Menzies Art Brands



Garry Sheads Royal Suite of paintings have become iconic images of their time. The works refer to a bygone innocence of Australian culture and society providing a glimpse of the reality which was realised much later, a reality where the Aboriginal people were marginalised and Australian sovereignty subverted. More importantly, the works relate to an Australian reality of the 1990s, when the events of the past were exorcised and the future of Australians sovereignty was, at that time, still to be determined.

This series of paintings recollects the young artists memories and experience of Queen Elizabeth IIs visit to Australia in 1954, when Shead was a twelve year old school boy. The monarch was just twenty seven at the time and had been Queen for less than twelve months prior to embarking on the exhaustive six month tour of the Commonwealth, of which eight weeks were spent traversing Australia. Queen Elizabeth II was the first reigning monarch to visit Australia and the swell of support and excitement surrounding the Royal visit was palpable. The crowds were tumultuous, the press was effusive in its praise and every street the royals paraded along was festooned with decorations. At the time, the royal tour of 1954 was the single biggest event ever planned in Australia. The Queen and Prince Philip visited fifty seven towns and cities during the fifty eight days they spent in Australia. They crossed the country by plane, train, ship and car from Cairns in the north, Broken Hill in the west and Hobart in the south.

The Royal visit of 1954 had a lasting impact on the young artist when Queen Elizabeth II visited Australia for the first time on 3 February of that year, Shead recalls being struck by her presence during the encounter, There was something unearthly and untouchable in her beautyso that even a prime minister could not touch her elbow. She passed like an incarnate spirit.1

It was estimated that seventy five percent of the nations population turned out to catch a glimpse of the monarch. In Sydney alone, more than a million people lined the streets and the harbour to welcome Her Majesty.

In the Royal Visitors, Shead renders the regal pair at odds with the harsh Australian climate:,aliens in a strange land. Underpinning the Royal Suite is a sense of displacement, they are visitors, as stated in the title of the work. Shead s compositions depict the fair-skinned Queen and her consort in remote towns beneath the blazing Australian sun. In this painting, Shead distils the sense of incongruity surrounding the presence of Queen Elizabeth in this strange, new environment. Here, the monarch and the Duke of Edinburgh appear to be levitating above the ground, flanked by a small child-like figure bearing a bouquet of sulphur-coloured wattle. Despite the fierce February sun and stifling humidity, the Queen is dressed in elbow length white gloves and Prince Philip in his full naval finery. The background is Sydney Harbour with the sun disappearing behind the horizon. The Royal yacht, SS Gothic, is depicted in the background the vessel used by the Royal couple and their staff during the Commonwealth tour. The yacht became a place of refuge during the Royal tour when an outbreak of poliomyelitis in Western Australia saw the then Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, insist that the royal party sleep on SS Gothic and eat only food prepared on the ship.

The Royal Suite series of paintings have endured as some of Sheads most successful and sought after works he has returned to paint the theme numerous times since first exploring the subject in the 1990s. The Royal Suite paintings can be read on different levels and interpreted as a historical recreation, seen through the distorting mirrors of memory and the eyes of a young boythey can also be interpreted as an allegory, an expression of a nave belief in a white goddessperhaps on the simplest level, the series is about a quest for beauty and a lost innocence, a quest for a new holy grail.2

1. Garry Shead, taped interview with the author, Canberra, 16 March 1996, cited in Grishin, S., Garry Shead: Encounters with Royalty, Craftsman House, Sydney 1998, p.28
2. Grishin, S., Garry Shead - Encounters with Royalty, Craftsman House, Sydney 1998, p.27

Caroline Jones MArt Admin

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