The Alan Boxer Bequest is one of the most significant acts of generosity to the National Gallery of Australia. It comprises key works by some of Australia’s finest twentieth-century artists, including Roy de Maistre, Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, John Olsen, Charles Blackman and John Perceval. A dedicated and insightful collector, Boxer enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the Gallery over many years. He took a keen interest in the developing national collection, visiting the off-site store before the building opened to the public in 1982. Following his retirement, he became a voluntary guide at the Gallery, further deepening his understanding of mid twentieth-century Australian art, which comprises the majority of works in the bequest.
The earliest work is de Maistre’s Waterfront, Sydney Harbour 1918–19, part of a relatively small group of paintings undertaken in the lead-up to the seminal exhibition Colour in art with Roland Wakelin at Gayfield Shaw Gallery in Sydney in 1919.
This work was illustrated in the first edition of Bernard Smith’s classic art-historical text Australian painting in which Smith notes that the work was among the paintings that ‘foreshadowed the first Australian essays in abstract art’. While it may not look abstract to us today, de Maistre was abstracting from the real, simplifying forms into bold planes of colour. It has long been the Gallery’s aim to represent this period of works by de Maistre and Wakelin in depth, and Waterfront, Sydney Harbour is a great addition to the collection.
Some of the works fill major gaps in the collection, including Blackman’s Rabbit tea party 1956–57 from his highly regarded series Alice in wonderland, which had not previously been represented. Rabbit tea party reflects Blackman’s interest in a child’s imaginative world, an interest he shared with his wife, poet and author Barbara Blackman, and artists such as Joy Hester and Sidney Nolan.
Blackman first encountered Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s adventures in Wonderland as an audiobook as a result of Barbara’s sight impairment. The fact he heard rather than read this engaging tale meant that his imagination was given free rein as he brought a personal take to the story—with Barbara as Alice and himself as the rabbit. In Rabbit tea party, they are seated on high chairs alongside a disproportionately large, luminous yellow vase in a world of make-believe that engages us in its enchantments.
© Barbara Tucker, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra The Alan Boxer Bequest, 2014
Blackman, Nolan and Tucker enjoyed working in series. Tucker’s Gamblers and parrots 1960 was identified by Boxer as the first work of significance that he bought for his collection and, as he said in an interview in 2000, it remained one of his favourites. In accordance with Tucker’s typology of roughly cast Antipodean heads, the gamblers look as though they are hewed from the landscape itself.
Tucker had spent time in Rome, where he became familiar with the heavily textured works of Alberto Burri and a group of artists known as tachistes. He adapted their interest in earthy textures into evocations of Australia remembered from a distance. The dramatic card players facing each other personify a mighty stillness that contradicts the lively antics of the birds, which seem to take control of the situation.
If Tucker’s figures appear ancient, weathered and fixed in time, Nolan’s Kelly and figure 1962 embodies a fluid ambiguity. Compared with works from his iconic Ned Kelly paintings of 1946 and 1947 in the national collection and on display at the Gallery, this later painting conveys a deliberate awkwardness. In place of the modernist black square of Kelly’s armour, a human face emerges from the helmet-head. The shifts reveal Nolan’s deepening enquiries into non-Indigenous relationships with a vast continent. His depictions of severe drought conditions in Queensland and the Northern Territory in 1952 resulted in remarkable images of distorted carcases of cattle the following year, while his series Burke and Wills, painted in the same year as his Kelly and figure, informed his sense of hallucinatory states of mind and a precarious relationship with the land.
Boyd’s Dreaming bridegroom II 1958 is one of the finest paintings from his groundbreaking Bride series. Inspired by a visit to central Australia in the early 1950s, the series is rich in symbolism relating to complex interconnections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Boyd was shocked by the difficult conditions of the Aboriginal people he encountered. As was often the case, his investigations into particular issues became fused with broader concerns to do with love and relationships. Dreaming bridegroom II was selected for an exhibition of Boyd’s work at Zwemmer Gallery in London in 1960, which helped forge his reputation in Britain. Other important works by Boyd in the bequest are Mount Terrible 1956 and a lively ceramic, Maquette for ceramic pylon c 1955—the maquette for Boyd’s sculpture for the Olympic Games in 1956.
Two stunning paintings by Olsen, McElhone Steps 1963 and Childhood by the seaport 1965, were included in the artist’s retrospective in 1991–92 at the National Gallery of Victoria and Art Gallery of New South Wales. Childhood by the seaport recalls Olsen’s early years in Bondi and the freedom of a child in the water, at one with the natural environment. Similarly, Perceval’s Early morning, Williamstown 1956 conveys this artist’s spontaneous, buoyant and quite distinctive response to a seaport and helps to fill a gap in the collection. Other works in the bequest include those by artists Brett Whiteley, Donald Friend, Leonard Hessing, Elwyn Lynn, Stanislaus Rapotec, Kevin Connor and James Wigley as well as a rare painting by art critic Robert Hughes.
This is an extraordinary bequest by any standards. While there are too many significant works to be able to discuss them all here, the National Gallery will continue to honour Alan Boxer as a passionate collector through the ongoing display, study and publication of his remarkably generous bequest.
Senior Curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture post 1920
Our sincere thanks go to Alan Boxer's family and especially to the executors of his estate, Kristian Pithie and Bert Van Dijk, for their kind support and assistance.
Alan Boxer was a valued member of the National Gallery of Australia Bequest Circle . His decision to leave a bequest of nineteen works of art to the Gallery has had a remarkable impact on the national collection, ensuring future generations will benefit from his foresight and generosity.
Further information regarding the National Gallery of Australia's Bequest Circle can be found here .