Eltham Landscape, 1958-59 signed 'Fred Williams' lower right oil on hardboard 61.0 x 47.5cm (24 x 18 11/16in).
PROVENANCE The estate of the artist, Melbourne Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane (label attached verso) Private collection Annette Larkin Fine Art, Sydney Private collection, Sydney
EXHIBITED Fred Williams, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 12 May 1959, cat. no. 20 Fred Williams - A Retrospective, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 7 November 1987 - 31 January 1988; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 17 February - 3 April 1988; Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, 18 April - 22 May 1988; Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, 13 June - 31 July 1988; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 16 August - 30 October 1988; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 24 November 1988 - 30 January 1989; Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory, Darwin, 29 April 1989 and Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 8 August - 24 September 1989 Fred Williams, Phillip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, 4 April - 6 May 2000, cat. no. 1
LITERATURE James Mollison, A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1989, p. 41 (illus.) Fred Williams, exh. cat., Phillip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, 2000 (illus. front cover)
Fred Williams returned to Australia in 1957 after spending five years studying at the Chelsea Art School and the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. Upon returning to Melbourne, influenced by a fresh perspective on the familiar Australian setting, he began to develop a unique vision that would transform the ways of seeing the landscape and solidify Williams' post as one of the greatest artists of modern Australia.
Eltham Landscape, 1958, demonstrates the beginnings of Williams' iconic vision. Though he was still caught up in the powerful influences of the European modernists, this work marks a direct shift away from the figurative and Expressionistic art he was producing in England. He would continue to paint in the European tradition well into the 1960s; but this work, along with the important Nattai River, 1958, in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, demonstrate the flat landscape, the high horizon line, and understanding of tonality that would become his own. Crucially, Nattai River would also be the first work by the artist to be acquired by a public institution, marking 1958 as a year of consequence.
The work is positioned almost as if we are looking at the landscape wearing blinkers, we are not allowed past the tight confines of the immediate foreground, permitted only to see what lies behind it. This was a common technique of Williams during this period and completely involves the viewer, almost to the point of frustration. Although Eltham Landscape is much more literal than his landscapes of the 1960s, such as You Yangs Landscape, 1963, in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, this work is more about the handling of colour and tone than composition. The orthogonals created by the trees and their pointedly vertical positioning play second fiddle to the fine tonal differences found in layers working up the canvas. Dark browns, blues and greens softening as they work towards the horizon. This landscape is familiar to every Antipodean; the blended colours of the foreground and background open up a central space in the canvas, mimicking the typically sporadic nature of the Australian bush.
The importance of Eltham Landscape within the artist's oeuvre was confirmed by its inclusion in the then Australian National Gallery's touring retrospective, Fred Williams: A Retrospective, which was staged in 1988, six years after the artist's passing. As observed by Patrick McCaughey in his monograph on the artist, 'During his lifetime Williams painted his way into the canon of Australian art, and his position today is even more firmly entrenched, if that is possible. He is the equal of the gifted generation of artists such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker, who preceded him, and is unsurpassed in his own generation.' 1
1 Patrick McCaughey, Fred Williams: 1927 - 1982, Murdoch Books, Sydney, 2008 edition, p. 350