The long and illustrious career of Lloyd Rees – painter, printmaker and consummate draughtsman – was distinguished by his talent for reinvention. Nowhere is this more evident than during the last two decades of Rees’ life, which saw a profound shift in the style and substance of his art. Rees’ extended sojourn to Europe in the 1960s – where he encountered the disparate influences of Italian fresco painting, French Impressionism and J.M.W. Turner – prompted a renewed focus on the power of light. As the artist explained:
If there is one thing I want now it is for my paintings to be light right through. One of the great things the Impressionists did, probably not consciously, was to bring back what the great fresco schools of Italy had achieved, the sense of the painting being on a light background. This is what I am trying to do here, to make the lightness of the canvas the dominating thing.1
In the 1970s and 80s, Rees embarked upon a series of Australian landscapes that embraced light as their fundamental subject. Adopting a high-key palette of pastel blues, greens and yellows, Rees presented ethereal visions of land, sea and sky that gestured towards the metaphysical, or what he called ‘the fact of endlessness’:
From quite an early age I was overwhelmed with the fact of endlessness … Planetary systems can blow up, but the universe is endless, and our little life is set in the midst of this, and everything in it has a beginning and an end … [This] gives to life a sense of mystery that is always with me.2
Our present work, Dawn on the Derwent 1976, is one of several light-filled landscapes depicting the Derwent estuary and mountain ranges of Hobart. Rees’ first visit to the city in 1967 - following his son Alan’s appointment as Deputy Librarian at the University of Tasmania - would spark an affinity with Hobart for the remainder of his life.3 Having grown accustomed to the intense, golden-hued light of Sydney Harbour, Rees was immediately struck by the different ambience and topography of Tasmania. As he observed, ‘The Derwent has lines that begin and flow and disappear into the distance, in complete opposition to Sydney Harbour with its sun and headland and rocky foreshore …’4 Jan Rees, the artist’s daughter-in-law, later recalled: ‘We can always remember him commenting on the Tasmanian light, which was so different from the Sydney light. He was acutely aware of light … He thought the Hobart light was perhaps like that in Europe.’5
Dawn on the Derwent marks an important point of transition in Rees’ mature style, sitting between the rigorous draughtsmanship of earlier decades and his increasingly abstract, colourist works of the 1980s. Here, the drawing still remains integral to the image. Viewed from Alan and Jan Rees’ home in Sandy Bay, Mount Wellington’s bold outline looms over the glimmering waters of the River Derwent, where steam- and sailboats happily coast along on a calm summer morning. Rees has patiently applied the paint, layer upon layer, to render an encrusted surface of deliberate drips and marks. He has focused his attention not on topographical detail but the prevailing atmosphere of this scene, which is bathed in a gentle, southern light.
The present work is closely related to a 1970 painting, The Distant Derwent (private collection, see Figure 1), which was one of Rees’ first major Hobart landscapes. In this painting, the artist’s viewpoint is more elevated and distant when compared to the horizontal, riverside perspective of Dawn on the Derwent. The two works also differ in their degree of detail. In The Distant Derwent, Rees includes a scumbled foreground of foliage and suburban houses, while in the distance, we can make out the neatly spaced pylons of Tasman Bridge. As the artist remarked:
The Distant Derwent belongs to my late period of high-key work, but it has a great deal of formal drawing … When you examine other aspects of the picture you find a lot of fine brushwork defining shape, and even the distant mountains are not just blurry bits of blue against the sky, they are very positively shaped. So I look upon it as a picture that gave me a range of expression simplification and a degree of topographical detail.6
In Dawn on the Derwent, this ‘simplification’ is extended further, as the landscape is harmoniously abbreviated into bands of water, land and sky. In this work, Rees has succeeded in reducing the landscape to its constituent elements, without compromising its essential spirit.
1. Lloyd Rees, quoted in Kolenberg, H. & James, P., Lloyd Rees: Paintings, Drawings and Prints, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2013, p.18
2. Lloyd Rees, quoted in Free, R. & Rees, L., Lloyd Rees: The Last Twenty Years, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1990, p.166
3. Free, R. & Rees, L., Lloyd Rees: An Artist Remembers, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1987, p.95
4. Lloyd Rees, quoted in Free, R. & Rees, L., Lloyd Rees: An Artist Remembers, op. cit., p.109
5. Jan Rees, in Rees, A., Rees, J. & Smith, S., Lloyd Rees: Coming Home [exhibition catalogue], Rockhampton Art Gallery, Queensland, 1999, p.46
6. Lloyd Rees, quoted in Free, R. & Rees, L., Lloyd Rees: An Artist Remembers, op. cit., p.109