Upwey Landscape is a large work by the Australian artist Fred Williams that is painted in a muted palette of yellow ochre, light pink, blue, green and grey. These colours cover most of the hardboard on which the work is painted, appearing in patches that merge together to form what looks like a stretch of land with delicate tree- or plant-like forms dotted around it. At the top of the composition is a shallow band of grey that may represent a cool sky. An irregular pattern of vertical and horizontal dark lines punctuates the landscape in places, some of which look like the stems and trunks of the trees or plant forms, and on occasion these reach up and overlap with the grey sky, becoming silhouetted against it. Further irregular, rounded forms in brownish yellow appear across the work, perhaps representing clusters of foliage or clumps of soil. Although the title indicates that the painting depicts a landscape, the style is largely abstract, as is seen in the loosely defined organic forms that are spread over the landscape and the merging patches of colour that emphasise the surface of the painting rather than the depth of the scene. Williams has signed his name in black paint in the centre-right of the composition’s lower edge.
Williams produced Upwey Landscape in his studio in Upwey, Australia, in 1964–5, and it is one of a number of works with the same title that he made between 1963 and 1968. The artist used oil paint to make this work, which he applied thickly with a brush onto hardboard. Williams worked on his oil paintings for long periods of time, sometimes over the course of two or more years, as is the case with this work. He is also known to have turned his Upwey 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 the web entry on Williams’s Upwey Landscape 1965–6 in Fred Williams: Infinite Horizons, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2011, http://nga.gov.au/Exhibition/WILLIAMS/Default.cfm?IRN=44411&MnuID=3&ViewID=2, accessed 21 November 2014). Although the paintings in the group are not numbered, thus making it impossible to situate this painting precisely within the sequence, the dating of the Upwey Landscape owned by Tate shows that it is one of the earlier works in the group.
In 1963 the artist and his family moved from the suburbs of Melbourne to the Upwey region, an area in the Dandenong mountain range to the east of the city. In Upwey Williams’s house and studio were located together in a low valley and the hill behind his home is the subject of this work (see the comments from the artist’s widow, Lyn Williams, Tate Gallery Preliminary Cataloguing Form, 1996, Tate Catalogue file, p.4). The vertical orientation of the painting and the flatness of the coloured surface emphasises the steep rise of the hill, and it appears as though the viewer is looking up slope, with the hilltop forming the horizon. As with much of his work from this time, in this painting Williams offers a view of a real, named geographical location that is nonetheless presented in an abstract way through the geometric pattern of lines and blobs of paint, the thick band of pale sky and the way in which the land tilts towards the viewer. Williams has explained that his choice not to provide a central point of reference or focus for these paintings was a means of representing the sparseness of the Australian bush, stating in 1978 that ‘In Australia there is no focal point. Obviously, it was too good a thing for me to pass up’ (quoted in National Gallery of Australia 2011, accessed 21 November 2014).
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. The artist’s time living and working in Upwey during the 1960s is considered the point at which he developed some of his most distinctive artistic motifs – for instance the introduction of a definite horizon and of abstract natural forms such as the plant-like shapes seen in this painting – and as a result the Upwey paintings are among the best-known that Williams made during his career. 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 (Fuller 1988, p.50). Despite this, from 1969 onwards Williams’s work became increasingly diverse in subject matter, for instance the series of seascapes he made during the 1970s that were each dedicated to a slightly different view of a chosen scene and often featured figures (see, for example, Beachscape with Bathers, Queenscliff 1971, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra).
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.