Collector's Dossier: John Beard - The Nomad and the Sea - Art Collector

Issue 62, October - December 2012

Peter Hill chronicles the life and work of this acclaimed Welsh-born Australian painter.

John Beard is both a nomad and a family man. Painting is the glue that holds his peripatetic lifestyle together. He is like a migratory bird with favourite nests in different pockets of the planet. He and his family are equally at home in his native Wales and his adopted Australia. But he can also be found, often with his extended family, in Portugal, Cornwall, New York, Tuscany or London. Always painting, always drawing, taking photographs and thinking about videos, he emerges from exhausting transcontinental flights and transforms himself into a bower bird – one that immediately begins constructing a new nest from memories and observations. He is a synthetic modernist who, Janus-headed, looks towards the future as much as the past. The Archibald Prize is only one of many awards he has earned, on both sides of the planet.

Where did it all begin? His old friend William Wright took us back to his roots in the opening paragraph of a beautifully crafted catalogue essay for Beard’s 2009
Headlands exhibition at Canberra’s Drill Hall Gallery. “An Australian now by long adoption, John Beard was born and nurtured in Wales, a land of mines, chapels, ancient stone quoits and ritual circles, living mnemons of an unfathomable Celtic world; a place where illusory leaden skies merge with silver seas, and place and time are inextricably entwined. Once teeming with hyper-loquacious bards and more recently haunted by the latter-day, only semi-fictional ghosts of Dylan Thomas’s ‘bible-black’ Llaregub, it is the ravaged place where the young John Beard began to experience the world, his cultural endowment thereby comprised of mythic inspiration and live contradictions.” Wright goes on to speak about Beard as a “vibrant social being”. Beard is a great conversationalist, a story-telling Celt, yet over half his life is spent in the silence of the studio, where vision is king and hard looking is his currency.

Much of Beard’s work is concerned with either landscape or portraiture, and there is a democracy of mark-making in the ways that he tackles both subjects. Some commentators have written about veils of colour and tone, suspended before us like a mesh. Yet I feel that his paint surfaces can be as physically present as a Monet haystack or, at times, as evanescent as a Turner cloud.

It was at Adraga in Portugal, off the western-most point of mainland Europe, that nature threw down her most seductive challenge to him. Not content with translating this landscape into paint, which he did in the
Adraga series of works of the early 1990s, Beard also writes about it with the eye and ear of a poet, as this passage from his notebooks reveals: “The sea was like pigment, I realised when I started painting. I realised that paint to me was really like the sea. There’s this pliable material that could be thick and lumpy, solid like a trough of water, or it could be vaporous, frothy like the crash of a wave. It could be opaque or it could be transparent; all of these different qualities. It could be still, just shimmering, it could be moving so quickly that you felt there was an incredible vibrancy about it. The totality of this experience of rock and water had this evanescence, which you felt; it came right up to you, to the top of the cliff.”

Portraits are another favoured subject of Beard’s. As Art Gallery of New Wouth Wales curatorial director Anthony Bond has written in a catalogue essay: “The heads fill the canvas vastly bigger than life, but curiously not monumental in the sense that large-scale political portraits can be with their assertion of dominance.” Bond goes on to comment on the scumbled layers of paint, which make the images almost invisible. “At their best the likeness seeps out at you almost like something seen in the dead of night. It looms up at you then recedes. In part this is a kinesthetic effect of light on the surface that requires the viewer to move with the work and the direction of the light. They are more alive to variations of lighting than most pictures I have seen.”

John Beard was born in 1943 in Aberdare, Wales. He studied at Swansea College of Art and went on to postgraduate study at University of London. For many years he taught at different institutions and worked as an examiner for the Oxford and Cambridge boards of studies. In 1979 he attended the prestigious Royal College of Art in London and a few years later set off for Curtin University in Western Australia as head of painting. His nomadic life was only just beginning, his visual language was becoming more and more unique, and once a studio space was found he could become a hermit painter anywhere on the planet.

This personal history can be seen alongside the times through which he has lived in a sumptuously designed, bigger-than-a-phonebook monograph. Published at the end of 2011 and launched in London, Sydney and Melbourne, it contains the travels, the family histories, but most of all the paintings of the past five decades. Scholarly essays by British academic Stephen Bann and Anthony Bond complement an introduction by Charles Saumarez Smith, former director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, who writes about the appropriateness of Beard being appointed as one of the first artists-in-residence at Tate St Ives in the United Kingdom.

Elsewhere, Bann has written about Beard’s “dogged rejection of fragmentation” and references Adrian Stokes who “reflected in 1967 that it was no longer possible to represent the human body in its wholeness, and that collage represented at least the honest admission of this modern failure”. Bann points to the possibility to find a new beginning in collage and assemblage, to eventually construct “more generally whole objects that are rich; to re-construct the nude.”

Yet, while the unfragmented content in Beard’s work is important, so too are the dissolves, both perceptual and emotional. And so is the paint surface, reclaimed from the academic in as revolutionary a way as two of his heroes, John Walker and Philip Guston. Like them, Beard takes us to a world that has not previously existed, anywhere.

By coincidence I happened to be re-reading Kingsley Amis’s Booker-prize winning novel
The Old Devils while I was researching Beard’s long and distinguished career. Set in Wales, mostly in a pub called The Bible and Crown, aging friends share tall stories, tales that grow taller as each round of drinks arrive. It opens with the line: “‘If you want my opinion,’ said Gwen Cellan–Davies, ‘the old boy’s a terrifically distinguished citizen of Wales…’”

As is John Beard. Although he is a terrifically distinguished citizen of Australia too, and far from being an old boy – he is one of the youngest-at-heart artists that I know. Fittingly, as I write, The National Museum of Wales is considering a major suite of acquisitions from Hales Gallery in London. •

New work by John Beard is on show at Liverpool Street Gallery in Sydney from 10 November to 6 December 2012.

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