The councillor's house 1948 signed and postdated 'Russell Drysdale 49' lower right oil, ink and pencil on board 79.0 x 100.0cm (31 1/8 x 39 3/8in).
PROVENANCE Sir Kenneth Clark Collection, London Sotheby's, London, 23 June 1966, lot 46 Special Auction of Modern Australian & European painting, Geoff K Gray, Sydney, 26 October 1966, lot 46, titled The Councillor's House and abandoned mineshaft (illus.) Private collection Harold E Mertz Collection, Texas, United States of America Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, Texas, United States of America The Harold E Mertz Collection of Australian Art, Christie's, Melbourne, 28 June 2000, lot 44 (illus.) The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 2000
EXHIBITED Russell Drysdale, Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, 23 March 4 April 1949, cat. no. 1 Exhibition of Paintings 1937 1949 by Five Australian Artists, Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, 2-14 November 1949 Russell Drysdale, Leicester Galleries, London, 30 November 23 December 1950 Everyman Club, Bath 1952 Arts Council Exhibition, United Kingdom, 1953 (not in catalogue) Twelve Australian Artists, touring exhibition, New Burlington Galleries, London; Victoria Art Gallery, Bath; City Art Gallery, Bradford; Derby Art Gallery, Derby; City Art Gallery, Bristol; Belfast Art Gallery, Belfast, 12 July 1953 20 February 1954 Russell Drysdale: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings from 1937-1960, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 5 October 6 November 1960, cat. no. 56 Treasures from the Commonwealth, Royal Academy, London, 17 September - 13 November 1965, cat. no. 141, titled Counsellor's House Legends and Landscape in Australian Art, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, Texas, United States of America, 9 November - 19 December 1986 The Artists of Hill End, touring exhibition, The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 29 July - 17 September 1995, Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, Bathurst, 6 October - 19 November 1995, New England Regional Gallery Art Gallery, Armidale, 10 February - 31 March 1996, Broken Hill City Art Gallery, Broken Hill, 19 April - 26 May 1996, Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, Ballarat, 7 June - 29 July 1996, cat. no. 22 (label attached verso)
LITERATURE E Newton, 'Australia on Canvas', London Calling, London, 1951, p. 9 Paul Haefliger, et al, Russell Drysdale: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1960, cat. no. 56, pl. 20 (illus.) Geoffrey Dutton, Russell Drysdale, Thames and Hudson, London, 1964, pp. 44, 45 (illus.), 184 Treasures from the Commonwealth, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London, 1965 'Top price of the sale', Sun, Sydney, 27 October 1966 (illus.) Lou Klepac, The life and work of Russell Drysdale, Bay Books, Sydney, 1983, pp.91-97, 279 (illus.), 367 Gavin Wilson, The Artists of Hill End, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1995, pp. 45, 50 (illus.) Lou Klepac, Russell Drysdale, Murdoch Books, Sydney, 2009, pl. 89 (illus.)
The councillor's house is the most travelled of Drysdale's works. It has crossed the world eight times. Not only that, but one might say that this painting changed the course of the artist's life, in that it led to Drysdale having his first London exhibition in 1950, which established his fame overseas. It was painted when Drysdale was thirty-six years old and had reached a high point in his artistic career. At this time he produced a number of his finest works within a period of about two years. This is remarkable as Drysdale was known to be a reluctant painter; but during these two years he worked harder than probably at any other time in his life. This exceptional period of activity came about following his trip with Donald Friend to Sofala and Hill End in August 1947. Almost immediately on their return Drysdale began painting a picture of Sofala; its evolution carefully recorded by Friend in his diary, who was amazed by Drysdale's frenzied activity.
Before the Hill End trip Friend had planned to go and live in Tasmania but, having discovered Hill End, he changed his mind, bought a cottage and moved there with his friend Donald Murray. This allowed Drysdale to make periodic visits to Hill End where he took photographs, capturing some of the mystery of the then neglected and forgotten little town with its few inhabitants. There was a magnetic atmosphere in the old dilapidated buildings and the carved and eroded landscape.
Drysdale photographed the church and its interior, the old dilapidated two-storey buildings with crumbling sides, the eroded landscape of Golden Gully and, of course, Councillor Whittaker's house. From the photographs Drysdale made drawings and began to evolve an ideal landscape based on Hill End. He took the elements of this lost town and placed it into his mythical outback. In 1948, in quick succession, Drysdale produced several paintings based on the photographs he had taken at Hill End. The first step in this imaginative evolution occurred when Walter Hutchinson, the publisher, commissioned him to paint a cricket picture. Hutchinson expected a traditional cricket match, but that is not what Drysdale came up with.
