Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery

ORIENTing - Catalogue

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ORIENTing is accompanied by an 8-page catalogue available at the Gallery. The catalogue features artwork, essays by the curators and a complete list of exhibited works.

A modified version of catalogue (excluding artwork) is available for download as PDF or RTF file. A PDF reader such as Adobe Reader (available as a free download) is required to open PDF files.

Catalogue essay

ORIENTing: Ian Fairweather in Western Australian Collections

 - Ted Snell and Sally Quin

ORIENTing: Ian Fairweather in Western Australian Collections presents works by Ian Fairweather from public and private collections in Western Australia, concentrating on paintings from the 1930s and 1940s. Together these works act as a diary of sorts, revealing Fairweather’s understanding of Chinese art and culture as he travelled through Asia, recording in situ or, commonly, at a later date from memory, what he had seen and experienced. Additionally, selected works have been included from the 1950s and 1960s that are characteristic of his mature style of abstract painting, and which enable us to trace Fairweather’s artistic trajectory.

Although there are often quite stark differences between these painting styles, from the delicate Post-Impressionist handling of brushwork in the earlier works to the monumental late paintings, there remain common threads, particularly in Fairweather’s abiding interest in the immediacy and economy of calligraphic brushwork and his continual return, through recollection, to the indelible memories of his Asian travels. A painting in the exhibition such as The Water Buffalo (c. 1960), from the later period is evidence of this line of reference and continuity. 

Ian Fairweather remains a somewhat anomalous figure in the annals of Australian art history. He was not Australian but he spent much of his life in this country and received significant support, particularly from Modernist art circles in Melbourne and Macquarie Galleries in Sydney. He lived an extraordinary life of travel, which included extremes of poverty, privation and psychological difficulty, but he remained adventurous and single-minded in his pursuit of new places and experiences. Despite the eccentric nature of Fairweather’s existence he was not a complete outsider in artistic circles and though there was rarely a respite from financial woes, the quality of his work was recognised from early on in his career. From the 1930s his works were shown in both Australia and London.1

More than any other Twentieth-Century Australian painter, Fairweather remains in the minds of many contemporary artists as a figure who seems to embody an almost complete commitment to the creative life. His absorption in the process of painting was akin to a religious experience. Yet, once finished, the final product was of little interest to him. Pierre Ryckmans, in his catalogue essay for the 1994 exhibition of Fairweather’s work at the Queensland Art Gallery, describes the artist as an ‘amateur’ in the traditional Chinese sense, where the work of the truly serious and dedicated practitioner is seen as possessing real spiritual value.2 This dedication to the practice of painting has given Fairweather an unassailable place in the pantheon of Australian artists.

Born in 1891 in Bridge of Allen in Scotland, Fairweather was just six months old when his military Surgeon-General father left for a post in India.3 Remaining in Scotland, Fairweather was not to see his mother again until he was about ten years old. When his family settled on Jersey, Fairweather began to paint. As an adult, he completed his officer training in readiness for the Great War. Captured on his second day of combat and made a prisoner-of-war in Ströhen, Germany, his time spent in captivity was surprisingly fertile. There, Fairweather began to study Japanese and was later permitted to reside in The Hague, and to visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Returning to London after the War, he studied at the Slade and from 1925 worked under the patronage of a former Tory MP, G. Leverton Harris.It was during this period, apparently troubled and restless, that Fairweather produced Smiling Girl (1926), a rare early work from the Janet Holmes à Court Collection, and the chronological starting point of this exhibition. This tonal painting points to future works in its subtle rendering of a faintly smiling girl.

Fairweather arrived in China in 1929 and took up residence in Shanghai, in an apartment above a brothel overlooking Soochow Creek, the setting of many paintings in the exhibition. A work such as Landscape, China (1933) from the Janet Holmes à Court Collection, can be read as a recollection of place as it was completed later in Bali, where Fairweather took a nine- month sojourn on his way to Australia. Balinese subjects can be seen in Bathers (1933), and Mother and Child (1933), both from the Kerry Stokes Collection.

In late 1933 Fairweather arrived in Perth and remained only three days. From Perth he moved to Melbourne but soon continued on to the Philippines and then to China, this time Peking. Here, Fairweather painted Houseyard, Peking (1935), now in The University of Western Australia Art Collection, and Outside the Walls of Peking (1935), from a private Perth collection. In China he often lived in straitened circumstances and left in 1936 for the Philippines, then Australia and finally India, where he spent much of the Second World War. He returned to Melbourne in 1943. Works completed there include Landscape, Soochow (1945-47), Canal, Foochow (1945-47), Walls of Foochow (1945-47), and Cornsifting, Soochow (1945-47), in the collection of Joy Halleen.

