35. GARRY SHEAD
Garry Shead has established a considerable reputation as one of Australia’s most prominent figurative artists. His works invariably contain a narrative bent, a whimsical tone, and a highly stylised figurative manner that evokes both the poetic and lyrical. His scenes transpire in a uniquely Australian framework established by the likes of William Dobell (1899-1970) and Arthur Boyd (1920-1999), who also used figurative narration to cast the Australian experience through a mythic lens.
Shead studied at the National Art School in Sydney in the 1960s. He became involved in publishing, contributing to his student magazine at university and working as a freelance cartoonist while making art and developing his creative practice. He wrote an article titled ‘Teaching artists how: the power game’ that was published by The Bulletin, and argued that art school teaching facilities and approaches were inadequate. This perhaps led to his non re-admission into NAS to complete his final year of study in 1963.1 These early preoccupations reveal something of his artistic personality – both his rejection of conformity and his penchant for visual story telling as required by the work of a cartoonist.
Shead’s break with formal studies ultimately had little impact on his success as an artist. As asserted by Sasha Grishin, he was basically a self-taught painter, learning from his extensive engagement with the Old Masters such as Velázquez (1599-1660) and Rembrandt (1606-1669) through travels overseas. For a painter who had a talent and predisposition towards the figure and narrative expression in his art, the masters of the past would have held special appeal. Particularly during his early career in the 1960s and 1970s when abstract art reigned supreme as the ultimate form of avant-garde modernity. In such a context, painting the figure, or more broadly representational art became an act of rebellion against the art establishment. In following his artistic truth, Shead’s work was to rise to considerable heights.
Shead’s Royal Suite of paintings to which the present work belongs, aided the upward trajectory of his career in the 1990s, stimulating a keen market for his work and reflecting his artistic maturity. In this highly original series of paintings created between 1995-1998, Shead charts the imagined progress of Queen Elizabeth II and her royal consort Prince Philip. The works refer to the Royal Tour of Australia in 1954, when the Queen toured the nation and caused a sensation everywhere she went. At the time her visit was viewed with unbridled excitement and enthusiasm as she descended almost as a deity upon colonial shores – the first reigning monarch to ever do so.
A young Garry Shead was only 12 years old when the royal couple made this historic visit. He, like thousands of people lined the shores of Sydney Harbour to watch the royal liner sail in, and was among the 120,000 school children that had special visit from the Queen.2 The vivid memory of catching sight of Her Majesty passing by in the backseat of an open car is one that became lodged in the young artist’s memory and informed the works in this series, created some 40 years later.3
This imaginative series of tableau-like scenes do not reflect actual moments in the Queen’s visit to Australia. Rather they appear as a homage to lost innocence, perhaps referring to a less cynical time where it was easy to believe in the perfection of a monarch as untouchable and untainted. The entire series may be read as a nostalgic fantasy viewed through the innocent eyes of a child, the same child who first witnessed this royal vision in 1954. Throughout the Royal Suite the Queen’s pale form is resplendent in a white gown, and placed in various Australian, often outback locales. Sometimes floating, or posed beneath a hovering crown the Queen appears unblemished, immortal, the closest approximation to a ‘white goddess’4 that her adoring, dumb-founded Australian subjects would ever see.
Notes written on a volume of working drawings and clippings that relate to the series give an insight into Shead’s imaginative musings that prompted the series. Next to a small portrait of the Queen he wrote:
‘Being my secret test[imony of] my own thoughts and feelings from my coronation to the visit to Australia in 1954. Cast in eternal images by my court painter Garry Shead who is free to court or pay court or be a court painter in the manner of Velázques or Goya.’5
These comments suggest that an imaginary stint as court painter in the manner of the Old Masters that Shead so admired seems to underpin the suite. In the present work, Her Majesty does indeed appear to hold court. She sits surrounded by the regalia of her title, holding a royal orb while a kangaroo holds a crown that is poised above her head. Behind her stands her royal consort Prince Philip and a group of adoring onlookers, some with hands placed over their hearts. Further in the distance two hazily defined Aboriginal people that wear ceremonial body paint watch on. The scene is positioned on a hill that slopes down to Sydney Harbour, with the windows of high-rise apartments illuminated in the evening light, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge proclaiming location.
Against the vision of royal grace embodied by the Queen, her Australian subjects appear a somewhat motley assortment. All eyes are focused on her while she stares out with equanimity at the viewer. The gravity of the scene is offset by the absurdity of the fact that it is a kangaroo that places the crown on her head. The kangaroo which features throughout this series is almost identical to that which appears in Shead’s series of works that respond to works by famed English writer D.H Lawrence, which immediately preceded the Royal Suite. In paintings such as We Are in Australia (circa 1996) a kangaroo greets a couple on the shore with a sprig of wattle extended. The idea of the embodiment of Australia in the form of an anthropomorphized kangaroo greeting foreign visitors is continued in the Royal Suite. Though here the kangaroo does not just greet the visitor, but crowns her ruler and monarch.
The unreality of the scene points to the fantasies of a pre-teen boy in whose mind the seed for this series was sewn in 1954. They are flights of fancy that express Shead’s long-held pre-occupation with the female muse that appears in different guises throughout his oeuvre. Yet they also express a particular moment Australian life and culture. The validation a royal visit brought to a fledgling sense of national pride, the near invisibility of Indigenous Australians in this outpouring of unfettered colonial adoration, and the reaction of a young boy to seeing a person who was of another untouchable realm – all become interlaced by this self-appointed painter of Elizabeth II’s court. Set down on canvas for history to record.
1. Grishin, S., ‘Garry Shead’s Gentle Lyricism’, Australian Art Collector, Issue 40, April-June 2017, p.156
2. Grishin, S., The Royal Touch, catalogue essay. URL: https://www.menziesartbrands.com/blog-post/garry-shead-royal-touch-1996
3. Grishin, S., Garry Shead: Encounters with Royalty, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1998, pp.11 – 12
4. Grishin, S., ‘Garry Shead: Amazed and Amused’, Australian Art Collector, Issue 14, October-December 2000, p.81
5. The Royal Series 1995, unpublished scrapbook, n.p. Quoted in Sasha Grishin, The Royal Touch, Catalogue essay. URL: https://www.menziesartbrands.com/blog-post/garry-shead-royal-touch-1996
Marguerite Brown MAArtCur