Lloyd Rees is one of the most published Australian painters of his generation. From the first major monograph by Renee Free released in 1972, many more have followed, focusing on his paintings, drawings and prints – one of the most recent being a 2013 catalogue raisonné of his representation in the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection.
But this impressive bibliography of homage by curators, historians and publishers is matched by an extraordinary generosity of articulation in his own words about where his vision was taking him, from the fin de siècle of one century to the end of the next. Rees’s remarkable life as an artist was equalled by his abilities as a wordsmith.
A close relationship to his adopted city of Sydney, from where it all began, is described with especial vividness in a small book titled The Small Treasures of a Lifetime, published in 1969. This reminiscence by Rees of people, places and art was expanded sixteen years later in Peaks and Valleys: An Autobiography and then followed by another publication focusing on his paintings alone in 1987, An Artist Remembers.
But it was the Small Treasures memoir that delivered an ecstatic tuning fork resounding across time to one of the artist’s greatest masterpieces, Sydney - The Source.
Born in Brisbane, descended from English and Welsh ancestry, with a childhood enriched by a music-filled home, Rees received his first art training at Brisbane Technical College through teachers Godfrey Rivers, Martin Roberts, and L.J. Harvey. He soon displayed advanced draughtsmanship, allied with a fanatical interest in architecture, whilst at the same time harbouring a desire towards sketching and painting in the open air.
These dreams were conflated when he entered Sydney Harbour for the first time in 1916, having left Brisbane after being invited to submit drawings to Australia’s prestigious magazine Art in Australia, with a later offer the following year from its publisher, Sydney Ure Smith, to be employed as a commercial artist. But on that first day in 1916, Rees saw through the porthole of his ship a startlingly beautiful vision beckoning far further than the confines of a magazine studio, and which would endure for his entire trajectory as a painter:
The first glimpse – a picture in a circular frame. Opal-blue water, a band of golden sand, another of olive-green trees; above them a skyline of coral pink shimmering against the limpid air. This was Manly, seen from the porthole of S.S. Canberra bound for Melbourne in early December 1916. In that first long look Sydney cast her spell and it has remained with me ever since, in spite of her brashness and disorder, the crimes she has committed against herself, and, above all, the opportunities she has allowed to pass … It was one of those calm early mornings, when all was veiled under an ethereal mist of blue through which the sun struck on golden foreshores and russet trees, and depicted in creamy light the myriad facets of city buildings and the terraces defining the contours of the hills.1
The last decade of Rees’s paintings reprised that description of ethereal light radically fixing his sensibilities towards landscape and the harbour as his ship sailed through the Heads of Sydney when he was not quite twenty-two years old. A glimpse for the long haul, it would never be forgotten.
But ultimately, as he stated eloquently, that formative revelation became, over time, inverted, as if the light itself eventually dictated its own presence rather than him simply recreating his perception of it on the canvas, as he explained to Renee Free:
An artist may experience innumerable influences in a lifetime and yet be adaptive to none of them. In the field of landscape I have been absorbed by the works of very many, ranging from the background landscapes of Italian fresco painters … through to Constable, Turner, Corot, Cézanne, van Gogh, Kokoschka and other contemporaries including the Australian school … But of one thing I feel personally certain, whatever the influences, an artist must forget them when starting to paint. Indeed I hold strongly to the view that once a picture has come to life, it dictates the terms of its own creation.2
Indeed, during those decades between 1916 and the early 1980s Rees travelled to Europe frequently, seeking the works of Titian, Brueghel and Claude Lorraine as well as the moderns, and was not afraid to occasionally navigate the palette of his drawing and painting towards heavier tones. Janet Hawley recorded Arthur Boyd’s recount of chatting with him near the end of his life. Boyd himself had actually gone from light to light, but in between plunging through the darkest realms of humanity imaginable. He reflected on their conversation:
We had a very painterly talk about colour and light. Lloyd was very keen on the fact that he’d seen light in his old age, when it’s usually a young man’s prerogative … He said ‘I’ve gone from dark to light – and it’s better than to have gone the other way round.' 3
Certainly, there were dark landscapes in Rees’s repertoire. Not remotely comparable with Boyd’s bleakness, but in the context of moving towards and beyond the light, Sydney – The Source takes on crucial significance as perhaps the greatest example of a transitional image in modern Australian painting. For the tactile, material elements of its subject matter – walls, roofs, trees, luminous road snaking its way towards the harbour, a strip of water stretching right across the picture plane, hilly contour beneath a delicately clouded sky – are all about to melt and dissolve into a metaphysical realm that marks the next and ultimate phase of Rees’s oeuvre.
Comparison has been made between this transition to Claude Monet’s haystack series and his depictions of Rouen Cathedral. But Monet’s vision was in the end an optical extremity of Impressionism, whereas Rees, more like Turner, is about to reveal what his romantic soul is telling him, and us, about an endless luminescence that came at him beyond the skin of his ageing eyesight:
Sydney – The Source was an instance of a subject almost hitting me rather than being searched for. It was an example of the change in attitude to Australia resulting from European travel … [an] instance of a subject finding me rather than me finding it. Those are the subjects that nearly always lead me to a more dynamic result … The moment of impact was walking out on our verandah one pearly morning and it just hit me: this is Sydney – the light and texture, colour, the whole impact of it …4
And thus, through technical challenges which so often tested his resolve, Rees finally achieved through this masterpiece, a sublime fulcrum between what came before and what was to follow in his long-distinguished career.
1. Rees, L., The Small Treasures of a Lifetime: Some Early Memories of Australian Art and Artists, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1969, p.45
2. Free, R., Lloyd Rees, Lansdowne Australian Art Library, Melbourne, 1972, p.101
3. Hawley, J., Artists in Conversation, Slattery Media Group, Melbourne, 2012, p.135
4. Rees, L. & Free, R., Lloyd Rees: An Artist Remembers, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1987, p.117
Barry Pearce is Emeritus Curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He is responsible for many exhibitions and publications and is the author of Brett Whiteley: Art & Life (1995) and Sidney Nolan: Retrospective (2007).