In 1952, Fairweather undertook an audacious, and near-tragic journey sailing in a makeshift boat from Darwin, heading for Timor. Washed up on Roti in Timor sixteen days later, the artist was repatriated to Britain, before returning to Australia in 1953 and settling on Bribie Island where his majestic late style was distilled. This period is represented though the paintings Boys Playing (1955), Painting I (1960) and Painting VIII (1960), from a private collection in Perth.

This exhibition also offers an opportunity to contextualise significant paintings in The University of Western Australia Art Collection from the Joe and Rose Skinner Bequest: Mother and Child (1935), Houseyard, Peking (1935), Tethered Horses outside Gate, Peking (1936) and Landscape with Mountains (1936), all of which are key works in the exhibition.

Fairweather’s work is defined by evocations of shifting geographies, of places recalled in memory, often selectively and in a fragmentary way. Energy and beauty combine in landscape works which, though notations of geographic locales, are also entries of experience, or evidence of time spent at a particular destination. Fascination for the work of Fairweather has not waned and both his art and approach to creative pursuits remain a significant point of reference for many contemporary artists.

It is within this context that the idea for a companion exhibition to Fairweather emerged. With or Without You is an exhibition of contemporary work by six Australian artists: Newell Harry, Tom Nicholson, Phaptawan Suwannakudt, Roy Wiggan, Tintin Wulia and John Young. It draws upon Ian Fairweather’s artistic legacy and his continuing influence on a contemporary appreciation of location, travel, history and geography. These artists seek to understand the aesthetic impact of travel, borders, history and an understanding of place that is constantly evolving.


ORIENTing: With or Without You

 - Aaron Seeto and Toby Chapman

With or Without You supposes that we are all fundamentally touched by intercultural experiences – Australia’s history of colonisation, migration and its geographic proximity to the Asia-Pacific creates these basic conditions. But how well does the narrative of art (or the narrative of nation) account for this, and how centrally located is the intercultural experience? Ian Fairweather was an outsider but simultaneously enmeshed within the story of Australian art. As an artist, he moved frequently, was observant and deeply affected by different kinds of cultures, was suspicious of nationalisms and shunned the formalities and order of polite society. Fairweather sought influences beyond Britain, Europe and America: in the geography of Asia and the Pacific and the non-European cultures situated in these areas. His paintings, which have an informed respect of calligraphy – its aesthetic relationship to language and abstraction – are a reflection of how his travels, through India, China, Bali, Manila, Thailand, New Guinea and other places, influenced his artistic experimentation which sought to break the problems of defining a representative space in painting.

Calligraphy and Chinese poetry were potent influences on Fairweather, as they were on John Young. For example, Young’s work Through the Eyes of the Wolf (2011/13), incorporates photographic images of idyllic landscape with fragments of Chinese landscape poetry from the Northern Song dynasty. For Young, it is the Song dynasty, where the ‘scholar painter’, and the ‘hermit’ who shuns a life of bureaucracy for a simple cultured existence emerge (this invokes wonderful similarities to that very romantic image of Fairweather – the bellicose recluse living in a shanty). In an oblique way, both Fairweather and Young illustrate an elliptical revolution and transformation of ideas that emerge when distinct painting styles and theories come together.

Phaptawan Suwannakudt’s use of calligraphy is dense and personal. The text used in her paintings is a combination of Buddhist writing, and Thai social and art history. Not for Sure (2012) is a series of sculptural assemblages made from FedEx boxes and other packaging material used for shipping. Having been flattened then reassembled into unusual and un-useable forms, the transformation of these humble cardboard structures echoes the artist’s own experience of moving between Thai and Australian culture and is a realisation, not only of the physical act of relocating, but of transformations of the mind as one transitions between different places and social environments.

Tintin Wulia’s Nous ne notons pas les fluers, Jakarta (2010) addresses the element of human contingency in the mapping and description of the world. It is an ongoing project taking its title from the classic tale, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) (1943). In the story, a geographer tells the character Little Prince that when mapping the Earth, ‘we do not record flowers,’ because flowers, unlike the Earth, are ephemeral. The work presented in this exhibition is the video installation - a version of the work first developed in Jakarta.4 Engaging with local communities in Jakarta, Wulia used live flowers and spices to connect the modern hopes and dreams of participants with the history of the spice trade. The malleable masses of countries and place, as described in Wulia’s ephemeral map, highlights modern geopolitics and the rigidity of national projects in gentle, and at times humorous, ways.

