Now, having just won the 1965 Britannica Australia Award for Art, worth £5,000, he goes forth once more.

And with him go more than 20 paintings which will be exposed to the public gaze for the first time when his third London exhibition opens at the Leicester Galleries next month.

It is an event which the art world eagerly awaits.

Mr Drysdale, comfortably clad in check shirt and sweater, busied himself pouring cans of beer. “I have done 14 of these pictures this year,” he said with satisfaction. “That’s good for me because I am a slow painter.”

We sat in the dining room of the white, two-storey house in Double Bay, in which Mr Drysdale is currently living. Across the road from his front door the waters of the Harbour sparkled under a mellow sun. A gentle wind ruffled the tree-tops.

It was all very far removed from the sort of harsh, outback landscape with which Mr Drysdale has achieved fame.

So I asked him why it was he chose to examine in paint the hard, red heart of Australia in the soft, green centre of Sydney’s gracious-living belt.

Mr Drysdale took a long pull at his beer. “I can camp anywhere,” he said.

This is, of course, undeniably true. Mr Drysdale is as much at home on horseback or at the wheel of a Land Rover on a bush track as he is at a captain’s table. He has taken his swag to the uttermost corners of Australia.

“Yet I do very little paintings on my trips,” he said. “Sometimes I do not even make sketches. I like to have time to think about what I have seen before I begin to paint.”

"Australia gives me a sense of freedom, of space. I feel elevated here."

“Australia gives me a sense of freedom, of space. I feel elevated here.”Credit:Frank Burke

For a painter who has so powerfully conveyed the loneliness and the isolation as well as the timeless, twisted beauty of the outback, Mr Drysdale’s beginnings were somewhat unlikely. He was born in the placid Sussex town of Bognor-Regis 53 years ago.

And after leaving England with his parents as a child he grew up in that stronghold of the Australian Establishment, Geelong Grammar School. His early associations – between trips to Britain – were with Victoria.

Why, then, did he choose to live in Sydney? “I have found the most congenial society in Australia here,” he said. “I like to talk to people and to exchange ideas. There is no lack of talk or of ideas in this city.”

Mr Drysdale lit a cigarette and considered Melbourne as a possible alternative city in which to live. Quickly he rejected it.

“No,” he said. “In the past I have found Melbourne to be a place of violent and bitter factions as far as artists are concerned. In Sydney one may not agree with other painters, but at least one can go and have a beer with them without any danger of getting a knife in one’s back in a dark alley.”

Mr Drysdale padded into the kitchen and opened more beer. When he had refilled our glasses he said: “One needs talk and ideas and, of course, Sydney is now a city of the world rather than a provincial capital. It is adult and alive.”

Russell Drysdale’s pioneering forbears founded a sugar and pastoral dynasty on the Burdekin River in Queensland. He loves the north. But he said: “I have found on my journeys through the northern bush towns there are generally only four subjects of male conversation.

In Sydney one may not agree with other painters, but at least one can go and have a beer with them without any danger of getting a knife in one’s back in a dark alley.

Russell Drysdale

“These are girls, rum and cattle or girls, rum and sugar – in that order. It is very good, but it is a bit limited.”

When he returns from his trip to Britain, the Continent and America Mr Drysdale proposes to make the best possible compromise between Sydney, the city which he loves, and the country which attracts him.

He has bought a farm a few miles from Gosford and is having a house built there. “I don’t want to go too far away,” he said. “I want to be able to come into Sydney when I feel like it.”

Not all of Mr Drysdale’s paintings for his forthcoming exhibition are new. One he painted four years ago for a Chinese friend in Singapore who was recently killed in an air crash.

Drysdale's 1949 painting 'Woman in a Landscape"

Drysdale’s 1949 painting ‘Woman in a Landscape”Credit:AGNSW

This painting, which depicts an Aboriginal with a bird and has not yet been seen in Australia, will be flown to London on loan.

Mr Drysdale stubbed out his cigarette and talked about his work. “I had some very great personal troubles some time ago,” he said. “I thought perhaps I would never paint again.”

“But life goes on. I started to work after a time and now I am pleased with what I have done recently.”

Mr Drysdale now finds himself in the supremely happy position of an artist who has won world-wide acclaim while still in the full flush of his power. But, of course, there have been occasions in the past when his work has aroused violent dislike.

I reminded him that one of his paintings, “Woman in a Landscape,” had caused an uproar when it was exhibited in Adelaide and asked him how he felt about criticism.

He laughed. “One develops scar tissue over old wounds,” he said. “Anyway, I am concerned only about criticism from those whose knowledge I respect.

“You know, a funny thing was that this painting had hung in Sydney for a month before it went to Adelaide and no one was shocked by it. Can you wonder that I like it here?”

While he is away Mr Drysdale will visit his family’s ancestral home at Kilrie, in Scotland, where his cousin still lives. “I am very fond of that place,” he said. “And of course I also love London and Paris, where I once worked. But I could not live in those cities now.”


He led the way into another room where his latest paintings were stacked against the walls. Here was Russell Drysdale’s Australia. Gaunt groups of people stood on the edge of vast desert spaces. An Aboriginal stared from among strange rock shapes. There was corrugated iron, painted as surely no one has ever painted corrugated iron before.

Mr Drysdale said: ” This is the only place to live. Australia gives me a sense of freedom, of space. I feel elevated here. There is an infinite variety of landscape, and for me no feeling of loneliness.”

Most Viewed in Culture


Source link