. This frontal visual plane of smudged greens, greys and dark ultramarine blue tones gives some hint of the almost shadow-less harsh light and brittle qualities of the areas landscape. Its crisp beauty was generally unnoticed until the time of Williams and Pugh it took artists of calibre to reconfigure public perceptions.

It was a superb spot and a delight to paint the Wattles in their natural surrounds, his diary of 24 July 1974 notes.1 Of course, wattles were not the only prime subjects of the present painting. The aesthetic content of the work, its real subject, luxuriates in the type of dash and painterly flair that Williams was so much admired for. The present painting amply displays these attributes: the visual progression of colour harmonies from the lower register to the upper section of the canvas demonstrate an optically symphonic screen of colouristic tones that capture the mottled curtain-like effects of its un-shaded landscape.

The present painting has some similarities to the artists Sherbrooke Forest series that were painted over a decade earlier, but the use of its high-keyed colours, the incidence of a faint suggestion of a horizon line and the curving slash of yellow-ochre paint, which delineates the narrow convex-graded gravel roads of the area. This and the central area of brown earth and rock centres the composition more dramatically than anything in the earlier Sherbrooke series.

Williamss Bush Road with Cootamundras shows a new and more compositionally daring ambition as a type of register of his past concerns combined with the visuality of his new directions. Directions that were hinted at in his earlier Kew Billabong series of paintings, where an open sparseness and a play between stabs and daubs of paint and stains and streaks of pigment take over and control the visual richness of the canvas.

For Williams, the problem lay in how to genuinely render the Australian landscape without resorting to pictorial clichs or the pastoral romanticism common in art of the turn of the Nineteenth Century. For Williams, the answer lay in combining Modernist compositions with traditional paint handling. Williamss paintings are always meticulously prepared and finished. His care with composition placing, pictorial procedure, paint application and glazing gave him the reputation of advancing a certain type of Modernist simplicity while preserving the density, colouristic effects and tradition of earlier landscape art.

Correspondingly, Williamss paintings took on and developed certain characteristics: deft painting handling; a preference for non-recessional flat backgrounds; a reliance upon outdoor painting; a tendency to render form rather than to express feeling and a keen awareness of the visual qualities of the Australian landscape.

In these senses, Williams Bush Road with Cootamundras bears very comfortable comparison with many of the finest of his paintings of the late Seventies. Paintings, that is, such as his You Yangs Landscape of 1978, which attracted a price of $540,600 (including buyers premium) and Bush Pond of 1976, which fetched $402,600 (including buyers premium), both at Sothebys on 26 August 2014, as well as his Trees on a Hillside of 1977 at Sothebys, which sold on 24 April this year for $530,700 (including buyers premium).

Williamss particular vision of the Australian landscape was artistically unique, yet it was recognised and accepted almost immediately to the point where people now speak of a Fred Williams landscape an aesthetic recognition where the eye is educated by the art. In this sense, he is like Sir Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) who also changed how one sees the Australian landscape. This seemingly surprising pairing of Streeton and Williams is not altogether inappropriate, as their paintings were hung side by side in the artists first public museum exhibition, the Heroic Landscape show at the National Gallery of Victoria, in 1970 as organised by Brian Finemore (1925-1975) Australias first Curator of Australian Art.

Experts and astute collectors agree that Williams extended the range of Australias pictorial spectrum. His inclusive vision was not encoded by the past and he, as his close friend John Brack (1920-1999) remarked in his eulogy, changed the way we see our country an admirable achievement for any artist anywhere.

James Mollison (AO), the first Director of the National Gallery of Australia (from 1977 to 1990) was a close friend of Fred Williams. In a very rare interview Mollison summed up his friends artistic achievements:

The not-very-distinguished-looking scrubby country around Melbourne where he went outdoor sketching was known to everybody, but nobody had ever found the language with which to describe it. Williams stripped the land of its seasonal colour variations, ignored the vistas it offered, and concentrated his attention on small elements in the middle distance. By doing so he eliminated the dependence of other painters on the sky. He enjoyed the edges of the hills with their decoration of treetops. He reduced simple landscape features to marks of paint assembled in a formal order.2

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



1. Fred Williams in Mollison, J., A Singular Vision: the Art of Fred Williams, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1989, p.175

2. Bala Starr interview with James Mollison in Fred Williams Pilbara Series, The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne, 2000, p.4



Brack, J., He Changed the Way We See Our Country: Transcript of eulogy given by John Brack, The Weekend Australian, Sydney, April 24-25, 1982

Brack, J. Obituary: Fred WilliamsAppreciation, Art and Australia, vol.20, no.2, Summer, Sydney, 1982

Fred Williams, Australian Landscape Painter, Obituary, The Times, London, UK, May 15 1982

Fred Williams: A Retrospective, Australian National Gallery (now National Gallery of Australia), Canberra, 31 October 1987 - 31 January 1988

Fred Williams Pilbara Series, The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne, 2000.

Greenberg, C., American Painting, in OBrien, J., (Ed.), Clement Greenberg: the Collected Essays and Criticism, vol.4, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993

Haese, R., Rebels and Precursors, The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art, Penguin, Ringwood, 1981

Heathcote, C., A Quiet Revolution, The Rise of Australian Art 1946-1968, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1995

Jones, B., Fred Williams, House of Representatives, Australian Parliament, Hansard, April 27 1982

Davie, M., Fred Williams, The Age Monthly Review, Melbourne, May 3 1982

Lindsay, R.; Zdanowicz, I., Fred Williams: Works in the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1980

Mackie, A., Fred Williams, Abstracted Landscapes, Art and Australia, Sydney, vol.16, no.3, March 1979

Mackie, A., Fred Williams, New Visions in Landscape, Art International, Zrich, vol.XXIII, no.5 - 6, September 1979

McCaughey, P., (Prof.), Fred Williams, Murdoch Books, Millers Point, 2008

Mollison, J., A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1989

Plant, M., (Prof.), Tribute to Fred Williams, Art Bulletin of Victoria, Melbourne, no.23


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