Old rubbish dump inspires iconic Australian auction painting

Author: Richard Brewster | Posted: 15th June, 2023

Leading Australian landscape artist Fred Williams (1927-1982) was fascinated with a “billabong” in the Melbourne suburb of Kew and during the mid-1970s used it as the basis for his Kew Billabong series – numbering more than 30 paintings.  

Describing it as “splendid” but noting that the place was in fact “just a rubbish dump of all things”, he admitted to using a rubber tyre in his painting as a motif (first ever) and found it a great place to work.

In all, there were seven visits to the site – with three or four paintings produced on each one, the first work dating from April 30, 1975.

The epitome of the series is entitled Kew Billabong 1976 (lot 26) and – until its appearance in Menzies forthcoming auction from 6.30pm Wednesday June 28 at the auction house’s Sydney gallery at 12 Todman Avenue, Kensington – had not been seen for 45 years after being purchased by the current owner from a 1978 Adelaide exhibition.

With a catalogue estimate of $1 million to $1.2 million, the painting combines various pictorial concerns Williams faced when completing the series.

According to the catalogue essay by art specialist Brett Ballard, the banding of the water is consistent but less distinct and expands laterally to meet the painting’s horizontal format.

Kew Billabong is one of four Williams paintings in the auction – with You Yangs Landscape (Second Series) 1966 (lot 24) carrying the highest estimate ($200,000-$300,000) of the remainder.

An outcrop of granite hills rising abruptly from the surrounding plains southwest of Melbourne, the You Yangs were an inspiration to a young artist recently returned from London and keen to capture the peculiarities of the Australian landscape.

Jeffrey Smart’s (1921-2013) The Bather, Bondi 1962 (lot 25) is an interesting departure from his trademark and precisely detailed Italian highway and transport scenes.

With a $300,000-$400,000 catalogue estimate, the work – featuring a woman in a one-piece bathing suit removing her jumper highlighted against a brown wall – compels the viewer to carefully observe the entire process.

Arthur Boyd (1920-1999) is featured with Pulpit Rock with Reflection c1990 (lot 22), a clever rendition of a prominent landmark above New South Wales Shoalhaven River – the venue for many of his paintings.

Another prominent landscape painter Lloyd Rees (1895-1988) has Down on the Derwent 1976 (lot 23) which features his ability to capture the light-filled essence of Hobart’s estuary.

Lake Alexandria and Dirt Roads 1997-98 (lot 27) is testimony to John Olsen’s (1928-2023) fascination with remote locations including the South Australian lake that takes most of its flow from the Murray River.

A sculpture entitled Family c1973 (lot 29) is by talented Melbourne artist Joel Elenberg (1948-1980) who tragically died aged 32 from illness.

Rainforest with Botan Creek 1989 (lot 30) is a marvellous rendition of William Robinson’s unique ability to capture the beauty and luxuriance of Australian rainforests.

The painting centres on a section of the Beechmont rainforest near Queensland’s Lamington National Park.

Other artist paintings to appear in the auction include John Perceval’s (1923-2000) Tug Boat Smoke (lot 32) and Tim Maguire’s Untitled 1993 (lot 33).


Melbourne viewing: 10am-5pm Thursday June 15 to Sunday June 18 at 1 Darling Street, South Yarra

Sydney viewing: 10am-5pm Thursday June 22 to Tuesday June 27 at 12 Todman Avenue, Kensington

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