35. ARTHUR BOYD Death of a Horse 1981 image
Jan 2017


by Ken Wach

Arthur Boyd’s painting Death of a Horse of 1981 arose from an emotionally felt experience. A horse called ‘Flame’, owned by a local child, had died after becoming entangled in barbed wire discarded after a flooding of the Shoalhaven River at Bundanon, Boyd’s home, near Nowra in New South Wales. The child’s family had the pony buried under a flame tree (often called a coral tree) in the field where it had perished. The unfortunate occasion left an indelible impression on Boyd. His emotions must have raced about and he was prompted to paint at least three works - the present painting; Horse Skull under a Blanket on a Starry Night of 1981 and Flame Tree, Horse and Skull, Black River of 1983.

All manner of mental associations run footloose through Boyd’s painting Death of a Horse of 1981: the destructive force of Nature; the sadness of loss; the effects of sorrow; the linking of death and renewal; the cycles of birth and rebirth and the confluence of the name of the horse and the name of the tree. There is little doubt that some or all of these thoughts crowded Boyd’s mind and were funnelled into the composition and pictorial elements of the painting – it is therefore very much a response rather than a recording. The following words of the normally highly reticent Boyd bear this out:

After I was told the story of the horse I unearthed the skull from under the tree and put it in my studio. The coral trees were in bloom and I suppose the two ideas came together – the flowering tree and the dead horse. I put in the barbed wire because it was the cause of the horse’s death and it also is a reminder of the country and its cruelty.1 

Boyd is right: the two ideas did come together.  Considered in this way, Boyd’s painting Death of a Horse of 1981 is a powerful compendium of the artist’s associationalist emotions – it is a type of ‘this stands for that’ analogical construct. The painting is almost a cruciform shaped icon of the forces of Nature and bears some formal links to some of Sidney Nolan’s Crucifixion works. Its most powerful association, for the religious and spiritually devout Boyd, must have been of Golgotha (the place of a skull) and the human drama of theological redemption – it’s all there: the skull, the wood of the tree, the thorn-like barbed wire, the blood-like colour of the tree, the mountain and even the attendant-like background trees that stand as sentinel witnesses to the silent tragedy.  

Arthur Boyd’s large and symbolically significant painting Death of a Horse of 1981 has a very impressive exhibition history and an impeccable and directly traceable provenance. The painting’s compacted emotional symbolism and quiet ambience add to the aesthetic solemnity of the scene. The majesty of the painting seems charged with a sublimated sense of the numinous in Nature. It reveals the hidden Boyd at his most reflective.

I wish to acknowledge the kind assistance of the Bundanon Trust with the research for this essay.


1. Quoted in McGrath, S., The Artist and the River, Bay Books, Sydney 1982, p.20 and Wilson, G., Rivers and Rocks, Arthur Boyd and Brett Whiteley, Bundanon Trust, West Cambewarra, NSW, 2001. The incident is fully discussed and placed in its proper context in Bungey op. cit


Bungey, D., Arthur Boyd, A Life, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, 2007

Hoff, U., The Art of Arthur Boyd, Andre Deutsch, London, 1986

McKenzie, J., Arthur Boyd Art & Life, Thames and Hudson, London, 2000

McGrath, S., The Artist and the River, Bay Books, Sydney 1982

Pearce, B., Arthur Boyd Retrospective, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1993

Philipp, F., Arthur Boyd, Thames and Hudson, London, 1967

Smith, B.; Smith, T., Australian Painting 1788-90, Oxford University Press,
Melbourne, 1991

Thomas, D., Outlines of Australian Art: The Joseph Brown Collection, Macmillan,
South Melbourne, 1989

Wilson, G., Rivers and Rocks, Arthur Boyd and Brett Whiteley, Bundanon Trust,
West Cambewarra, NSW, 2001

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

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