Nothing captures the power of place quite like Arthur Boyd’s paintings of the Shoalhaven River. The paintings, made over a ten year period from 1972, are exceptional through the intensity of light, the deep defined shadows, and broad range (naturalistic, narrative, fantastic, biblical, mythological) 1. The first time I saw some of the works was an exhibition back in 1989, I knew then I had to go to the place that inspired them, which eventually happened with two field trips in 2009 and 2012. Recently re-reading the book Artist and the River1 brought back memories from those trips.
The two field trips in October 2009 and September 2012, and a day trip to Bundanon in June 2011, made the paintings even more compelling. In 2009 and 2012 stayed at the Old Mill in Braidwood for a week on each trip, with time for side trips to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, about a one hour drive away. Art immersion at its best. Our painting site, near Braidwood on the Shoalhaven River, a special landscape to return to as often as possible. The photographs taken on the trips captured some of Boyd’s Shoalhaven, in particular the cleft triangular rock formations where the rock reflections in the water make diamond shapes.
As well as sketching and painting along the river most mornings, the everyday activities away from the city routine seemed unremarkable at the time, and yet it is these experiences that evoke the memory of place. Some of the scenes.
Blazing down the Hume Highway hammered by hail and wind blasted. Morning crystal clear water and perfect reflections, springtime dappled afternoon forest sunlight, wood fire and smoke, downpours and rainbows, a night of howling wind and pelting rain. Chirping sparrow chicks in the eaves, early risers no sleeping in, sound of a crow then complete silence. Rushing around town in Braidwood (population 1,651) in freezing intermittent sleet flurries in search of hot pancetta for the slow cooked one dish wonder for dinner in front of the fire. Arriving at the nearby stream each day just as the local platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) disappeared, that outlier on the tree of life2, the elusive monotreme ‘no relation to fish or fowl, nor bird nor beast, nor horned owl, in fact he is the one and only’3. Standing up sketching on river rocks, one small slip, sketch book flung afar but fortunately no injuries. Driving down an isolated, bone rattling, long dirt ‘road’ to Monga National Park, thought out loud ‘not a good place to get a flat tyre or break down’, no mobile coverage. Then, to reinforce that thought, on a tight curve in the washboard road, a weathered, worse for wear, pre-war (WWII) bungalow with a lone, wary, old blue cattle dog (the breed usually described as ‘energetic and intelligent with an independent streak, prone to accidental injury’) on guard on the veranda, one ear pricked at the sound of the car. Nailed to a dead tree nearby a sign painted in large red letters ‘no public phone here’. The ‘road’ a scene of utter wombat (Vombatus ursinus) carnage. I counted at least twenty bodies in about one hour of driving, and began to wonder if they had been deliberately run down, either that or mown down by an inebriated maniac in a hurry at dusk to get home in time for dinner. The wagon came out of that day a little bit worse for wear which was confirmation of the travellers rule ‘never trust hand drawn maps found in local shops’.
From there, onward to ‘walk ten thousand miles read ten thousand books’ (Gu Yanwu, 17th century late Ming, early Ching dynasty).
Sense of Place
Sketches in ink and acrylics
Riverbank Shoalhaven River at Bundanon 12/6/2011
Riverbank Shoalhaven River 3/9/2012
Arthur Boyd, Riverbank and Rock Cleft 1974-6
Arthur Boyd, River, Sandbank, Figure and Red Hill 1974-6
Arthur Boyd, Three Rocks Near Punt Road Bundanon, 1981
Arthur Boyd, Bundanon Series 1982
John R Walker, CH Crossing the Shoalhaven, 2001
John R Walker, View from Arthur’s spot and Calypso Creek, 2001-2
Lloyd Rees, The Timeless Land, 1965
Brett Whiteley, The Meeting Place, 1981
Frederick McCubbin, Last Impressions 1907-17, National Gallery of Australia, 15 October 2009
Abstract Expressionism, National Gallery of Australia, 25 August 2012
Arthur Boyd, Agony & Ecstasy, National Gallery of Australia, 26 September 2014
John R Walker, Here I give thanks, Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra, 6 August 2015
1The Artist & The River – Arthur Boyd and the Shoalhaven, Sandra McGrath, 1982
2The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, The Lost Hero of Science, Andrea Wulf, 2015
Far from the trouble and toil of town,
Where the reed beds sweep and shiver,
Look at a fragment of velvet brown –
Old Man Platypus drifting down,
Drifting along the river.
And he plays and dives in the river bends
In a style that is most elusive;
With few relations and fewer friends,
For Old Man Platypus descends
From a family most exclusive.
He shares his burrow beneath the bank
With his wife and his son and daughter
At the roots of the reeds and the grasses rank;
And the bubbles show where our hero sank
To its entrance under water.
Safe in their burrow below the falls
They live in a world of wonder,
Where no one visits and no one calls,
They sleep like little brown billiard balls
With their beaks tucked neatly under.
And he talks in a deep unfriendly growl
As he goes on his journey lonely;
For he’s no relation to fish nor fowl,
Nor to bird nor beast, nor to horned owl;
In fact, he’s the one and only!