signed lower right: Arthur Boyd
Private collection, New South Wales, 1980s
Thence by descent, private collection, New South Wales
(c) Arthur Boyd/Copyright Agency, 2023
Many Australian artists have taken the landscape and stamped it with their own image … Arthur Boyd’s Shoalhaven pictures give us a new depth of understanding of landscape, a new set of forms and vistas to look upon … Each work is tied to a specific place that has been watched and observed hour after hour until it becomes absorbed and relived in paint.1
Arthur Boyd first visited the Shoalhaven region of New South Wales in the summer of 1971-2, when art dealer Frank McDonald invited the artist and his wife Yvonne to Bundanon, an old grazing property on the Shoalhaven River. The Boyds were immediately captivated by the Shoalhaven’s unspoiled beauty. As Arthur recalled, ‘it was such a marvellous experience. The actual scale of the place was so big. In Victoria it’s all so much smaller … it hasn’t got this kind of light, this brilliance, the shadows around here when the sun is in the middle of the day.’2 By the end of that decade, the Boyds had acquired two properties in the Shoalhaven: Riversdale, purchased in 1973; and Bundanon itself, which McDonald had tendered for sale in 1978.
Arthur Boyd’s move to the Shoalhaven, which followed two decades in London and rural England, would engender a profound shift in the character of his art. Boyd’s immersion in this new landscape prompted a ‘return to painting from nature’,3 away from the myth-laden figuration that had dominated his art in the 1960s. The influences of Rembrandt, Titian and Bruegel receded, as Boyd turned instead to the nineteenth-century Australian landscapes of Tom Roberts, Eugene von Guérard and William Charles Piguenit for inspiration.4
Men in a Boat, Shoalhaven River is a singularly impressive example of Boyd’s Shoalhaven paintings from the 1980s. Dividing the canvas into broad horizontal bands of land and water, Boyd presents a robust cross-section of the Shoalhaven’s lofty riverbank, strewn with sandstone boulders and errant native bush. Cast into shadow by the harsh midday sun, the rocks appear deeply etched into the surrounding earth. A subtle glow lingers above the horizon beneath a cloudless sky. The Shoalhaven is rendered a smooth murky brown, providing a tranquil setting for two fishermen who have anchored their modest tinnie.
The ‘two men in a boat’ became a favoured motif of Boyd’s Shoalhaven landscapes from the early 1980s onwards. Though much larger in scale, the composition of the present work is reminiscent of Prawn Fishermen on Bundanon Beach 1981 (private collection; see Figure 2), in which the boat is perched at the end of a sandbank near the Bundanon homestead. In each case, the tinnie’s flat profile echoes the horizontality of the surrounding landscape, while drawing attention to the reflective qualities of the river itself.
Though Boyd frequently interpreted the Shoalhaven landscape through a mythological lens, as in the Lysistrata and Narcissus paintings,5 the present work shows a notable directness of approach to its subject. As Sandra McGrath writes, ‘The Shoalhaven paintings are, in fact, remarkable for their direct, lyrical and uncomplicated approach to a world which the artist had first found alien.’6 In many of Boyd’s earlier paintings, the Australian bush had served as a mere backdrop to human ecstasy and suffering; here, it is the landscape that predominates. The human elements of the composition are mundane and almost incidental: ‘The Shoalhaven paintings are … a departure from this nightmare world; the very nature of the land seemed to inspire in Boyd the use of more explicit imagery and a more tranquil setting, and a less psychologically disturbed environment.’7
Boyd zealously sought to protect the Shoalhaven region from what he saw as malign human interference. In August 1981, the artist wrote to the New South Wales Government to express his opposition to a proposed sand mine at Wogamia, a neighbouring property on the Shoalhaven River, asserting that the development ‘would pollute the air and river to an unacceptable degree, destroy the peace of the area, detract from its natural beauty and depreciate Bundanon’s unique contribution to the region.’8 Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s subsequent decision in 1993 to gift Bundanon and Riversdale to the Commonwealth was motivated in large part by their desire to preserve the properties’ unique natural environment and built heritage. In Men in a Boat, Shoalhaven River, Boyd has succeeded in capturing the sheer, meditative beauty of a place he knew and loved.
1. McGrath, S., The Artist & The River: Arthur Boyd and the Shoalhaven, Bay Books, Sydney, 1982, p.16
2. Arthur Boyd, quoted in Arthur Boyd: Retrospective, The Beagle Press in association with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1993, p.27
3. Hoff, U., The Art of Arthur Boyd, André Deutsch Limited, London, 1986, p.71
4. Ibid., p.71
5. McGrath, S., op. cit., p.68
6. Ibid., p.65
8. Letter from Arthur Boyd, 22 August 1981, reproduced as Appendix B in McGrath, S., op. cit., p.310
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