Fred Williams is known for his landscapes. But his drawings are little pockets of explosive expressive energy

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Review: Fred Williams: The London Drawings, The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

When Fred Williams died on April 22, 1982, at the age of 55, Australia lost one of its most important landscape painters of the second half of the 20th century. Williams reinterpreted the landscape within a modernist framework and taught Australians a new way of seeing their natural environment.

Williams had studied art in Melbourne at the National Gallery School and had taken classes at the more progressive school of George Bell. private school. He then spent nearly five years in London studying drawing at the Chelsea Polytechnic School of Art and taking a printmaking course at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

He returned to Australia at the end of 1956. It was then that he announced that he would paint the gum tree.

This exhibition of 160 drawings, 12 gouaches and 30 etchings examines Williams’ work before he turned to the gum tree – his figurative work during his years in London where he examined the human figure, zoo animals and the rich sample of theatrical life and street life.

Many of these drawings have never been seen before and are part of a generous donation made to the National Gallery of Victoria by the artist’s widow, Lyn Williams, and her family.

Fred Williams Australia 1927-82, worked in England 1952-56. Two Actors 1952-56, brown conté crayon, pen and ink and brush and ink 19.1 x 19.1 cm (sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Gift of Lyn Williams AM and family through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Programme, 2022 © Estate of Fred Williams


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Quick sketches

Fred Williams: The London Drawings shows Williams as few have seen him before, with quick sketches of models posing at art school, comedic glimpses of the music hall stages the artist has taken from his dimly lit perch in the gods, and faces he met on the street.

He seems to have enjoyed drawing the elephants and big cats in the zoo, as well as pictures of people in the framing business where he worked, portraits of friends, and rural scenes from his occasional trips to the English countryside.

Fred Williams Australia 1927-82, worked in England 1952-56. Drawing for Cheetah c. 1953 black and brown conté crayon 21.0 x 19.4 cm (sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Gift of Lyn Williams AM and family through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Programme, 2022 © Estate of Fred Williams

What is fascinating is not so much the subject that caught the attention of this artist in his twenties, but his manner of execution.

Williams, the landscape artist, was certainly an impulsive worker with his idiosyncratic dabs, drips and dribbles punctuating the surfaces of canvases, gouaches and etchings.

In the London drawings, Williams seems to assemble this repertoire of marks with the curious rapid sketches of random profiles, stopped action, and dramatic and unexpected compositional arrangements.

Fred Williams Australia 1927-82, worked in England 1952-56. West Wittering IV 1954-55 pen and ink 25.3 x 35.5 cm (sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Gift of Lyn Williams AM and family through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Programme, 2022 © Estate of Fred Williams

Through many drawings, the desire is to achieve maximum expressiveness, where his line flirts with caricature, not so much to achieve a comic intention as to capture a memorable gesture. The exhibition is dotted with small pockets of explosive expressive energy.

A solitary and atypical artist

Williams frequently worked alongside other Australian artists then residing in London, for example, Francois Lymburner with whom he drew at the zoo.

Lymburner was a virtuoso draughtsman. His animal sketches perfectly translate the entirety of the creature represented with an exquisite lucidity of line.

Williams, working alongside him, doesn’t seem interested in articulating a rhino, elephant, giraffe or lion, but seeks to capture their expressive essence. The viewer is swept away by the power of the drawing – the emotional impact – and not by the articulation of its overall form.

Fred Williams Australia 1927-82, worked in England 1952-56. Gibbon swinging c. 1953 brown conté crayon 39.7 x 25.3 cm (sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Gift of Lyn Williams AM and family through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Programme, 2022 © Estate of Fred Williams

Thereafter, Williams was to employ a similar strategy to the Australian landscape upon his return. At first Nattai River Scenery and the first Mittagong series in 1957-58, in addition to the restructuring of the picture plane and the forward tilting of the surface, the expressive dynamism of the images stems from the creation of expressive expressionist marks.

Williams was an unusual and exceptional draftsman, obsessed, inventive and enthusiastic about what he discovered in London. Apart from the expatriate community that surrounded and to some extent supported him, he was also a solitary and unconventional artist.

From the evidence presented in this extensive exhibition, Williams was not swept away by the fashionable trends that inspired the British art world. The artists who seem to have inspired him the most at this time are Rembrandts, Daumier, whistler, Degas and some of Renaissance masters.

Full dedication

From the start, Williams showed complete dedication to his craft and a very measured approach.

He experienced bouts of melancholy, common to many young artists, but for him art was a process that should not be rushed. He prepared to spend a dozen years of training at art schools in Melbourne and London before embarking on a solo career.

Fred Williams Australia 1927-82, worked in England 1952-56. Drawing for House by Paddington Canal 1954-55 conté crayon 25.3 x 18.3 cm.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Gift of Lyn Williams AM and family through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Programme, 2022 © Estate of Fred Williams

The London drawings were an apprenticeship, a training that was to prepare him for the challenges he would face when he returned to Australia. One inevitably wants to ask whether Williams could have been anything other than a landscape painter.

In my discussions with the artist in the last years of his life, it occurred to me that Williams felt he had mastered landscape and was ready to return to the grand human narrative. Death ultimately robbed him of that opportunity.

Fred Williams: The London Drawings is at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia until January 29.



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