The James Gleeson oral history collection

James Gleeson interviews Australia's major artists

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image: Lysterfield triptych 1967-68 Painting, oil on canvas overall 152.5 h x 427.5 cm  left panel 152.5 h x 122.0 cm centre panel 152.5 h x 183.5 cm right panel 152.5 h x 122.0 cm © Fred Williams Estate

Lysterfield triptych 1967-68 Upwey / Victoria / Australia
Painting, oil on canvas
overall 152.5 h x 427.5 cm
left panel 152.5 h x 122.0 cm
centre panel 152.5 h x 183.5 cm
right panel 152.5 h x 122.0 cm
© Fred Williams Estate
more detail

Fred Williams

3 October 1978 [unknown location]

James Gleeson: Am I right in assuming that this triptych is one of the key works?

Fred Williams: It’s a synthesis, yes. It is using the sort of high skyline of Upwey, but in a more ethereal way because I have eliminated the tonal quality of it and used the sparsely modulated part of the country and put them all together. It is a synthesis of that sort of Victorian landscape.

James Gleeson: When I first began to look at your work, one of the things that struck me, was the fact that you were the only person that I’d ever encountered who had come to terms with the fact that the Australian landscape was basically monotonous. Yet you seemed to be able to achieve this feeling of monotony without making the picture monotonous.

Fred Williams: Yes, it is monotonous; that is perfectly true. When I worked in England I made gouache paintings outside, mainly in Sussex, which is very lush. For every painter who sat down or stood up to paint in England—because of the Englishman’s love of the countryside—everything was symmetrical. They had planted trees here, put a church there—and everything was in the right place. But it is perfectly true that in Australia there is no focal point. Obviously, it was too good a thing for me to pass up. If there’s going to be no focal point in a landscape, then it had to build into the paint.

James Gleeson: That is a very daring decision to have come to. To make a picture without a focal point—

Fred Williams: There is no focal point there.

James Gleeson: You took it from nature, but to carry it into art—

Fred Williams: Australian’s just don’t pick the best spots. Catholics may build the church on the highest hill, but generally speaking Australians do not build their houses on the best spots. They do not consider it. The early pioneers may have, but they were very English. Once the first flush of Englishmen had left Australia, it became like a permanent camp, like a tent city everywhere. They did not think about where they put things.

James Gleeson: It is a bit different in Sydney because, I suppose, the Harbour gave a focal point to it.

Fred Williams: Yes. That is obvious.

James Gleeson: It is not true of the countryside as a whole—the bush.

Fred Williams: The countryside outside of Sydney is very much like the rest of Australia.

James Gleeson: Yes.

Fred Williams: Haphazard and like a permanent camp, a tent city. The galvanised iron roofs look like it too.

James Gleeson: That was a very revolutionary thing to carry into art; to realise at all.

Fred Williams: It is a literary thing. I don’t think that in itself is important—only the pictures, if they are any good. Looking at these, I doubt it. Maybe some of them.

James Gleeson: Nonsense!

Fred Williams: It must depend on the picture to tell the story, not you know. It is not a decision that I made.

James Gleeson: You achieve this effect of unfocused elements, and yet the work hangs together.

Fred Williams: Yes, sure. Basically I want it to be a picture. I am a great museum person.

James Gleeson: You know the history of art.

Fred Williams: I don’t know it, but I eventually see pictures hanging in museums, and the story is a continuous one. The field of the painting is terribly important.

James Gleeson: Obviously you use a unifying colour. This spreads through the whole thing and gives it a unity.

Fred Williams: Plus the scale.

James Gleeson: I am, perhaps, bringing my ideas into this, but one of the delights that I find in your paintings is that when you look at a tiny little detail it has the surprise and the vividness that you get when you look at a little leaf or a tiny plant—a detail in the landscape here. The overall effect can be one of unfocused monotony, yet in detail, little bits can have an opalescent beauty about them. It has occurred to me that, in the way you touch your colour onto the canvas in certain parts, you have this concentration of very beautiful little details over a broad area.

Fred Williams: If what you say is true, it is accidental.

James Gleeson: It is not a conscious thing?

Fred Williams: That is what I would like to do. If I put a mark on the canvas and it’s not right, I very quickly take it out. If you read that into it, that is fine. I certainly think that one spot should be the whole thing or nothing.

James Gleeson: I did not perhaps explain myself clearly. When you walk in the bush, the overall effect, if you are not looking closely at it, the general impression, is one of greyness, dullness, monotony. But if you look closely at the details, at the ribbing of a leaf, or something like that—

Fred Williams: I see.

James Gleeson: Absolute, beautiful—

Fred Williams: Yes, of course. I don’t think the bush is dull. I am a suburban boy. I would under no circumstances live in the bush. But I see that quite clearly.

James Gleeson: In a little touch like that you find a merging, a blurring of colour that has almost an opalescent vividness about it.

Fred Williams: Yes. If it works, then I would agree with you. I agree. They were the hardest pictures that I have ever had to paint, although I must confess that on the face value they look to be the easiest. I probably worked harder on those pictures, probably than I would have worked on any other series.


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