40. ARTHUR BOYD
The landscape genre is one that Arthur Boyd repeatedly revisited throughout his life. Between his intensely imaginative bouts of figurative painting, such as his Nebuchadnezzar or Bride works, Boyd returned to the tranquillity of landscape painting, almost as a palate cleanser. Many of his series, in particular his famed Bride series, have a distinctly ominous feel as Boyd employed dark tones and sombre subjects. In contrast, his landscapes often provide a point of respite, with warmer, lighter hues and more serene, optimistic subjects. The landscape that never ceased to inspire Boyd was of course his beloved Shoalhaven.
After living in London throughout the 1960s, Boyd and his wife Yvonne returned to Australia in 1971. They had been informed that a property called Riversdale was for sale in the Shoalhaven region, and purchased it from photographs alone, so strong was their desire to live in the area. A few years later in 1979, the now famous Bundanon came up for sale nearby, and the Boyds wasted no timing in buying the property.1 By this stage, the Shoalhaven area had already become the major source of inspiration for his artistic practice, as seen in the paintings on copper exhibited at Australian Galleries in Melbourne in 1976.
From this series, one work of particular relevance to our present painting is Fitzroy Falls 1976 which depicts the same dramatic 81-metre waterfall plummeting from the flat line of the cliff top.2 Fitzroy Falls is about an hour north of Bundanon in the Shoalhaven region. Boyd commented on the continual inspiration he drew from the light and colour of the area, specifically citing ‘the brilliance of the blues and pinks’ which we see reflected in the present work.3
Significantly, fellow artist and lifelong friend, Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) painted Arthur Boyd at Fitzroy Falls in 1988. The painting, titled Arthur Boyd at Fitzroy Falls, shares certain similarities with Boyd’s Bathers at Fitzroy Falls: a warm palette of pinks and oranges, a strip of brilliant blue sky at the top, and a somewhat ambiguous figure in the foreground. Nolan’s painting was selected as a finalist for the Archibald Prize of 1988, but was regrettably withdrawn from contention as Nolan had not resided in Australia for the year prior. Nevertheless, the fact that this was the one and only Archibald entry of Nolan’s entire career signifies how highly he regarded the subject.
Boyd’s ‘Bathers’ pictures from the early to mid-1980s typically depict the bathers as an intrusion on the serenity of the river, lurid red as they burn in the sun. Here, the figures are more subdued and at peace with the surrounding landscape. The viewer first notices the large figure in the foreground with the bright red cap, with the eye eventually finding the figure standing beneath the waterfall, almost a chameleon against the rocky cliff behind.
Boyd’s vision of the Shoalhaven, including Fitzroy Falls, has become a part of our national consciousness through these distinguished late works. The landscape continues to inspire artists today after he and Yvonne gifted the property of Bundanon, along with a collection of artworks, to the Australian Government in 1993. It was one of the most significant acts of philanthropy in Australian art history and a reflection of Boyd’s passion for the area in his desire to share it – as he often stated, ‘you can’t own a landscape’.4
1. McKenzie, J., Arthur Boyd: Art & Life, Thames & Hudson, London, 2000, p.169
2. Fitzroy Falls 1976, oil on copper, 30.1 x 20.9 cm, private collection, Melbourne; illus. in McKenzie, J., Arthur Boyd: Art & Life, Thames & Hudson, London, 2000, p.172
3. Arthur Boyd, quoted in McKenzie, J., Arthur Boyd: Art & Life, Thames & Hudson, London, 2000, p.171
4. Arthur Boyd, quoted in ‘Our Storries’, Bundanon Trust, accessed May 2021: www.bundanon.com.au/our-stories
Asta Cameron BA, MA (Art Curatorship)