signed and dated lower right: HANS HEYSEN 1930
Commissioned by South Australian Railways for Mr William A. Webb, Adelaide, 1930 (plaque attached verso)
Thence by descent, private collection, Denver
(c) Hans Heysen/Copyright Agency, 2023
Two light-filled Hans Heysen watercolours with excellent provenance and an intriguing history are cause for celebration. Recently repatriated after ninety years from an American collection, these South Australian watercolours provide a new perspective on Heysen’s subject matter along with an insight into the fascinating person for whom they were originally commissioned.
(Rural Scene with Bullock Cart) and (Sheep by a Stream), both from 1930, were gifted to American railway expert, William A. Webb, who lived and worked in Australia in the 1920s. Following his return to America in May 1930, the two Heysen pictures have remained in the family’s collection and now make their first appearance at auction.
William A. Webb (1878–1936) was, according to his Australian obituary, ‘A big man with big ideas.’1 As Commissioner of the South Australian Railways from 1922 to 1930, Webb was credited with carrying out a ‘huge reorganisation’ of the state’s rail network. His well-documented policy of importing and building ‘big engines, big trucks and a big railway station’ [the central Adelaide Railway Station] had long-reaching effect. Though initially drawing upon the state’s coffers, such initiatives eventually generated substantial sources of income for the state. An effective distribution network survives to this day. Another aspect adopted under Webb, from his time working in America, was the notion of building rail tracks into country areas to help improve new settlements.
It may be considered ironic that the artist chosen to represent South Australia as a parting gift to Webb was a painter of the quintessential Australian outback scene. Hans Heysen is celebrated for his identification with traditional Australian values and a 19th century nationalistic fervour that was ignited by World War I and fuelled by the hard work of men and women working on the land. Heysen’s gnarled and knotted gums stand defiant and tall: survivors of drought, fire, flood, and pestilence. A similar resilience – of upholding traditional ways of life – in the face of increased mechanisation and urbanisation is represented by the solitary drover. The drover is depicted serenely moving cattle from one place to another, the epitome of an honest day’s work.
Heysen was commissioned by the authorities to paint a suitable parting gift for Webb due to his amiable rural subjects. Heysen looked to some of his earlier and most successful compositions for inspiration; scenes that celebrated white Australian settlement as well as nature’s moods and complexities.
(Sheep by a Stream) 1930 is a variation on an earlier watercolour by Heysen called Sheep at Billabong 1920. The earlier work sold for a handsome $73,000 (including buyer’s premium) when it was offered at auction in April 2022.2 The meandering curve of the waterway and gentle undulation of the land are framed by a cluster of monumental river gums grouped on the right and a younger, less grandiose tree depicted on the left. Sheep forage amiably by the riverbank in both works, partially hidden by a large boulder. The major difference is the fresh blue and light grey palette of the 1930 work and the removal of a group of cows drinking at the edge of the opposite bank from the former work.
(Rural Scene with Bullock Cart) 1930 also draws from an earlier and equally skilled watercolour Drover and Cattle 1917.3 There is a variation in scale and a pinkish tonality in the latter; however, Heysen reverses the angle of the view in each work. In Drover and Cattle, the central character is viewed from behind. We are invited as participants into a silvan afterglow, gazing over the man’s shoulder as he trudges tiredly at the end of the day toward the setting sun. In (Sheep by a Stream), by way of contrast, the drover comes toward the viewer, stepping with purpose from out of a warm and enticing morning blaze. Heysen imaginatively plots the time of day in each piece.
Both comparable Heysen watercolours were owned by leading industrialist, Charles Ruwolt (1873-1946) who bears a close comparison to William A. Webb. Also described as ‘big in physique, in outlook, and reputation,’4 Ruwolt was a German-born immigrant who became one of the nation’s main producers of industrial and farm machinery. Charles Ruwolt and his wife Emily ran a large pastoral holding in Victoria where they housed much of their art collection, which included Arthur Streeton and selected watercolours by Hans Heysen.
Hans Heysen’s work was much admired for his unequivocal vision of benevolent nature conjoined to the needs of humanity. His work celebrated both the landscape and the way the landscape services our needs. His paintings, the gift to William Webb, were an idealised vision and a beautiful rendition of an adopted land.
1. ‘Death of Mr AW Webb’, The Advertiser, Adelaide, 10 September 1936, p.10
2. Sheep at Billabong 1920, watercolour on paper, 43.0 x 58.0 cm; sold Leonard Joel, Melbourne, 22 March 2022, lot 6
3. Drover and Cattle 1917, watercolour on paper, 46.0 x 62.0 cm; sold Leonard Joel, Melbourne, 22 March 2022, lot 7
4. ‘Man Dies who Made Big Name in Industry’, The Herald, Melbourne, 5 November 1946, p.8
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.
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