Bushfire gives rise to Fred Williams masterpiece
Author: Richard Brewster | Posted: 8th May, 2014
One of the biggest Fred Williams paintings to come onto the secondary market will be auctioned by Bonhams as part of its Important Australian Art sale from 6.30pm Monday May 12 at Byron Kennedy Hall, Moore Park in Sydney.
Painted in 1968, the massive 1.8-metre by three-metre work, entitled Ferns Diptych (in two parts Ferns I and Ferns II) reflects a tumultuous event in Williams’ life.
The 1968 Victorian summer was one of the hottest on record with numerous total fire ban days and temperatures in the forties, exacerbated by persistent drought and high winds.
On February 19, a fire started in The Basin and quickly spread to neighbouring townships in the Dandenong Ranges. At the time, Fred and Lyn Williams were living with their daughters in Upwey – right in the path of the raging fire.
With smoke and flame rapidly reducing visibility, Lyn left to take the children to safety – while Fred remained with other volunteers to fight the fire and protect his house, which contained his studio and many of his paintings.
A huge pall of orange flame and black smoke swept through Upwey, destroying many of the houses.
Miraculously, the Williams house was spared – although as a desperate measure Fred had taken several paintings (which suffered minor damage) from the house.
Touring the devastated landscape just days after, Williams was amazed at what he saw – a gum tree still burning and a clear vista for miles where once there had been dense bush.
The scene was so overpowering, he was determined to capture the blackened landscape in a series of paintings, gouaches and drawings.
Ferns Diptych was painted towards the end of 1968 as the country was recovering and tree ferns were beginning to sprout new green shoots.
Another interesting painting in the auction is John Olsen’s Circus Day 1961, a reflection of the vulgarity, beauty and movement around Sydney Harbour – painted after he returned from a sojourn to Europe.
Bonhams managing director Mark Fraser said the market was now looking at works from established artists of the 1960s such as Olsen, Williams and Brett Whiteley.
“There seems to be a 40 to 50 year time lag in what people want to collect,” he said. “Olsen was influenced by Spanish artists visions of naïve art and children’s paintings – and Circus Day is classic mad composition on everything.”