In a career of six decades Arthur Boyd encompassed almost every form of artistic expression in two and three dimensions. Biographical notes tend to introduce him simply as a figurative expressionist painter, ceramicist and printmaker, but within those three simple modes he left no form of expression unexplored. Paintings large and small in every style and subject, ceramics in the form of glazed tiles, hand formed sculptural pieces and, as the ultimate statement, the huge ceramic tile pylon created for the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. As a printmaker he produced etchings and lithographs in profusion, bringing a new life and expression to an old art form. In between, there were theatre designs, tapestries and murals in many different and challenging media. When his name is mentioned, we naturally picture such subjects as the half-caste Aboriginal man and his enigmatic bride, Nebuchadnezzar plunging to earth in flames or a myriad mass of biblical characters crashing around the Australian bush. But whatever the subject and context, nearly all his works were underpinned by a deep and abiding understanding of the landscape.
As a young man finding his feet as a painter, Arthur Boyd found his subjects around the Mornington Peninsula, where he was stayed with his grandfather, Arthur Merric Boyd (1862-1940), for three years from 1936 until the outbreak of war in 1939. His grandfather was an accomplished landscape painter and the young Arthur took to plein air painting with enthusiasm, quickly finding his own voice as he experimented with new materials and techniques. While the Peninsula might have been a quiet and benign environment, learning to picture the subtle coastal forms and colours would stand him in good stead.
Over the decades Boyd moved far and wide, travelling north to central Victoria during his time in the Army, and later on to the Wimmera where he would create some of his most memorable early works. The success of these works was underscored when the National Gallery of Victoria acquired his bold landscape Irrigation Lake, Wimmera in 1950, the year of its creation. He had reached this point via a bewildering array of powerful subjects, many inspired by the disorienting atmosphere of wartime Melbourne. Biblical subjects, painted in a menacing, dark palette were set in tangled bushland more redolent of the Dandenongs than Mount Nebo, but all the more powerful for their familiar settings. He travelled to the outback in 1952, finding as did Russell Drysdale (1912-1981), the emotionally difficult interaction between a beautiful landscape and a people dispossessed and alienated from their own land. The intricacy and detail inherent in the Wimmera and Alice Springs works gave them an instant appeal and his career advanced quickly through the 1950s, allowing him to take his family on a trip to Europe and the United Kingdom.
What was to be a short visit turned into a decade long residency, absorbing all he could of the great artists and galleries. Boyd was to spend all of the 1960s living in London and also spending time in a rural cottage at Ramsholt in Suffolk. He imbued the local landscape with his own particular vision, his paint applied with a vigour that brought a new power to the most benign English landscape. Like all his Australian confrères working in London, Boyd visited every gallery and collection he could, absorbing the myriad ways in which the landscape might be interpreted. It was not surprising that he would find inspiration in the great art of the past, using works of artists such as Constable (1776-1837) and Turner (1775-1851) as jumping off points for his own compositions. His 1973 painting Landscape with Rainbow was inspired by one of the most revered masterpieces of the English landscape tradition, John Constable’s 1831 painting Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows. Interestingly, it was not the magnificent cathedral that had captured his attention, but the tangled trees, storm clouds and rainbow. It was a work that came a crucial turning point in the artist’s life and career for, after his sojourn in England, he was drawn back to Australia, beginning the process of acquiring the Shoalhaven property Riversdale, set immediately adjacent to the historic homestead Bundanon, which would become the focus for perhaps his finest landscape paintings and the core of his legacy to the people of Australia.
Gavin Fry BA (Hons) MA MPhil