The St George River 1960 is a landscape painting by the Australian artist Fred Williams rendered in a muted palette of yellow and red ochre, green, blue and black. These colours cover the entire canvas, appearing in patches, lines and dots that merge together to form the impression of a densely forested area. In the bottom half of the composition is a clearing that is presented from a vantage point above ground level, and an irregular pattern of small vertical lines punctuates the centre of the landscape, bearing close resemblance to trees. These are positioned along the narrow river mentioned in the work’s title that runs in a thin band across the middle of the scene, and other irregular but more rounded forms are dotted across the upper part of the canvas, indicating the trees’ tops. The style of the painting is largely abstract, as is seen in the loosely defined organic forms and the merging patches of colour that emphasise the work’s surface.
Williams produced The St George River in 1960 when he was living and working in Melbourne. He used oil paint to make this work, applying it thinly with a brush onto the canvas, which he then laid down on hardboard. Williams worked on his oil paintings for long periods of time, sometimes over the course of two or more years. He is also known to have turned his landscape paintings upside down while he made them in order avoid depicting the scene too literally and to give himself a clearer view of the painting’s formal elements as he worked (see James Gleeson, ‘James Gleeson Interviews: Fred Williams’, audio transcript, 3 November 1973, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2011, http://nga.gov.au/Research/Gleeson/pdf/Williams.pdf, accessed 21 April 2015).
The title of the work identifies the subject as the St George River in the Otways region that lies south of Melbourne in the Australian state of Victoria. Like much of Williams’s work of the first half of the 1960s, this painting offers a view of a real, named geographical location that is nonetheless presented in an abstract way through a geometric pattern of lines and blobs of paint, and through the way in which the land tilts towards the viewer. However, Williams’s inclusion of the river in the centre of the image is somewhat atypical of his production at this time, as compared to his better-known Upwey Landscapes made between 1963 and 1968. Those works, such as Upwey Landscape 1964–5 (Tate T07016), are absent of a central point of reference due to the dense covering of the painting’s surface with colour and line, and this technique is already in evidence in The St George River, which predates the Upwey series by three years.
Williams studied at Chelsea College of Art in London from 1951 to 1956, and it was upon his return to Australia in 1957 that landscapes became the primary subject of his paintings. Although Williams produced only one oil painting featuring the St George River, he made four series of prints of the subject showing an aerial view of the river and the surrounding land (see, for instance, The Saint George River, Lorne 1966, British Museum, London). These numerous prints evidence Williams’s fascination with the river and this painting also relates compositionally to several of his landscapes of 1959 showing views of Sherbrooke Forest near Melbourne. Like The St George River, these feature curved and diagonal lines as well as a forest setting (see, for instance, Landscape with Bent Tree c.1959, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney). As such, The St George River can be viewed as both stemming from Williams’s study of forest landscapes in Sherbrooke and providing a stylistic and technical basis for his celebrated paintings of the Australian bush that were to follow.
Williams submitted The St George River to the Helena Rubenstein Travelling Art Scholarship in 1960. He won the award, and his success drew the attention of critics and curators to his work. Inspired by contemporary American abstraction as well as traditional Chinese landscape painting, Williams has become particularly renowned for his ability to combine a strong sense of place with abstract pictorial spaces (see Fuller 1988, p.50).
Peter Fuller, ‘London, Serpentine Gallery. Fred Williams’, Burlington Magazine, vol.130, no.1018, January 1988, pp.49–50.
James Mollison, A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, Oxford 1989.
Martin Kemp (ed.), The Oxford History of Western Art, Oxford 2000, p.493.
Supported by Christie’s.