56. ARTHUR BOYD Suffolk Landscape
The life and career of Arthur Boyd neatly spans most of the twentieth century, from his birth just after the end of the Great War until his death on the eve of the new century. Committed to the life of the artist from childhood, he achieved a unique place in Australian art and was publicly recognised at every stage along the way. From his selection as Australia’s representative, with the late Sir Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), in the Venice Biennale of 1958, to his three awards within the official honours list, an OBE under the old Imperial system and an AO, upgraded to AC, in the Australian Honours and Awards. Uniquely for an artist, his selection as Australian of the Year in 1995 completed his outstanding level of official recognition at the national level – the only Australian artist with any higher honour was his brother-in- law, Sidney Nolan (1917-1992), recognised with the Order of Merit under the British system. Exhibiting in Australia and the United Kingdom over more than sixty years brought him critical acclaim from the art world, great public popularity and affection, as well a level of financial security unusual for an artist of any generation.
Arthur Boyd was of a generation that knew if they were to find real acceptance in their own country it had to be earned first on the international stage. The cultural cringe that dominated Australian life in the first half of the twentieth century made it obligatory to leave these shores as soon as possible to make one’s mark in the wider world, with recognition in London considered the ultimate goal. This applied not just to the visual arts, but also to musicians, actors and writers – indeed any profession at all within the humanities and the sciences. Arthur Boyd followed his close friends Albert Tucker (1914-1999) and Sidney Nolan to England in 1953 and was soon showing, along with a strong Antipodean cohort, in the major commercial galleries in London. Boyd gravitated to the suburb of Highgate Hill, close to the rural parkland of Hampstead Heath, renting a series of houses before buying a substantial property in Hampstead Lane, Highgate. The London life suited the Boyds and he worked in a range of disciplines, including etching and ceramics alongside his painting and designs for tapestry and the theatre. Despite being away from Australia for more than a decade, he still made the Australian landscape central to his work. Major commissions took him back to Australia on a regular basis, but England seemed to suit his temperament as a place to work.
While subjects from mythology and the bible dominated his major works, which he produced on an ever larger scale for large public commissions, he still found the time to make trips out into the country to paint the landscape. He was particularly drawn to the flat coastal country in the county of Suffolk, to the point where he decided to take a long-term rental on an old Gamekeepers cottage at Ramsholt, near the mouth of the River Deben some two hours drive from London. Ramsholt became the inspiration for many landscape paintings, in which he found echoes with the country near the Boyd family property at Harkaway and on the Mornington Peninsula, where he had painted as a teenager. His Suffolk Landscape of 1973 is a charming and accurate rendition of the flat farmlands at Ramsholt, but he has chosen high summer for his work, with the bleached grass echoing dry Australian fields rather than the brilliant greens usually associated with the English countryside. The large row of pines bring to mind a Victorian scene and his dramatic division of the wide format canvas into two equal halves shows the artist continuing to push the boundaries, even with a quiet scene of rural harmony. A farmer and his dog and a grounded bird are Boyd touches that hark back to his Wimmera pictures of a decade before. Such was his feeling for the Ramsholt landscape that on his return to Australia he acquired first Riversdale, and then Bundanon, adjoining riverside properties along the Shoalhaven River on the South Coast of New South Wales. It became the landscape he made his own for the last quarter of his life, a place that he ensured passed into the hands of the Australian people who had loyally and enthusiastically supported his work over a long and extraordinarily successful life.
Gavin Fry BA[Hons] MA MPhil