Feb 18, 2016

New era dawns as artist's star rise

Denise Secomb

28th November 2015

Perhaps more than any of the many artists who call Australia home, Peter Lawson has represented the entire nation visually in its landscape and its geography and now his star is rising yet again as he is feted in a retrospective exhibition in his home city, Townsville.

On Friday, December 4 at 7pm, the Mayor of Townsville, Cr Jenny Hill, opens a Peter Lawson: Retrospect Exhibition at Perc Tucker Regional Gallery honoring the prolific artist who grew up in Nelly Bay on Magnetic Island.

Eric Nash, Curator of Gallery Services at Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, says: “The exhibition, Peter Lawson: Retrospect, is fitting recognition for a leading Townsville artist who has never broken his dream of living as a professional artist. For more than 50 years he has plied his trade, developing a loyal base of supporters and gaining critical acclaim through exhibitions and prizes across the country.

“Retrospect allows us to look back through his oeuvre to celebrate his well-established talents as a painter of the region's landscapes and seascapes, and historical scenes. It also enables us to highlight the artist's adaptability as a painter of fine portraits, still lifes, and impressionistic works.”

Cr Sue Blom, Community and Culture Committee chair, says of Lawson: “His work captures the essence of North Queensland and the outback, including stunning historical scenes that depict the development of our city.

“As we enter 2016 and celebrate Townsville's 150th year, it is truly fitting that we highlight and applaud this lifetime of achievements of such an artist.”

Lawson, 69, is the great grand nephew of Australia's favourite author from pioneering days, Henry Lawson (1867-1922). He is known around the country for his “on location” work. Today he exhibits from his gallery at Magnetic Island, Peter Lawson Fine Art.

As the great grandson, too, of Henry's mother, Louisa Lawson (nee Albury, 1948-1920) known as the mother of the Australian suffragette movement, it is hardly surprising that Lawson has liberated views on life.

Nor is it surprising that he's been prepared to move about, for it's in his blood. His Norwegian ancestor, Niels Larsen, who anglicised his name to Peter Lawson when he fathered Henry, jumped ship in Melbourne so he could head for the gold fields. Four other children were to follow after Henry's birth, though one sadly failed to survive.

With her husband away searching for gold, Louisa relied heavily upon Henry as she raised her children behind the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. She married at Mudgee after growing up at nearby Gulgong. Henry was born at Grenfell.

Louisa rose to national prominence as the publisher of the Dawn, a suffragette's magazine that was instrumental, along with her colleagues, in women getting the right to vote in NSW in 1902. It was a women's magazine that gave both mother and son a voice for their work.

While Peter Lawson was influenced by his famous forebears, it took the encouragement of his father, Albury, and also that of his mentor, friend and patron, the late Emeritus Professor Collin Roderick, of James Cook University, to help him find his feet in the Australian art world.

Lawson can instance periods working in all of the various painting mediums.

He says of his current palette knife renditions in oils: “When you lay a big panel down in an hour and a half on location the painting becomes so textured it becomes three dimensional.”

Lawson was 36 before he finally travelled overseas and saw the masters at The Louvre in Paris. He sold all the paintings off The Roaring Days book he published with Landsdowne Press to finance the trip.

The Roaring Days was the last of six books he's published, earlier books being: Townsville and Early History; Charters Towers: The Town they Called the World; Ravenswood: The Town that Was; Illustrated Henry Lawson Stories; andIllustrated Henry Lawson Poems.

The Roaring Days was a collection of his paintings depicting the gold rush era based on Lawson's keen understanding of the Outback, gleaned from many travels, including with his father. In addition, he did extensive archival research, his work piquing the interest of the publishing house which had just published the two big volumes illustrating Henry Lawson's work with a selection of paintings.

Interviews with then television Midday host, Mike Walsh, and then The Women's Weekly editor, Ita Buttrose, came during the 1980s Roaring Dayspromotional tour but it was the trip afterwards to England, Europe and South East Asia that enabled Lawson to return inspired. He came back with a collection of watercolours rendered in Britain under his arm, of which only a few made it to the Sydney galleries on his return.

For just as he's had a love affair with Magnetic Island, Lawson is passionate about the harbour-side city of Sydney, having lived there three times in his adult life, tramping its beaches and coves and headlands painting on location daily, gaining confidence there to ditch a sign-writing trade in favor of following his dream to paint professionally.

Sir John Holland acquired and presented the paintings from Lawson's first book, Townsville: An Early History, to the Townsville City Council with the exception of one painting, acquired by Townsville opthamologist, Dr John Lillicrap, a friend of internationally recognised Australian opthamologist, Professor Fred Hollows (dec.).

The book was a family affair with Lawson's father, Albury, writing the text. It was launched by David Jones department store in 1977 but the paintings were done in 1976 with Lawson next heading for the Great Australian Outback with his father.

“I'd eaten enough crabs and was eating road kill,” he says of that experience of kangaroo for tucker, with he and his father taking the joeys from the pouches of the dead female kangaroos to the hospitals along the way where “every nursing sister seemed also to be caring for baby joeys”.

In this era, Lawson embarked on his fascination for Australia's Great Outback through the stories and poems of writers such as Bango Patterson, Henry Kendall and, of course, his earliest inspiration, his great grand uncle, Henry Lawson.

His first exhibition, at the Townsville School of Arts, featured Lawson's impressions of the desert. It came about in 1976, before the Townsville book was published.

Encouraged next and mentored by Professor Roderick, Lawson then painted his interpretations of Henry Lawson's era with Henry Lawson Illustrated Poems and Henry Lawson Illustrated Stories.

Prof. Roderick sold the paintings one by one from the series, keeping Lawson going as his career built momentum, many business people and corporate buyers acquiring his work.

He says of Roderick: “He'd have loved to have been a painter and I'd love to have been able to write. My great grand uncle also wanted to be a painter, too, I believe.”

The next most prolific period of Lawson's life, at 45, was characterised by a bohemian lifestyle at an artist's colony at Clifton Beach, near Cairns, together with renowned seascape artist, Denis Hardy (dec.) David Babcock (the son of a notable New Zealand artist), Tanya Heben, brothers Gus and Tom McAuley and a couple of other artists.

“The Upstairs Gallery in Cairns was buying everything we'd do...You couldn't do it these days because there are fewer entrepreneurs out there now.”

Such candour opens up the subject of lifestyle, for Lawson and I both agreed to delay our interview, his reason being he needed to get back from town and was keen for a swim at Alma Bay before we began, which seemed like a good idea in the 32 degree celsius tropical heat.

Says Lawson: “I've exercised pretty hard all my life. I paint better when the blood's running through my body as it should. I'm most inspired when I'm brightest. I've never been one to be interested in what goes round and round inside some painter's head. I just go to my easel each morning and represent creation.”

Indeed, getting his blood up has meant that Lawson's attracted the attention of a variety of women over the years, with a house burnt down that he lived in during the 1990s.

Lawson and Hardy remained tight friends until Hardy's death, the pair painting for two books together about gold rush towns, with Don Roderick (no relation to Collin) writing the text. Lawson painted from his feel of the Outback and from archival research to depict Ravensood: A Town that Was (1981) andCharters Towers: A Town they Called the World (1984) with Hardy painting both towns as they appeared on location.

Hardy sold his paintings from the books at random as he built up his career.

Barry Paull, the founder of building firm, Kern Brothers, acquired the Charters Towers collection, presenting it to the Dalrymple Shire Council.

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