Arthur Boyd is well known for his love of the Australian bush and his long association with two historic pastoral and bush properties along the Shoalhaven River, near Nowra in New South Wales. Less well known is that when Arthur and Yvonne initially purchased Riversdale, and later Bundanon, Boyd found the landscape to be both visually overwhelming and physically distracting.
Arthur and Yvonne Boyd first visited the Shoalhaven area in December 1971. They had recently returned from their home in England to commence a creative residency in Canberra. Boyd painted a small oil on that first visit, a work now in the Bundanon collection. It was a furnace-like day and Arthur Boyd commented on how hard it was to get the paint to stay on the surface of the picture: it melted and dissipated into thin air. Boyd also commented on how the conditions were so different from that which he had come from in England. He was tentatively taking first steps towards re-adjusting to the light and atmosphere of the new environment.1
In 1972 Arthur Boyd returned to Riversdale and Bundanon. He spent a great deal of time exploring and immersing himself in the surrounding landscape. His work became larger in scale and more confident in its execution. With greater familiarity, he overcame an initial fear that the landscape around Bundanon was unlike anything else he had encountered. It was different from the softer greens, greys, and blues and more rugged than areas where he had grown up in Victoria.2
Hillside with Rocks, Shoalhaven is an impressive painting that depicts a classic Boyd view of a hillside, dry gully, fallen saplings and scattered boulders. The blue sky and the middle and foreground are bleached in strong sunlight: suggestive of a warm day or summer. Shadows cast by the sun-seeking gums and larger rocks indicate a specific time of day. Spindly grass and flowers appear in the foreground as a further index to seasonal change, while bark is stripped from the saplings to reveal the bare white trunk underneath.
This faithful, topographical depiction of the landscape and its seasonal nuances held special importance for Boyd. He was vitally concerned with conveying the health of the land and the interconnectedness of nature. Boyd’s paintings of the Shoalhaven are an impassioned plea to preserve what was left and for people to guard the land for future generations. His words, actions and his works enunciate such a position over time. The landscape is deeply embedded with a history and cultural narrative that speaks of ongoing custodianship, from the first Australians through to the coming of Europeans and colonisation.3
Hillside with Rocks, Shoalhaven, and closely related works such as Shoalhaven Hillside c1974-76, have a shared lineage with Boyd’s Australian Impressionist forebears Tom Roberts (1856-1931) and Arthur Streeton (1867-1943). Boyd was exhibited alongside Streeton as Australia’s joint representatives at the 1958 Venice Biennale. Arthur Streeton's Fire's on, from 1891, was one of the works shown, acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1893. Arthur Boyd would have been well acquainted with the picture and the equally large and important painting by Tom Roberts Bailed Up 1895/1927. The Roberts is also owned by the AGNSW and usually installed in proximity to the Streeton.
Looking closely at the two paintings, one sees how Boyd adapted these two Australian Impressionist masters. The high skyline, diagonal composition, and precarious boulders of the Streeton and the light palette and fallen thin gums in the Roberts’ Bailed Up, are central to Boyd’s Hillside with Rocks, Shoalhaven. Boyd pays homage to the two great artists, but he is very much his own painter.
1. Wilson, G., Rivers and Rocks: Select works from Arthur Boyd and Brett Whiteley, Bundanon Trust, New South Wales, 2001, p.10
2. Arthur Boyd, quoted in McGrath, S., Arthur Boyd: The Artist and the River, Bay Books, Sydney, 1982, p.20
3. See, for example, Pearce, B., Arthur Boyd: Landscapes of the Soul [exhibition catalogue], Bundanon Trust, New South Wales, 2019
Rodney James is an independent art consultant who specialises in valuations, collection management, exhibitions, research and writing, and strategic planning for art galleries and museums.