Ian FAIRWEATHER | House by the sea

Great Britain 1891 – Australia 1974
travelled in the Asia-Pacific region from 1928; based in Australia from 1943

House by the sea 1967 synthetic polymer paint and gouache on cardboard on composition board
signed l.r., SPP, 'Ian Fairweather" not dated
131.3 (h) x 193.3 (w) cm Purchased 1971 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
NGA 1971.9

  • with Macquarie Galleries, Sydney;
  • from whom bought by the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, February 1971
  • Ian Fairweather Retrospective
    • Queensland Art Gallery 01 Oct 1994 – 27 Nov 1994
    • National Gallery of Victoria 17 Dec 1994 – 19 Feb 1995
    • Art Gallery of New South Wales 11 Mar 1995 – 07 May 1995
  • Beneath the Monsoon: Visions North of Capricorn
    • Artspace Mackay 07 Feb 2003 – 06 Apr 2003
    • Cairns Regional Gallery 24 Apr 2003 – 01 Jun 2003
    • Perc Tucker Regional Gallery 06 Jun 2003 – 03 Aug 2003
  • Abstract Expressionism: the National Gallery of Australia celebrates the centenaries of Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis
    • 14 Jul 2012 – 24 Feb 2013
  • James Gleeson,Masterpieces of Australian painting, Melbourne: Lansdowne, 1969, p. 120, pl. 45, p. 121, illus. col. (as collection of the artist);
  • James Gleeson,Modern painters, 1931–1970, Melbourne: Lansdowne, 1971, p. 31, pl. 19, p. 84, illus col. (as courtesy Macquarie Galleries, Sydney);
  • Genesis of a gallery: Collection of the Australian National Gallery, Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service 1976, pp. [38– 39], illus. b&w;
  • Murray Bail, Ian Fairweather, Sydney: Bay Books 1981, cat. 198, p. 197, 208, 213, 220, illus. col. pp. 210–12;
  • Murray Bail, et al, Fairweather, Brisbane: Art & Australia Books in association with the Queensland Art Gallery 1994, pl. 58;
  • Gavin Wilson, Beneath the monsoon: Visions north of Capricorn, Artspace Mackay 2003, no cat. no, pp. 22–24, illus. col.;
  • Murray Bail, Fairweather, Sydney: Murdoch Books 2009, cat. 221, p. 113, 206, 222, 224, illus col. 232–33, 260

Fairweather was 76 years old and at the height of his powers when he painted House by the sea. This is one of his most expressive and deeply felt paintings. Fairweather’s work does not belong to any particular group of artists. Instead it evolved gradually over time into a visual language that was distinctively his own. It was a language informed by European modernism—by Cézanne and Cubism—and especially by Chinese calligraphy. Compared with the prevailing fascination with Zen Buddhism and gestural calligraphy in the work of some Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s and 1960s, Fairweather’s approach was shaped by his firsthand experience.

The artist’s fascination with the Chinese language and study of calligraphy began when he was incarcerated during the First World War, and intensified when he lived and worked in China between 1929 and 1933.[1] In an interview with James Gleeson, Fairweather said that House by the sea referred to Shanghai (which means ‘place by the sea’) where he had lived more than 30 years earlier.[2] Murray Bail writes of the affinities between the painting and the place where Fairweather lived in Shanghai, overlooking the bustling Soochow Creek:

In seizing the spirit of the place he is rendering an experience … Hectic lines summarise not the infrastructure, but the effect of jumbled bridges, river life, ramshackle constructions and passages: another treatment—no longer aerial, more distant, facing the Chinese quarter? —of Soochow Creek the ever-shifting scene which was laid out each day below his Shanghai window. We can begin to enter broadly into this brushed painting; there is light and depth and a glimpse of ‘water’ (along the right).[3]

Fairweather’s working environment on Bribie Island, Queensland, where he painted House by the sea in the late 1960s, was his antipodean house in the bush near the ocean. This locality also gave shape and substance to the energy, robustness and earthy aspects of the painting. His working space on the island was often filled with multiple paintings, all in progress, evolving like a vast web of connections. The individual works were like a microcosm of the macrocosm. The paint in House by the sea is applied layer upon layer, concealing and revealing dark and light, the small rivers of paint at the base adding to the painterliness of the composition, the drawn black line finding circular forms and pathways and loose structures across the whole.

House by the sea is a tour de force because it is an abstraction of experience, memory and the present, which mesh organically in the painting process. In the end, if the house is a metaphor for ground and sanctuary, and the sea for spaciousness, the painting is more about the art itself than any specific dwelling or place. For the art was Fairweather’s real habitat—the environment in which he could express his innermost self, his true spiritual home.

Deborah Hart

[1] ‘I began my studies of Chinese calligraphy then … The Chinese characters sort of get a grip on you.’ Ian Fairweather in an interview with John Hetherington, Bribie Island, 1962. Recalling his time in China, Fairweather remarked: ‘The Chinese have quite a different idea of painting from us. The movement, the stroke of the brush … It’s given me a sensitiveness towards line that I didn’t have.’ Ian Fairweather in an interview with Craig McGregor, Bribie Island, 1968; both interviews reproduced in Murray Bail, Ian Fairweather, Sydney: Murdoch Books 2009, p. 268, and pp. 269–270

[2] Ian Fairweather in conversation with James Gleeson, 1969; quoted in Bail, p. 222, 260

[3] Bail, pp. 221, 222

The Gallery holds 12 paintings by Fairweather, seven gouaches, and four pencil and ink drawings.