ROBINSON, William - Springbrook Cliffs with Waterfalls image
Nov 2023


by Catherine Baxendale

In the mid-1980s, when William Robinson first began to paint the subtropical rainforests of southeast Queensland, he signalled a major departure from the two dominant paradigms of Australian landscape painting: the pastoral landscapes of Arthur Streeton, Hans Heysen and Elioth Gruner in the 1920s and 30s; and the desolate outback scenery of Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale in the 1940s and 50s.1 Nolan and Drysdale’s vision of central Australia emphasised its bleak monotony and harshness, with the artist assuming the role of visitor to a hostile and alien land.2 In contrast, Robinson’s landscapes celebrate the abundance and vitality of the rainforest: they are born out of a deep affinity with his immediate environment.

Robinson’s greatest artistic innovation has been his abandonment of single-point perspective in favour of what he calls a ‘multi-viewpoint’, allowing the landscape to be glimpsed from multiple vantage points within a single image.3 To stand before one of Robinson’s landscapes is to become immersed within it – to be transformed from an observer to a ‘participant in the landscape.’4 

Robinson’s foray into landscape painting came relatively late in his career, when in 1984 the artist and his wife Shirley purchased a rural property at Beechmont, in the Gold Coast hinterland. Robinson began to explore his new surroundings on foot, making regular excursions into nearby Lamington National Park:
When we moved to 208 acres [at] Beechmont I would spend weekdays and holidays doing rather thorough walks. I was not purposely gathering the information but just letting the experiences happen. I would go to my studio and unravel the experience.5

Robinson had already begun to experiment with unconventional perspective in his Farmyard series – his wonderfully outlandish paintings of the goats, cows and chickens that inhabited his old farm at Birkdale. But the artist’s encounters with the rainforest at Beechmont and Springbrook would inspire him to experiment still further – to attempt to recreate on canvas what it felt to be fully immersed in this new setting. As Lou Klepac writes:

Robinson found that a good way to integrate the landscape into himself was by walking through it. The visitor walks through it once; the resident walks through it repeatedly, each walk revealing a new dimension, tearing away the barriers of preconceived ways of seeing … Robinson’s landscape was all around him. In order to see it, to get to terms with it, and observe it closely, he had to swivel his body, turn his head, make physical contortions. It is this change of physical attitude before a landscape which has produced these highly original paintings.6

In Robinson’s rainforest paintings, seeing becomes a physical act: what these works depict is not a mere view of the landscape, but an overall sensation. An inherent part of these images is what we cannot see: the sounds of birdsong and wind through trees; the invigorating scent of the forest floor after rain; the feeling of brushing against the ferns and palms that line a forest path. In Robinson’s paintings, the landscape is made tangible.

Springbrook Cliffs with Waterfalls 1997 reveals the evolution of Robinson’s painterly technique from his first landscapes of Beechmont in the 1980s. Robinson’s earlier landscapes are often compared to tapestries, with their composition segmented into patches of forest and sky.7 In the present work this effect is far less pronounced. Robinson presents a sublime, open vista of forested clifftops beneath a halo of white cloud. The viewer’s eye is dramatically plunged into the deep gullies and crevices of the rainforest before circling through an inverted canopy overhead. Robinson’s brushstrokes have become noticeably finer, and his attention to the landscape’s precious detail – the markings on a tree, the leaves on a shrub – has become more acute. Discussing his technique with Janet Hawley, Robinson explained:

Every brushstroke to me is real: real trees, real ground, everything is felt as if I am walking over it, nothing is just filling-in an outline … I use small brushes, and mix my colours one brushstroke at a time, so sometimes you can see one brushstroke with several colours on it … I like to work wet on wet, to go back into the paint when it is wet, rather than scumbling another layer over the top of dry colours. I’m a slow painter, but I’m consistent.8

In Springbrook Cliffs with Waterfalls, we become aware of a juxtaposition between the eternal underlying structures of the landscape and the ephemeral living forms that inhabit it. Coinciding with a heightened collective awareness of humanity’s impact on the environment, Robinson’s art ‘conveys not only the magic and mystery of the forest but also a sense of its transience.’9 Robinson’s personal life has been marked by the loss of close family members – his father and two daughters – and his landscapes may be interpreted as meditations on the ultimate brevity of life.10 Robinson’s expansive vision of the landscape reflects a certain humility about his place in the world, and an acceptance of life’s unknowability:

We are only here for a very short time. I don’t have the theological knowledge or brain power to understand why good or bad things happen, but they both happen … As you get older, you realise the finiteness of yourself in this infinity, the smallness of yourself in this universe, and this affects the way you try to understand your place within it.11

 1. Klepac, L. William Robinson: Paintings 1987-2000, The Beagle Press, Sydney,
2001, p.20
2. Ibid.
3. Fern, L., William Robinson, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1995, p.49
4. Klepac, L., op. cit., p.22
5. William Robinson, quoted in Klepac, L., op. cit., p.22
6. Klepac, L., op. cit., pp.22-23
7. Hawley, J., ‘William Robinson: Portrait of an Artist,’ in Artists in Conversation, The Slattery Media Group, Melbourne, 2012, p.159
8. William Robinson, quoted in ibid., p.160
9. Fern, L., op. cit., p.53
10. Hawley, J., op. cit., p.158
11. William Robinson, quoted in ibid., pp.158-159

Catherine Baxendale

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