Kew Billabong III 1977 signed 'Fred Williams' lower right oil on canvas 96.6 x 106.5cm (38 1/16 x 41 15/16in).
PROVENANCE Realities Gallery, Melbourne R. C. Crebbin Collection, Sydney Private collection, New South Wales Australian and European Paintings, Christies, Melbourne, 23 November 1998, lot 73 Private collection, Melbourne
EXHIBITED Fred Williams, Realities Gallery, Melbourne, 7 June - 1 July 1978, (illus. cover of invitation)
LITERATURE Patrick McCaughey, Fred Williams 1927-1982, Bay Books, Sydney, 1980, pl. 179 p. 287 (illus.)
Fred Williams's Kew Billabong paintings of 1975-77 constitute a major and particularly individual series within his oeuvre. The billabong was close to his home, giving him easy access to the site. During 1975, he made seven excursions there, resulting in three or more paintings a visit. During May he noted, 'the "Billabong" at Kew is splendid - but on the other hand it is just a rubbish dump of all things ... I find it a great place to work'. 1 It provided a secluded retreat from an intrusive world, and a change from the broad panoramic landscapes that typified his work up to this time. In his perceptive introductory study of Williams's paintings, Patrick McCaughey wrote, 'The choice of motif was typically Williams. It answered certain psychological needs at the time a retreat, a new starting point with some point of departure from previous work, not too difficult or too quickly ambitious in aim, and notably unpicturesque.' 2 The result was some thirty or more luminously luxuriant paintings, McCaughey commenting, 'Here is Williams, the natural painter, relaxed and controlled.' 3. Williams also worked a series of related etchings, about which James Mollison observed, 'As if to provide a counter to the beguiling colour of this series, the artist made very tough black and white etchings of his paintings ...'. 4 Nevertheless, Mollison continued, 'The surface of the water in the Kew Billabong etchings is rich in linear rhythms and full of intricate variations of long, short and curved lines. In these lines Williams finds an equivalent for the juicy painting of the Billabong oils ...'.
The Billabong paintings are among Williams's most Impressionist works and are often compared with Claude Monet's Water Lilies series inspired by his garden at Giverny. Enclosed in view and intimate in mood, Williams even adopted Monet's palette of purple-blues contrasting against pinks, reds and aqueous greens, as seen in Kew Billabong III 1977. The subject is light of shimmering reflections and dancing brushstrokes, paint lush and tactile to entrance the senses and, thereby, seductively relax the mind. Moreover, like Monet, the chosen scene is encompassed and private, heightened by the clever use of composition, adroitly engaging geometrical structures on which to hang his vivid tapestries of paint. While the boldly angled line of Kew Billabong III 1977 gives added dynamism to the painting, it is balanced by the accents of background horizontals and lively foreground paint. All illusions of depth are cleverly brought back to the picture plane, where deft touches of thick paint and fluent strokes of the brush create a dazzling picture surface. The mood, nevertheless, is one of quietude and contemplation, the reflections on the water's surface being a metaphor of the artist's own meditations.
1. Quoted in James Mollison, A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1989, p.199