The depiction of solitary and coupled figures in nature is something that Arthur Boyd returned to often throughout his career. The central character is often Yvonne, Boyd’s wife, whose nude disposition connects us to Western visual traditions of the naked figure caught unawares in the natural world. The inclusion of other figures, sometimes the artist himself, activate the landscape, providing a sense of human attachment and longing. There is also an important cache of works, spread over a forty-year period, that overlay fond associations, memories and observations of Arthur’s extended family, including his mother Doris, father Merric and grandmother Emma Minnie Boyd.
Shoalhaven Fishing is an undated work that falls in the period of early to mid- 1980s. It relates to paintings with a similar subject such as Fishing at Dusk on the Shoalhaven c1983. It was painted not long after Arthur and Yvonne Boyd had taken up residence at their newly acquired riverside property Bundanon, from 1979. In these paintings of the Shoalhaven region, Boyd was coming to terms with the high-key colours, bold forms and striking topography of the river and bush setting. The depiction of a lone man fishing on a becalmed river recalls earlier pictures of Port Phillip Bay and Boyd’s adolescent love of sailing, fishing and being alone on the water in his prized dinghy.
The sense of amiability and a gentle repose is reinforced by the skilled treatment of the reflective surface of the water in both the Port Phillip and Shoalhaven pictures. This is then counterbalanced, and resized, in Shoalhaven Fishing by the sheer vertical banks interspersed with fallen diagonal tree trunks and impressively sized boulders and cliffs.
The attractively variegated treatment of the pictorial surface, including the lovely pink mauve, green, yellow and cream hues, lend vitality to the scene and emphasise the look and feel of the terrain. They are emblematic of Arthur Boyd’s long standing as one of Australia’s foremost colourists.
Woman in a Jinker c1969 is similarly predisposed in subject, colouration and painterly execution. In this work, Boyd focuses on a recognisable family member partaking in a dynamic interaction with nature. Not Emma Minnie Boyd, as has been suggested,1 but demonstrably Doris Boyd, Arthur’s mother, riding in the family-owned trap pulled by one of the much-loved family ponies. Doris’s fiery red coiffure was often noted by her family and contemporaries. It appears regularly in Arthur’s paintings, including related works from the Potter series such as Doris with Red Hair c1968, Potter and Wife on Beach at Arthurs Seat c1968-69 and Woman in a Cane Chair and Artist in a Suburban Landscape 1969-70.
The Potter series of paintings is a much-loved group of works that Arthur Boyd commenced following his return visit to Australia in 1968, a decade after moving to England. Merric and Doris died within a year of each other in 1959-60 and Arthur Boyd is often quoted as saying that on the 1968 visit he was moved by memories of the family home at Murrumbeena and the Mornington Peninsula, where he had lived for a while with his grandfather in the 1930s. He ended up ‘going back to places like Rosebud and around the sand flats where my parents courted.’2
Potter and Wife on Beach at Arthurs Seat and Woman in a Cane Chair and Artist in a Suburban Landscape are classic examples of pictures that recall the landscapes of personally nostalgic locations. However, Boyd adds a note of uncertainty. In the first picture, he paints his mother and father on the sand banks near Rosebud, on Port Phillip Bay. Their passionate embrace, in which nude torsos cohere into one form, is contrasted against the black swan, and a ramox seen hiding in the foreshore thicket. Far from being an expression of unbridled passion, it is better understood as an allusion to the painful experience of unrequited love and unfulfilled desire. He uses the overt symbolism of the bird and animal to depict his parent’s relationship.
In Woman in a Cane Chair and Artist in a Suburban Landscape 1969-70 we witness Doris posing for a painting, sitting on a bright yellow chair that resembles the wicker chair that Merric frequently sat on when he was drawing or making his ceramic pots. The work is also set against a partially recognisable backdrop. In this instance, it is Open Country, the Boyd family house, property and pottery studio in Murrumbeena, a suburb of Melbourne. Once again, Arthur undercuts the central premise of the scene: in this case, Doris as Merric’s willing and sensual muse. The scale of the painting is not something in Merric’s repertoire. He preferred to work in a simpler way with colour pencils vigorously inscribed and rubbed onto small sheets of paper. The artist and model are more likely to be Arthur and Yvonne Boyd. Boyd’s penchant for creating hybrid animal forms was matched by the combinations he made using the facial attributes and characteristic postures of different people. Even the method of painting on his knees with a canvas propped up by a stick suggests Arthur rather than Merric, something first suggested by Arthur’s brother David.3
These sorts of intriguing ambiguities and cross-identifications continue in Woman in a Jinker. The setting is a mixture of the brightly hued blue sky, yellow fields and screeching white cockatoos of the Wimmera region in Victoria, conjoined with aspects appropriated from another famous Boyd family home – The Grange, at Harkaway in present day Narre Warren, owned by the writer Martin Boyd.
The subjects of Arthur Boyd’s paintings of this area, produced from 1948-1959, were mostly found within one or two kilometres of The Grange. Boyd took a great deal of interest in exploring inconsequential incidents between humans and nature. This could take a demonstrably personal tack as in the depiction of the man driving a horse and cart toward the house in A’Beckett Road, Harkaway 1949 and a related drawing
Horse and Cart on a Lane: Berwick 1947-49 (both in the National Gallery of Australia collection, Canberra). Boyd was equally well-versed in family stories concerning his great grandfather, W.A.C. a’Beckett, and his collection of buggies and drays, that he famously drove at breakneck pace on the Harkaway property.4
Merric and Doris were at home with a horse and jinker and often appeared in Arthur’s work in this way. Significantly, they make a reappearance in the Shoalhaven paintings of the 1980s, in a way that recalls the Potter series from almost two decades before. Both sets of paintings show how Arthur Boyd constructed a highly engaging and idiosyncratic array of images out of a variety of often divergent sources and store of inspiration.
1. Christie’s, Melbourne, 20 November 1995, lot 149
2. Arthur Boyd, quoted in Pearce, B., Arthur Boyd Retrospective, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1993, p.1985
3. David Boyd, in conversation with the author, May 2001, quoted in Arthur Boyd: The Emerging Artist - Mornington Peninsula and Port Phillip Bay [exhibition catalogue], Mornington Peninsula Art Gallery, Victoria, 2001, p.43
4. James, R., Home of the Boyds: Harkaway and The Grange [exhibition catalogue], Bunjil Place Gallery, Melbourne, 2018, p.43
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.