Rover Thomas achieves top billing at Melbourne art auction

One of Australia’s leading Aboriginal artists Rover Thomas (circa 1926-1998) achieved top billing at Melbourne-based Gibson’s Auctions Australian & International Art sale on October 24 when his painting entitled Old Bedford Station circa 1985 (lot 90) sold for $61,000.

Born on the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert, from age 10 until he settled at the Aboriginal community Warmun near Turkey Creek, Thomas followed his tribal culture moving with his family to various pastoral stations and eventually working as a stockman in the Kimberley region and the Northern Territory.

While living south Kimberley’s Billiluna Station during the 1940s, he was fully initiated into tribal lore.

Like many of his contemporary Aboriginal artists, Thomas started painting quite late in life. In the early 1980s, a field officer for the Department of Employment, Mary Màcha, was instrumental in raising public awareness of the Kimberley’s new emerging art trend – mainly because of her role sourcing and marketing artefacts from the region.

After observing the success of a fellow Aboriginal artist, Thomas introduced himself to Màcha and said “I want to paint.”

These words marked the beginning of a comparatively brief but intense creative period that would establish Thomas during his lifetime as one of Australia’s finest painters – with his paintings becoming a form of visual language where stories of “country” present and past are counterpointed to his direct observation of the landscape and identifiable locations.

Clifton Pugh’s (1924-1990) triptych Aftermath of Fire 1965 (lot 63) filled second spot, changing hands for $51,240.

Both an artist and environmental activist, Pugh’s concern for the Australian bush was the foundation of his life and work – typified in this painting.

Unlike his predecessors, Pugh was frank about the way he painted the Australian environment observing that “Australia isn’t soft, like Europe. It’s hard, dry, yet with a wonderfully delicate balance.”

A provocative and important work, Aftermath of Fire abstracts the essence of the Australian bush at its most volatile, showing its destructive and formidable power.

Well-known Australian artist Hugh Sawrey (1919-1999) features twice in the top 10 with lot 18 – The Flimsy Evidence that sold for $31,720 – and lot 17, Proposing the Toast, that brought $28,060.

A popular Melbourne French-born bohemian artist with strong links to the Heide art community of the 1950s, Mirka Mora (1929-2018), also featured with her work Bird Dreaming 1967 (lot 32) that changed hands for $31,720.

Mora’s rebellious spirit and liberal attitudes to life and love made her beacon for other bohemian types including those associated with Heide, owned by modern art mentors and philanthropists John and Sunday Reed.

Other artists worthy of mention include Criss Canning for her work Freesias on a Japanese Tray 1997 (lot 1 – $26,840), while Margaret Preston (1875-1963) Protea 1925 (lot 12) and Gunther Christmann (1936-2013) Untitled (lot 22) each sold for $21,960.

One of the paintings belonging to former Australian Rules Football champion ruckman and television personality Sam Newman entitled Bass Strait (lot 28) by Graeme Roche (1944-1995) also achieved this price – along with Ellioth Gruner’s (1882-1939) Summer Droving (lot 56).

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