On 12 November 1948, Drysdale wrote to Friend telling him that he was busy painting a portrait of him in a Hill End landscape: 'and feel I'm really getting somewhere with it. Besides the two Hill End landscapes, I've laid in 3 more (smaller) and have taken the opportunity to work out a portrait of Margaret [Olley].' 1
The two Hill End landscapes Drysdale refers to are Hill End and The Councillor's House. At this time he was painting at a leisurely pace, working for his next one-man show at the Macquarie Galleries in March 1949. Then things changed.
Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery in London, arrived in Sydney. He had been invited to Australia by the National Gallery of Victoria. His first stop was Sydney and, on 19 January 1949, the British Council gave a cocktail party for him. Donald Friend recorded in his diary that he and Drysdale went along and noted: 'Tas had been working hard, and his studio was full of pictures in various stages. Two of them ... were better than any he had done before a landscape of Hill End (which Sir Kenneth Clark bought the morning he came out) and a portrait of Olley.' 2
In his autobiography Clark does not mention Drysdale, but does recount that he saw a painting by Sidney Nolan in an exhibition and sought him out. Clark would have a lot to do with Nolan in the future, but he did also respond to Drysdale's work and urged him to exhibit in London.
Many years later in 1980, when I organised the Russell Drysdale Drawings retrospective for the 1980 Perth Festival and was preparing a catalogue with various tributes, Kenneth Clark was the first to reply:
'Drysdale is the essential Australian painter. Many gifted painters have come out of Australia, and one of them, Sidney Nolan, is a universal figure. But no one except Drysdale gives the same authentic feeling of the resolute humanity that has managed to exist in that terrible continent. Those who love Australia and the Australians as I do will find their feelings reflected in the bold, sincere and deeply human records he has made of the landscape and its inhabitants, black and white. ...'
True to his word, back in London Clark had been to see the Leicester Galleries and advised them to invite Drysdale to have an exhibition with them. They wrote towards the end of 1949 suggesting a date in June 1950, asking for thirty-five to forty paintings. Drysdale replied that June was impossible and it was agreed that it would be later in the year December 1950. However, this still did not leave much time to produce a large exhibition.
In March 1949 Drysdale had his one-man show at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney. There were just twelve paintings, all sold cat. no. 1 being The councillor's house, which Kenneth Clark had already bought for 200 guineas (however the catalogue does not record that it belonged to Clark).
From Christmas to mid-1950, when the exhibition was due to be shipped to London, Drysdale had a hectic time painting. He kept making lists of what he was going to paint and what could be borrowed to make up the numbers such as The cricketers, Clark's The councillor's house and Sofala (which belonged to his brother in law). In August 1950 he exhibited fourteen works at the Macquarie Galleries, listed as 'The greater part' of the paintings for London, which had not all been painted yet.
To save time when he was painting for the London exhibition, Drysdale did not follow his usual method of squaring up a study, transferring it with pen and Indian ink on canvas and then putting the oil paint body over this drawing armature. Works such as Wallaby hunt and Willy Willy were painted in a simpler, more fluid method 3 and do not have the rich, complex texture of a work such as The councillor's house, painted when Drysdale was working, not in a rush or because he had to, but because he was deeply involved in the process this being both a struggle and a pleasure.
The painting of The councillor's house represents a before and after in Drysdale's work. Sofala and The cricketers follow the drawings that Drysdale squared up and then painted. The councillor's house was not created in quite the same way. By studying one of the photographs he had taken at Hill End, he made a pen and ink drawing and then coloured it with watercolour. He squared the watercolour carefully and then transferred the design in pen and ink onto the canvas. However, this is not the image in the final version of the painting. In the watercolour, the councillor's house is the main feature while, in the finished painting, Drysdale changed the section of Golden Gully in the foreground, as the original composition did not work on the larger scale.
Drysdale reduced the focus on the house and simplified the composition by adding two dramatic images of mine entrances one at the left and one on the right of the lower section of the painting. There is a good deal of painting, glazing and reworking that went on in this picture, though much of the pen and ink is still visible.
The resulting painterly surface, the imaginative power of the picture and the various levels of meaning of this landscape, with its echoes of English painting (memories of Henry Moore's shelter drawings) must have appealed to Kenneth Clark who, on the ship to Australia, had been writing Landscape into Art.
What had begun as a painting of the eroded landscape of Hill End became something else. More than The cricketers or Hill End, The councillor's house contains the ghosts of the Australian colonial past. And not only that. The two mine entrances that Drysdale added into the composition might also be read as the entrances to the underworld, into which the bustling crowds of Hill End during the gold rush days disappeared, leaving a desolate, empty and silent landscape above.
1 Unpublished letter from Drysdale to Donald Friend. 2 The Diaries of Donald Friend, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2003, vol. 2, p. 635 3 In some ways, these 'on the run' paintings were to lead to Drysdale's new style in 1953. Having discovered the 'black oil' medium, his paintings became deeper in colour, fluid and old mastery no longer based on a drawing grid of the previous works.