Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery

Towards Perth - Catalogue

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Towards Perth exhibition is accompanied by an 5-page catalogue available at the Gallery. The catalogue features artwork, an essays by Melissa Harpley and a complete list of exhibited works.

An online version of catalogue is available for download as PDF or modified RTF file (text-only version). A PDF reader such as Adobe Reader (available as a free download) is required to open PDF files.

Catalogue essay

A View from the Outside

by Melissa Harpley, April 2013

Towards Perth features works united by a range of factors beyond the sex of the artists who made them: their subject, their place and their time of making. All these views of the landscape in and around Perth were made by artists who mostly consolidated their practice as artists in the interwar period. This shared history means these images can help to illuminate today what kind of art it was possible for artiststo make here, back then. Towards Perth also hints at the conceptual, helping us approach an understanding of how the idea and image of a city was visualised and perhaps contested in mid-twentieth century Australia.

As the historian Tom Stannage has written,1 a profound conservatism operated in Western Australian well into the 1950s. Cultural, social and political life was played out against a backdrop that promoted the idea of Western Australia as a consensual society, and one that valued the rural over the urban. In reality, the tragedy of World War One followed bythe Great Depression, the failure of the Group Settlement Scheme and the approach of the Second World War meant that these prevailing norms were often challenged by daily, lived experience.

Image-making in Perth was, of course, not immune. Artistic training and exhibiting modes had been dominated by the conservative model, which had foregrounded the primacyof landscape as the proper subject for art, and the proper role for art being to ‘uplift’ the mind. What was championed throughout this period was the production of art that emulated closely-observed picturesque pastoral scenes as made by British artists. This small range of visual types was reinforced in the press, but by the early 1930s it started to be challenged by artists themselves, as well by photographs of the city that focused on the built environment, rendering Perth as an antipodean metropolis mimicking the American prototype. 2

Within the conservative, consensus-driven image of Western Australia one scene is particularly familiar to Perth audiences: from a vantage point high on Mount Eliza the viewer looks across Perth Water towards the city. The essentials of this view were first laid down in the late 1820s, before a city even existed on the site, and the key elements have remained mostly unchanged since. In fact, the formulaic composition – grassy foreground, view framed by picturesque trees, calm expanse of water and city sitting untroubled in the middle distance – has become so much a part of the visual language that we don’t see it as a manufactured view. Admittedly, the balance varies a bit, with the focus sometimes on nature and at others on the urban, sometimes people feature in the scene and sometimes not, but it is essentially the same image.3

Edith Trethowan’s detailed wood engraving Mounts Bay Road towards Perth, the work which lends its title to this exhibition, sits firmly within that tradition. Trethowan had received a conservative artistic training in drawing in Perth in the 1920s from three influential practitioners of the landscape mode. In 1927 she was encouraged to try wood engraving, a medium in which she excelled.4 In Mounts Bay Road towards Perth and View from back door Trethowan drew from the compositional techniques of the picturesque, wrapped up in the language of late-nineteenth century Japonisme in her use of the pictorial device of a strong dark shape in the foreground that screens the more detailed image beyond. The resulting image presents a view of Perth not as a burgeoning metropolis about to celebrate its centenary, but as a tranquil hamlet. People are not present, just the evidence of their activity, like laundry flapping in the breeze.

The vantage point on Mount Eliza is also the location for the earliest work in this exhibition, Rose Walker’s untitled view of the Swan River. Interestingly, the similarly unpopulated, but informally rendered watercolour by this Victorian artist strays from the usual composition adopted for this scene. The city of Perth can only be glimpsed through a decorative screen of trees that fills the foreground of the image; the diagonals set up by bushes, trunks and branches work to almost completely block access to the washed-in details of the foreshore and buildings in the distance.

Close in date to Trethowan’s reassuring images is visiting Sydney artist Jean Appleton’s Swan River, Perth. This equally carefully constructed view reflects Appleton’s Sydney training in her use of a decorative, tonal modernism combined with a post-impressionist paint technique. However, Appleton flips the view, presenting an image with a remarkably empty fore and mid-ground, thereby providing the structure or excuse for a formalist exercise in the arrangement of rectangles of colour, painted within a very restricted palette of greens. In spite of the framing device of the two trees that renders this work a ‘view’, it almost demands to be read as two paintings – the lower two-thirds an abstract exercise in colour and form, the upper third a separate landscape placed ontop, its attenuated rectangular form harking back to Arthur Streeton’s scenes of Sydney Harbour from the early years of the twentieth century.

Also trained in Sydney with a modernist vocabulary was Portia Bennett, an artist whose two great interests in water and architecture came together in many of her views around Perth painted following her move here in 1932. One of her earliest known views of the city, Lawson Flats, Riverside Drive shares similarities of viewpoint with Trethowan and Appleton. Although Bennett’s view is across water, past a foreground image of boats, her subject is not the natural world but the city that is coming to dominate nature – new buildings like Lawson Flats and the Colonial Mutual Life building had come to stand as icons of the dream of the new metropolis of Perth in the pages of the popular press at the time.5

Hotel Adelphi, Perth is one of Bennett’s most well-known images of this burgeoning city. Unlike Trethowan, who remained at a remove from the city she depicted, Bennett located herself absolutely within the city. She often employed a raised vantage point or depicted the city at a slight remove or beyond some other barrier, but we are nevertheless shown vistas down or along streets. People, although diminutive, occupy the public spaces driving cars or walking the streets, and there is evident enjoyment in the play of light and the shadows cast by tall buildings. There are even signs of commercial activity – the domestic intimacy of Trethowan’s washing line has been replaced by a sign for Dodge cars.6

The artist whose images of Perth did the most to challenge local audiences’ assumptions about what constituted art was the German-born and trained painter Elise Blumann. Blumann arrived in Perth in early 1938 with her husband and young son to escape the political situation in Europe and their presence here brought a direct connection to the darkening politics of Europe to this very British outpost.

