Lloyd Rees: Rhythmical Quality - Art Collector

Issue 20, April - June 2002

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His lyrical and impressionistic landscapes capture our imagination, making works by Lloyd Rees among the most sought after in this country, writes Timothy Morrell.

Lloyd Rees was a professionally exhibiting artist for most of the 20th century, during which time he remained tranquilly detached from the century’s diverse trends, influences and developments in art.

A conservative but greatly respected painter, he was never a fashionable artist, nor did his reputation ever decline. Best known as a painter of lyrical and somewhat impressionistic landscapes, he was initially a commercial artist specializing in drawings of buildings.

During his long and prolific career he produced a large oeuvre of paintings, watercolours, pastels, prints and drawings.

His pencil drawings of the 1930s are among the finest ever produced in Australia. He continued to paint virtually until his death, enjoying popular acclaim. The Art Gallery of New South Wales presented a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1942, and a nationally touring exhibition of his work went to all state galleries during 1969-70.

Rees was born in Brisbane in 1895, living the greater part of his life in and around Sydney (where his reputation has always been strongest), and died at the age of 93 in Hobart in 1988.

Between 1911 and 1916, while working at the Queensland Government Printing Office, he attended various art classes at the Brisbane Technical College. During this time he drew buildings in Brisbane for reproduction on postcards.

He moved to Sydney in 1917 where he joined the advertising agency Smith and Julius.

Already painting in his spare time, he held his first solo exhibition the following year in Brisbane.

His early oil paintings are tonal studies of light and landscape, a theme that remained constant throughout his career. He applied paint fairly thickly in distinctly visible strokes, reflecting a belief that paint should have a life of its own.

Rees travelled to Europe several times, first during 1923 and 1924 when he attended drawing classes in London and Rome. He maintained a lifelong sense of engagement with the Western tradition in both art and architecture. Having begun his career essentially as an illustrator, he remained responsive to a variety of scenery, including the Australian bush and the central, arid, rocky landscapes; but he openly stated that he felt no strong attachment to the harsh outback much mythologised in Australian art.

After the death of his first wife in 1927, whom he had married only the previous year, Rees suffered a breakdown in his health and for some years concentrated on drawing rather than painting. He described the late 1920s and early 1930s as his “drawing period”.

In 1931 he had his first exhibition at Macquarie Galleries in Sydney, where he continued to show for over 50 years. Also in that year he married again and moved to McMahons Point on Sydney Harbour. During this time he produced the remarkable pencil drawings of the harbour environs west of the Sydney Harbour Bridge that may collectively represent his greatest achievement.

The intensity of focus in these small images of the Harbour is almost hallucinatory, yet they are never overworked and always executed with a single grade of graphite pencil.

Using the sharp point of the pencil, he carved the structure of the landscape out of dense shadow and animated the elevated horizon lines with a vibrant flicker of distant vegetation.

He used tonal strokes of the pencil’s broad side to give solidity to the swelling forms of rock faces and prominent trees – especially Moreton Bay figs, which in these drawings are often as detailed and voluptuous as 19th-century studies of the nude figure.

In the later 1930s, as he returned increasingly to painting, the precision of his drawings was to some extent translated into paint. This changed significantly in the following decade when he began painting regularly in the vicinity of Gerringong, south of Sydney, on the New South Wales coast.

There, surrounded by rolling hills and rivers flowing in broad curves across the coastal plane, he found what he was looking for in a landscape: a certain “rhythmical quality”.

His painting technique became considerably broader in the 1940s and the works are often executed in darkly translucent glazes. These are ambiguous, somewhat abstracted paintings in which the curvilinear forms and swaying lines take precedence over a coherent description of the landscape, making it sometimes difficult to know whether a sinuous form represents a river, a road or a fence.

Rees resisted being categorised as a straightforward, topographical artist and described his approach to landscape painting as creating a world of his own imagining. Even the sharply precise pencil drawings of the 1930s often incorporate buildings and other details that he added for the sake of the composition.

The Gerringong phase of his work was subsequently very influential on Brett Whiteley who became a friend of the artist thirty years later, and vastly amplified the subliminally erotic curvaceousness of Rees’s line. In 2001 the Art Gallery of New South Wales presented an exhibition documenting the relationship between these two artists at the Whiteley studio.

Using a technique to build up lightly encrusted surfaces reminiscent of weathered rock, Rees produced his most heroically impressive paintings in the 1960s. He was in spirit, a plein air painter for whom the immediacy of his visual experience of a landscape was paramount. However, the more elaborately textured and larger paintings of the 1960s were only possible through careful development and modulation in the studio. Daniel Thomas describes The Timeless Land of 1965 (private collection) as “one of Australia’s great masterpieces of landscape painting”.

Despite a sculpturally rounded treatment of form in paintings from this period, the paint surfaces show a multiplicity of tiny traces and flecks of various colours, creating a pointillist effect. This hazy and generalised quality came to dominate his work increasingly, especially in the last ten or so years of his life, when failing eyesight obliged him to paint what he called “visionary” pictures. Radiant light, which was important in his work for most of his career, was central to it for the last 30 years.

In the 1980s, when his fame was at its height, a connection was drawn between these pictures and the work of J.M.W. Turner. Some admirers find in the freedom and luminosity of the final works by Rees, a brilliant apogee of his achievement, but it seems more likely that he will be remembered for the splendid control and technical mastery of his earlier paintings.

Best works and where to find them

Lloyd Rees is included in Australian Art Collector’s list of The 50 Most Collectable Artists, 2002. Because of his firm foundations as a draughtsman, acquiring his etchings or lithographs is not only a cheaper way to start collecting his work, but can sometimes also provide access to his principal strengths as an artist. The greatest interest in the art of Lloyd Rees is still among Sydney collectors, but many galleries around the nation consistently stock Rees’s work.

Many of the finest paintings by Lloyd Rees are privately owned. He is represented in all state galleries, in the National Gallery of Australia and virtually every substantial public collection of Australian art. The biggest collection of his work is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which holds his 1947 painting The Road to Berry, of which Brett Whiteley painted a close copy in homage. Rees described Omega Pastoral, 1950, owned by the National Gallery of Victoria, as being something of a climax of his Gerringong period of painting. The Art Gallery of Western Australia’s The Road to the Mountain, painted in the same area in 1954 is the largest painting executed outdoors by Rees and beguilingly captures the soft warm light of the coastal countryside. The moody, atmospheric Memories of an Old Town, 1967, in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, is a testament to his lifelong interest in depicting architecture.

Prices at Auction

The prices of Rees’s paintings were relatively high throughout his career; particularly toward the end of his life when he had achieved almost legendary status as an Australian cultural icon. The prices achieved for paintings at auction increased during the period after the artist’s death in 1988, but have remained stable since then. Paintings frequently sell for $30,000 – $100,000. The record price for one of his paintings, set at a Christie’s auction in 1996, is $178,000 (including buyer’s premium), paid for Summer in the Suburbs (1964). Watercolours, pastels and drawings are usually sold for $10,000-$15,000. The record price for a Rees drawing, $47,000 (including buyer’s premium), was paid for McMahon’s Point, 1932, at a Christie’s auction in 2001. Etchings and lithographs generally fetch $2,500-$5,000, although it is still possible to acquire a print for under $1,000.

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