As one of Australia’s greatest artists of the twentieth century, Arthur Boyd’s creative oeuvre encompasses a range of different themes and stylistic modes of expression. From symbolically charged allegorical paintings, to naturalistic landscapes that respond to Australia’s varied terrain – this diversity is integral to the rich artistic legacy left in Boyd’s wake. The present work belongs to his landscape oeuvre, and was created circa 1948 at a time when the artist was living in Harkaway, an area about forty kilometres south-east of Melbourne.
Boyd had been invited by his uncle Martin Boyd to live with him in Harkaway at The Grange, a historic home that had been in the Boyd family since 1886. Together with wife Yvonne and their baby daughter Polly, Arthur relocated there in 1948. Martin Boyd, himself an author and another creative member of this celebrated artistic dynasty, had just purchased the property from a cousin, and decided to commission his talented nephew to paint a mural directly on the walls of The Grange. Created using fresco techniques, a section of this wall painting is now preserved in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.
Upon moving to Harkaway, Boyd used the opportunity to explore the local countryside and that of neighbouring Berwick, and made a number of paintings of the area. The author of Boyd’s catalogue raisonné Franz Philipp, claims that during this period Boyd painted his finest landscape paintings and became one Australia’s leading artists of the genre.1 He adds that Boyd was a ‘born landscapist’ and responded to this region with ‘love and joy.’2
The positive resonance that Philipp found in Boyd’s landscapes of the late 1940s and early 1950s can be detected in the present work’s gentle pastoral mood. Previously Boyd had imaged the Victorian landscape in a dramatically different way. Between 1945-48 Boyd had created a series of seething figurative compositions that were set in the countryside near the Boyd family home at Murrumbeena. These works, such as The Mockers (1945) and Melbourne Burning (1946-7) were made after he was discharged from the army, and express the artist’s personal reaction to the tragedies of World War II, and the horrific Nazi concentrations camps that he had viewed on newsreel footage. They also reveal Boyd’s interest in the art of Netherlandish Renaissance painter, Pieter Bruegel (1529-1569). Boyd was particularly interested in Bruegel’s telling of historical subjects and stories within a contemporary landscape setting, and the visual connection to the old master’s work is clearly apparent in Boyd’s paintings of this series.3
Following these angst ridden Bruegelesque paintings, the landscapes created of Harkaway and its surrounds reflect a much more peaceful frame of mind. This long settled farming land, noted for its lush vegetation, and undulating hills must have afforded some respite from the collective trauma of post-war reality. While the exact location of Landscape with Poddy is uncertain, it reveals a pastoral ideal that is consistent with other landscape paintings of Berwick and Harkaway that Boyd made at this time.
In the present work as in others of this period, Boyd presents a landscape that is inhabited, cultivated, and bears the signs of human habitation. This is not the raw, primordial Australian bush that he was to depict in later works, but rather a space where man and nature exist in harmony. The label attached to the verso of the painting gives it the title Hunter, and in the middle distance a figure of a man with a long object balanced on his shoulder is depicted walking up the steep slope of the hillside setting. It could very well be a shotgun slung over his shoulder, as the title Hunter would suggest.
Yet essentially the human presence is lightly felt in Landscape with Poddy. Rather it is the horse in the foreground lazily grazing beneath the elongated form of a tree that first draws the viewers’ attention. Boyd’s other landscapes of this this period, such as Man Ploughing a Field (1948) also feature farm animals painted in the foreground, a reminder that farming and grazing were the main activities of the region. In the present work both horse and paddock are painted in the earthy, bleached colours of scrubby summer grasses. This notably restricted palette and fairly uniform tonal range, enlivened by a flash of cobalt blue in the sky, creates an effective overall cohesion within the image.
The neutral palette also allows for the painting’s bold composition to take centre stage. The sloping horizon line bisects the image diagonally, and is balanced by the long form of a tree that leans in the opposite direction. Within this piece Boyd renders an effective depth of field, with the distant trees barely more that hazy smudges on the horizon. The small figure of the man walking up the hill amplifies the effect of deeply receding space, as does the detail with which the grasses and vegetation are defined in the foreground.
Boyd’s decision to use oil paint and egg tempera in Landscape with Poddy reflects his deep interest in the old masters, which extended to their choice of materials as well as imagery. Ursula Hoff notes that he had previously found a recipe for making tempera that was used by Bruegel, in Max Doerner’s book The Materials of the Artist.4 Tempera is created by mixing ground colour pigments with egg yoke thinned with water or other mediums, and was traditionally used by Renaissance artists for under-painting, which was generally then followed by fine glazes of oil paint. In fact this was a common modus operandi for many artists up until the nineteenth century, when the advent of portable oil paint available in tubes altered the consistency of the paints, increasing their thickness and reducing the need for under-painting.
Thus in Landscape with Poddy the thick impasto surface of Boyd’s earlier work has been replaced by a much finer application of thin egg tempera and oils, painted on a hard composition board substrate. This allows for more detailed linear definition within the painting, and is well suited to his depiction of the dry summer grasses and scratchy vegetation.
Along with the art of Bruegel, Boyd also took a keen interest in Rembrandt, Massacio and Michelangelo during the 1940s. Ursula Hoff notes that while artists in the circle around John Reed, which included Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker, were absorbed with modern works of the School of Paris and German Expressionists, Boyd viewed his investigation into the greats of the Italian and Netherlandish Renaissance as just as important and avant-garde as what was happening at Heide.5
This immersion in history is evidenced in the Harkaway murals at The Grange which Boyd chose to execute in fresco secco or ‘dry fresco’ – an ancient technique where colour pigments mixed with water and sometimes egg are applied directly to a plaster wall surface that has been moistened. This is different to buon fresco, where the pigment is applied to freshly laid plaster while it is still wet – a messy and involved process that may have been practically too difficult for use at The Grange. Nevertheless this mural commission gave Boyd an opportunity to experiment with a new technique, and deepen his knowledge and understanding of the materials and methodologies used by past masters.
Though interested in the old masters, Boyd was able to absorb their lessons while creating his own unique and contemporary response to subject. Landscape with Poddy exemplifies this. A modern painting of the Australian pastoral ideal, created with materials and techniques steeped in the past. Its inclusion in the major touring exhibition of 1972, The Australian Landscape is a testament to the quality of the work, and cements its place in the rich history of the genre.
1. Franz Philipp, Arthur Boyd, Thames and Hudson, London, 1967, p.60
2. Ibid p.60
3. ‘Ocean to Outback: Australian landscape painting 1850-1950’ National Gallery of Australia website, URL: http://nga.gov.au/exhibition/oceantooutback/Detail.cfm?IRN=31777
4. Ursula Hoff, The Art of Arthur Boyd, Deutsch, London, 1986, p.42
5. Ibid p. 43
Marguerite Brown MA ArtCur