Undoubtedly the most striking of all the images in this exhibition is Summer nude, painted by Blumann the year after she moved to Perth, but not publicly exhibited until 1944, when it caused a scandal.7 This early work is not a portrait of an individual, but the representation more of an idea, the lack of identity making the female form universal. Although we know the work was painted at her home in Nedlands, there are no specific indicators of location as become more commonplace in her later works. Blumann’s landscapes, like Appleton’s, use the subject as a device for what is in many ways a formal exercise, resulting in highly simplified, abstract yet decorative depictions of a few favoured environs, strongly influenced by her German Jugendstil training. This can be seen in the many views she painted of the Nedlands foreshore, and in works like Rottnest lighthouse and salt lake where the scene is reduced to a few essential elements – tree, sky, water, land – expressionistically carved out through the use of vigorous parallel brushstrokes, heightened colour and held in place by black outlines.

This use of black outlines and a loosely expressionist brushwork is also present in the work of Elizabeth Blair Barber, whose work similarly builds up the forms in the landscape through a Cézanne-inspired rendering of them in flat planes. Often, her works contain objects that are treated as partially surreal elements, such as the fallen dead treein the foreground of Tone River Mill, where an ambiguously rendered branch/root reaches like an arm to embrace the scene. This foreground screen of anthropomorphised nature, similar in composition to Walker’s early view of Perth, is set in opposition to the regimented felled timber in the grounds of the mill beyond.

Audrey Greenhalgh was largely self-taught as an artist, and as such approached art as a very personal means to give expression to the subjects she responded to, rather than being formally trained in a particular ‘style’.8 Greenhalgh grew up in Ravensthorpe, and in her youth travelled frequently along the Australian coastline in coastal steamers. She generally had a strong connection to the natural world, but by far her biggest passion was for the sea. It, in its many moods, was the most constant subject of her paintings, which ranged from realistic renderings of the coast to more symbolic musings on the effects of the sea on human endeavours. Break in the storm is one of Greenhalgh’s earliest representations of a seascape near her home in the suburb of Cottesloe and it, like her other works on display, is an attempt to evoke an emotional response to the contemplation of nature.

In much the same manner as Blumann forgoes indicators of a specific location in favour of a generalising universalism, Greenhalgh’s works are not portraits of places. In this way Morning shadows is not a view of a particular stretch of the Western Australia coast, but an abstracted response to nature in order to evoke a mood or a moment. The subject is the light falling on the dunes, but only as a means to carve out the undulations of the sand and grasses, contributing to a sense of the Earth as a dynamic living thing in contrast to the unusually (for Greenhalgh) calm sea, which only occupies a small segment of the image.

As these diverse images show, although there was a push to maintain the status quo in the production of art in Perth in the mid-twentieth century, that desire came up againstthe realities of artists working here, many of whom came from somewhere else. They brought with them a different understanding of what it was to be an artist, often influenced by modernist ideas of art as an act of exploration of both form and subject, so that the art made in Perth was no longer born out of isolation, but of engagement.


  1. C T Stannage, Embellishing the Landscape: the images of Amy Heap and Fred Flood, 1920-1940 Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1990, pp. 12-19; see also Ffion Murphy and Richard Nile (eds), The Gate of Dreams: The Western Mail Annuals, 1897-1955 Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1990.
  2. These photographs started to appear in advertisements as well as the editorial pages of magazines and newspapers. They have been explored more fully in various essays in David Bromfield (ed.), Aspects of Perth Modernism 1929-1942 Crawley: The Centre for Fine Arts, The University of Western Australia, 1986, the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition of the same title curated by Julian Goddard; and in the catalogue essay that accompanied the exhibition at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery Beyond the Image: Western Australian Women Artists 1920-1960 Crawley: The Centre for Fine Arts, The University of Western Australia, 1990 curated by Melissa Harpley.
  3. See: George Seddon, ‘Figures in the Landscape’ Landscape Australia issue 2, 1987 accessed at htm on 12 May 2012 for a good visual archive of this composition.
  4. Her training had been at the hands of Henri van Raalte, JWR Linton and AB Webb, but it was her friend and fellow artist Beatrice Darbyshire who, on her return from the Slade art school in London suggested wood engraving to Trethowan.
  5. Compare Amy Heap’s view of Perth from a similar vantage point on the South Perth shore reproduced in Stannage, p. 32; and also Fred Flood’s photograph ‘Perth Rises’ reproduced in Murphy and Nile p. 147.
  6. For fuller accounts of Bennett’s cityscapes see: John Barrett-Lennard (ed.), A Partial View: The University of Western Australia Art Collection Crawley: Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, 2009, p. 26; Harpley, pp. 23-31; Joan Kerr (ed.), Heritage: The National Women’s Art Book Sydney: G+B Arts International Limited, 1995, p. 205, p. 311.
  7. For fuller accounts of the painting and its reception by Perth audiences, as well as on Blumann more generally see: Barrett-Lennard, pp. 34-35; David Bromfield, Elise Blumann: paintings and drawings 1918-1984 Crawley: The Centre for Fine Arts, The University of Western Australia, 1984; Kerr, p. 292, p. 316.
  8. Greenahlgh’s work is discussed in more detail in Harpley, pp. 31-34; Kerr, p. 210, p. 364; and in the catalogue essay that accompanied the exhibition at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery Ariel’s Song: Audrey Greenahlgh 1903-1991 Crawley: Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, 1994.