Tom Nicholson’s Drawings and Correspondence (2011) draws upon the display of Australia’s colonial past to unpack the process of being misread and misrepresented within the collections of institutions that are traditional centres of education, knowledge and power. Nicholson worked with a fragment of a photograph from the collection of the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, which ‘captured a native encampment, a short-lived Nineteenth Century ethnographic display in the Melbourne Zoo.5 Alongside a set of dense, dark drawings in charcoal, Nicholson made an artist book that contains a set of fictional correspondence that problematises the aesthetic intervention into colonial and institutional histories, while recognising a continuing historical blindness pervading the contemporary.

As Nicholson grapples with the slippages of narrative in the language of institutions, Newell Harry plays with their meaning through approximation and colloquial language. Harry, who has been working in the Pacific and in Vanuatu, in particular, for more than a decade, says his work is playing with ‘what happens when two disparate contexts are drawn together.6 Untitled (More Mumbo Jumbo: Crackpots ‘n’ Poems for Ishmael Reed) (2010-2012), and his two-screen video work, Untitled (Words and Pictures) (2012) incorporate word plays, the bastardisation of language, slips-of-tongue and absurd re-orderings. For Harry, this functions as a platform to present the overhanging and silent legacies of colonisation, black politics and trading histories within the Pacific. This experience in the Pacific – in which Australia participated and from which it profited – is an important historical context which remains mostly unrepresented within the narrative of Australia’s modernity.

Roy Wiggan is a Bardi man based in Broome and his Ilma are woven string objects used in dance and ceremony. Sandbar & Hairbelt (2003) is a suite of Ilma and features an important story of the artist’s father’s raft journey and escape from calamity. In Bardi culture, spirits of the dead come to the living to give them songs in the form of dances. Wiggan receives regular visits from his father, Henry Wiggan’s spirit, who provides him with designs for the Ilma. Sandbar & Hairbelt refers to a story about Henry and the sandbar just north of Broome on Cape Leveque off the Bardi Peninsula. It functions here as an alternate story of a ‘raft’ in Australian art history.7

Though Fairweather marks out the possibility for a broader aesthetic appreciation and experimentation resulting from his travels and observations of the immediate geography of Australia, how well has this entered into the imagination of Australia, or even that of the region through which he passed? Looking at him, from our position in the Twenty-First Century – a travelled, adventurous (British) recluse, ultimately an outsider whose powerful and sensitive paintings have been adopted into the art history of Australia’s Modernism – his legacy opens up an historical context for an expanded conversation about the nature of diaspora and its aesthetic treatment by artists.

A number of threads emerge from this grouping of artists in With or Without You – a preference for ephemeral materials that speak to these artists’ local conditions and the economies of exchange at work within their artistic production; an expanded consideration of tradition, history, text and language – how these morph and modulate through human networks and through time; and a consideration of artistic lineages and the kinds of knowledge systems that emerge outside of the mainstream.

With or Without You is based on the notion that Fairweather’s life and work provide an historical starting point from which to position work and ideas being produced now, which embrace the floating historical, social and cultural influences emerging from our diverse histories in Asia and the Pacific. These are stories of an immediate and sometimes intimate geography and illustrate a different kind of landscape experience occurring within (or in spite of) the usual record of our culture – a landscape within a landscape, a landscape progressing through the diverse and intuitive influences arising from the experience and vision of artists. A landscape, ultimately, being written with or with you.


  1. Fairweather’s works were exhibited at Redfern Gallery, London, in 1935, 1936, 1937, 1942 and 1948. For a full exhibition history see Murray Bail, Fairweather (Sydney: Murdoch Books, 2009), 261-263.
  2. Pierre Ryckmans, ‘An Amateur Artist,’ in Fairweather , ed. Murray Bail (Queensland: Art & Australia Books in association with the Queensland Art Gallery, 1994), 15-23.
  3. Biographical details are taken from Bail, Fairweather.
  4. Tintin Wulia’s  Nous ne notons pas les fluers , has had a number of different forms and developments in cities of significant local histories: Patna, India; Jakarta,Indonesia; Kwangju, South Korea and Fort Ruigenhoek, the Netherlands. Each iteration is brief and responds to a local issue and particular context of the city in which it was created.
  5. “Drawings and Correspondence”, Tom Nicholson Website, accessed February 26, 2013,
  6. Aaron Seeto, ‘Interview with Newell Harry,’ in News from Islands, ed. Claire Armstrong (Campbelltown Arts Centre, 2007), 32.
  7. In 1953, Fairweather sought to escape the social confines of Darwin and Australia to visit a friend in Timor. He built a raft from driftwood and available materials, and floated to Indonesian Timor. This escape from Darwin paradoxically saw him return to London through the intervention of the British, who assisted after he was deported by the Indonesian authorities to Singapore.