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 the landscape, a new set of forms and vistas to look upon. Pulpit Rock, the turtle-shaped outcrop of sandstone that looms above the river at Bundanon appears again and again … 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 near 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 influence 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
One of the most prominent features of the landscape surrounding Bundanon is Pulpit Rock, a pointed sandstone outcrop that sits high above the Shoalhaven River, on its southern bank. Boyd’s reverence for this subject has been compared to Paul Cézanne’s recurrent depiction of Mont Sainte-Victoire during the final years of his life, from 1904-6.5 The present work, Pulpit Rock with Reflection, is closely related to a quartet of paintings from 1982 titled Four Times of Day. Painted from the same viewpoint on the Shoalhaven riverbank, the works depict Pulpit Rock at dawn, mid-morning, midday and evening. Art historian Ursula Hoff describes the sequence:
Set against the colourless brightness before sunrise, [Pulpit Rock’s] outline dominates the view. After sunrise a warm glow suffuses the surface; rocks near the water’s edge and their reflections are clearer than ever before. By midday the colour has faded from the mountain, the blue of the sky is intense but begins to be dimmed by mist; the reflections in the water are less clear than before … After sundown Pulpit Rock sinks back into shadow; the blue has left the sky; the rock is more distant and begins to merge into the surrounding range; a black swan has come out to feed; the painter is on his way home.6
Akin to the third painting in the series, Pulpit Rock with Reflection captures the harsh light of mid-day, when the sky is a vivid blue and the rock’s watery mirror-image appears blurred by heat and movement. Arthur Boyd’s paintings of Pulpit Rock – with their mesmerising combinations of sky, land and water – embody the timeless grandeur 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. Pearce, B., ‘Introduction,’ in Arthur Boyd: Retrospective, op. cit., p.28
6. Hoff, U., op. cit., p.78