Menzies Art Brands



Born in rural Queensland in 1919, Hugh Sawrey was the son of a shearers cook and teamster, who died when Sawrey was just three years of age. At fifteen, he left school to support his widowed mother during the Great Depression, working as a drover and shearer throughout Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia. World War II began five years later, and a twenty year old Sawrey set off to serve in the Australian Army and later the Royal Australian Air Force until the wars end. With his service pay he bought a mob of cattle and returned to working on the land he cherished.

With no formal artistic training, Sawrey uncovered his talent by sketching with campfire charcoal on scraps of paper while droving cattle. It was not until the 1960s that he embarked on a career as an artist, further honing his skills by attending Jon Molvigs (1923-1970) drawing classes. Sawrey began to paint murals for country pubs in exchange for accommodation and food. Inspired by the bush poems of Banjo Paterson (1864-1941), some of his most famous murals include The Geebung Polo Club and Mulga Bills Bicycle, commissioned by the Royal Hotel in Brisbane, where he had his first studio.

The Banjo Paterson poem that springs to mind when viewing the present work is undoubtedly Shearing at Castlereagh. While Sawreys painting depicts the Binde-Bango shearing shed in Western Queensland, not that of Castlereagh in New South Wales, it illustrates that same hardy Australian spirit captured in Patersons rhymes:

    They trim away the ragged locks, and rip the cutter goes,
    And leaves a track of snowy fleece from brisket to the nose;
    It's lovely how they peel it off with never stop nor stay,
    They're racing for the ringers place this year at Castlereagh.1

While countless Australian artists have painted our vast country, very few have captured the people and stories of outback Australia with such affection and insight. This is perhaps because Sawrey was not an outsider, voyeuristically recording bush scenes, as many artists were. Instead, he lived the life he painted, continuing to shear until he was 46 years of age. In the present work, he could easily be one of the figures gathering wool or taking a smoko in the background.

Sawrey completed a number of smaller paintings depicting the Binde-Bango shed, with The Binde-Bango Shed in Full Swing, South of Mitchell, Western Queensland being the jewel in the crown. This almighty canvas has only appeared on the market once before, and at that time became the third most valuable Hugh Sawrey artwork to have ever sold at auction. A master of storytelling, Sawrey deftly captures the atmosphere of the hot, bustling shed, with viewers almost able to hear the bleating sheep and smell the unmistakable mix of dust, dung and lanolin.

This important painting documents one of the most iconic industries that shaped post-colonial Australia. The blade shears of Tom Roberts (1856-1931) legendary Shearing the Rams 1890 were largely replaced by mechanical shears by the turn of the century, followed by experiments with robotic shearing beginning in the 1970s.2 Sawrey lamented this loss of traditional agricultural skills stating of stockman culture:

In the forties in the Channel Country it was mainly horse work. It was open country and we mustered from one waterhole to the next. The men and women took pride in what they were doing and took pride in their gear, the belts and buckles, the stirrups, bridles and saddles. Today, its motorcycles and four-wheel drives, a real mechanical age. Its a shame.3

It was with this view that Sawrey opened the Australian Stockmans Hall of Fame at Longreach in Western Queensland, to pay tribute to the unsung heroes of remote Australia. Alongside RM Williams, Sawrey auctioned some of his paintings to generate funding for the construction of the building, which was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 29 April 1988. The following year Sawrey was awarded an Order of the British Empire, and in 1999 an Order of Australia for his service to the preservation of Australias rural heritage.4 Outback Australia shaped Sawreys life from the moment of his birth, and in return he left his mark on the outback by preserving its obscurities in his idiosyncratic painting style and the Stockmans Hall of Fame. This masterpiece is certainly one of his most significant contributions, as a true pioneer of the Australian outback.

1. Paterson, B., The Banjos Best Loved Poems, Weldon Publishing, Sydney, 1985, p.36
2. State Library of New South Wales, Australian Agricultural and Rural Life: Sheep Shearing, accessed 5 October 2020:
3. Sunday Mail, Brisbane, 2 February 1997
4. Cooke, G., Hugh Sawrey: Biography, Design & Art Australia Online, 1999 (updated 2009), accessed 6 October 2020:

Asta Cameron BA, MA (Art Curatorship)

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