Ian Fairweather - Art Collector

Issue 27, January - March 2004

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Ashley Crawford recounts the adventurous and spiritual life of one of Australia’s greatest painters, Ian Fairweather.

There are many legends about Ian Fairweather; an artist who led an adventurous life followed by a retreat into a tropical idyll to paint masterpieces.

“I had the vision that he was living in the cliché of tropical paradise,” says painter John Olsen who once visited the elusive, hermit-like Fairweather. “But it wasn’t like that at all. He was camped in this awful, awful sort of forest and the shrub was no taller than three metres of this miserable pine. And he didn’t live by the sea at all.”

However there are few who would dispute the painting masterpieces aspect of the myth.

“He was arguably one of Australia’s greatest painters, up there alongside Nolan, Williams and Tuckson,” says Bill Nuttall, director of Niagara Galleries in Melbourne. “He was unique in the world. His work stands out like that of Colin McCahon in New Zealand.”

Nuttall curated an exhibition of Fairweather’s paintings in 1984. “At that time the gallery was doing quite a few important historical shows. But at that point no-one was really interested!”

“I think he was arguably the greatest Australian artist of all time,” Chris Deutscher of Deutscher-Menzies says of Fairweather. “He’s our Colin McCahon in some ways, with that strong sense of spirituality. He just had the most amazing strong, independent vision.”

Indeed, Fairweather was arguably the most successful abstract artist of the early modernist period. Born in Scotland 1891 and arriving in Melbourne in 1934, the nomadic Fairweather did lead an adventurous life, travelling extensively throughout Asia and the Pacific. During the First World War he served as lieutenant until being captured and went on to escape prisoner-of-war camps three times. In 1951 he embarked on a journey through the Timor Sea on a crude raft before retiring to an island off the coast of QLD where he lived and painted as a hermit until his death in 1974.

As an abstractionist Fairweather was unique, his works depicting a stringent, but highly personalised philosophy. Stylistically, Fairweather successfully combined western and Asian influences in his work.

Abandoned by his parents, Fairweather was brought up by various relatives in Scotland. He received early schooling in Jersey, London and Chamery, Switzerland before attending officer training school at Belfast where he achieved the rank of second lieutenant.

During World War I he was captured by the Germans in France and spent the next four years in POW camps. Perhaps surprisingly this period was formative for the artist. He was allowed to study drawing and Japanese and executed numerous illustrations for POW magazines.

Following the war Fairweather studied art in Holland, London and Munich and in 1921 he attended the School of Oriental Studies, studying Japanese. Between 1920 and 1924 he attended the prestigious Slade School in London. From this time on he began a wandering existence, travelling to Canada, Shanghai, Bali, Colombo and Melbourne. In 1934, in Melbourne, he made contact with Melbourne modernist artists and began a mural for the Menzies Hotel.

Later that year he left Australia via Sydney and Brisbane for the Philippines. He then travelled throughout Asia, stopping at Shanghai, Peking, Manila, Brisbane, Singapore and Calcutta. He served with the British army in India from 1941 to 1943 and, after travelling to Cairns, Cooktown and Brisbane, he eventually settled into a studio in Melbourne.

By this time his paintings had become widely known and had been acquired by the CAS, Tate and Leicester galleries in England.

Fairweather’s ongoing desire for adventure saw him move to Darwin where he built a raft and travelled alone to Timor. Deported by the Indonesian authorities, he went to London via Singapore and returned to Brisbane in 1953. He built a hut on Bribie Island where he lived for the rest of his life except for visits to India and London during the 1960s.

The influence of the exotic and primitive islands of the Pacific and the art of the Australian Aborigines is clearly apparent in his work. But Fairweather avoided cliché when it came to this influence, assimilating the spiritual content of such work into his own distinctive language.

But the tropical idyll aspect of Fairweather’s later years on Bribie Island was, according to John Olsen, somewhat exaggerated. “We drove there and there was an opening in a wire fence. Fairweather was standing there wearing a pyjama top and what was left of his pants in bare feet.

“There was this hut and the bed was made of chopped branches and the mattress was a stuffed sugar bag. There was a table on which there was an old Times Literary Supplement and pieces of calligraphy and an easel made of tree branches. It was a remarkable sight,” says Olsen.

“It was totally authentic and that was how he liked to live. He was a very quiet man, he didn’t say much. We’d taken some nice things for lunch and sat on a rock about 10 minutes walk from his hut and looked out at the sea.

“There was a complete naturalness about the man. I actually felt he was a better artist when he was semi-figurative. There was the divine period from Bali and China when he was influenced by oriental calligraphy, which appealed to me because that is how landscape is written.

“He was writing the landscape,” says Olsen.

Fairweather often painted on whatever he found lying around his makeshift tent. He was once sent high quality canvases to paint on by his dealer because Macquarie Galleries were tired of receiving work on scraps of masonite and paper. The tactic failed dismally. When fellow artist Margaret Olley visited the artist she found that he had patched his tent with the fresh canvas.

“People get worried about the works’ longevity because of some of the materials he used,” says Bill Nuttall. “It’s ridiculous given the conservation technology available to us today. Some of Sidney Nolan’s best works are on masonite full of acid and they’re fine.”

Fairweather’s more substantial works rarely come up for auction. “There’s a scarcity of major works, very little comes up and if it did it would go for near the $1 million mark,” says Deutscher. “Most are in institutions, but I do know of a private offer made not so long ago for $800,000.

“A lot of the works are scraps. He would just bundle things together wet and send them to Macquarie Galleries in Sydney all stuck together.”

Deutscher-Menzies had a small work auctioned in 2003. “It was a tiny work from the jazz musician Graeme Bell which he’d bought from Macquarie in 1958, so it had perfect provenance,” says Deutscher. “It was only about A4 size. We put a reserve on it of $40,000 and it went for $130,000.”

Amongst his paintings, Monastery, acquired by the National Gallery of Australia, was singled out by fellow Australian artist, James Gleeson, who wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1961 that; “He has fashioned an extraordinary, fascinating hybrid from the pictorial traditions of Europe and the calligraphy of China…”

Fairweather’s work was included in the exhibition, Australian Painting Today at the Tate Gallery, London and in the same year was selected to represent Australia at the Bienal de Sao Paulo.

He is represented in all state galleries in Australia, the Tate Gallery and Leicester Art Gallery in London and the Ulster Museum in Belfast.

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