Landscape Artist - Patrick Shirvington
Interviewee: Patrick Shirvington, born 1952
Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
for The Hills Shire Council
Date of Interview: 3 Nov 2009
Transcription: Glenys Murray, Nov 2009
This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee
Did you pick up a love of art at school?
A love of art came from a number of reasons. As I mentioned being one of four boys and Dad being an active member of the Gordon Rugby Club active as in he was coaching. He’s still the oldest life member at this stage he’ll never be the youngest life member because he’s 87 so he’s still the oldest life member and always will be. He was very much into the Rugby side of things I struggled with that. I had asthma as a child which that’s fine. Of course that became a bit of a hindrance to my athletic ability. So my Nan with whom I spent a lot of time with because of time away from school in my primary days due to the asthma. She was a school teacher but a typical old school teacher that had kids from kindergarten right through. She understood a lot about the importance of poetry and reading and the arts. She presented me with my own paints. Which were a British paint? Not British Paints as in Rolf Harris British Paints. They were British paints Windsor and Newton. This was amazing that she researched and went and got these beautiful… lead tubes they were. Bought me a set of Windsor and Newton paints and some canvas and some books on how to paint. I just found that was a great way… I suppose my own self esteem or doing something that I didn’t feel inadequate at. As I say when you’re playing football at a Rugby school and my academic levels weren’t achieving dux of the school at any stage. So it was a great way and a pastime. That coupled with the bush and the birds. I did so many paintings of our local bush around Lane Cove around my backyard. Yes no doubt it no doubt had the greatest influence on me. I don’t remember from that day at the age of 13 to my current day without having a brush in my hand. Still looking at the bush through the same eyes, although the eyes still see the bush the same way, but of course spiritually or the way you perceive things it evolves.
Lloyd Rees, Jean McKeown, George Lawrence and Patrick Shirvington at Roseville Gallery 1974
Did you have any formal art training anywhere?
As I mentioned there was nothing much at school. Then I left school and did the H.S.C. (Higher School Certificate) again. I didn’t go to uni to do art I did an accountancy instead. Just continued painting and fortunately I had a couple of galleries. One of the oldest galleries in Sydney, in Hunter Street took my work on. He was a second generation of owner the director of that gallery. Then another gallery at Roseville took my work on. It was long established and she used to exhibit people that were connected to George Lawrence and Lloyd Rees and some of that calibre. I was fortunate enough to meet up in those days, in my early twenties, with George Lawrence. I still have a photo up here of an opening night of mine with George and Lloyd Rees and a number of artists respectable artists in Sydney attended. Lloyd Rees, just chatting, he gave me a lot of I suppose influence in regards to… At no stage did he say you need to go and get formal training. He said “just keep drawing and the paint will take care of itself”. I had enough behind me to then go overseas. With that I did a little bit of training or a little bit of study at an academy called the Académie de la Grande Chaumière which is still a very well known academy today in Paris. The formality of it was leaving class, chatting with these people and spending time in the galleries. Not just The Louvre and the major galleries but going right down to the back street there at Monmartre which has the history of people like Van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec. Walking the street where they painted and living that life for a little time as they saw. That was a great practical learning experience for me. Then seeing what they painted, visiting the galleries and realising why they painted these scenes.
Morning in the bush - oil on canvas c1979
I believe you also went to London tell me what did you find there?
I spent some time in London on that same trip which was the mid 1970’s. I spent some time in a little apartment and I was painting and sketching there. Just doodling, just making subjects out of anything around me. The hardest thing was coming from that background as I say the Australian landscape there was some connection I had with that. So my paintings were still harking back to that Australian… a bit like the early Australian impressionists that came out here. They found it hard to paint the Australian landscape. They were still painting European. I put a few pieces together and somebody had seen a piece that they were interested in. So I took it to my framer to have it framed, not my framer, a framer. It turned out to be the timing was right. A chap in there that had a gallery in Cornwell saw my work and said “do you want to be part of an exhibition in Cornwell”? In a little place called Truro. That sounded wonderful so I took my work down there. The funny thing was I was right in the midst of once again an amazing artist’s enclave. I found out later that people like Patrick Heron and David Hockney, Barbara Hepworth. All these artists were down in these areas. I visited a couple of galleries there. I suppose I kick myself, its like when you’re in your twenties you’re very quiet and shy and you stick to yourself. The thing about today if I was bold enough I’d knock on doors and I’d say “I’d like to talk to you and meet these people”. I do know having met Lloyd Rees that if I hadn’t have met him in Sydney even though I lived in Lane Cove myself it would have taken a lot of courage to knock on his door. Once you meet these people you realise they love it cause for one they’re so humble of the fact that they’re inspiring. They don’t realise how inspiring they are to younger people. As with the case with Brett Whitely and Lloyd Rees it wasn’t until latter years. London had a great influence on me and once again from London I went through the Tait and the galleries. I also went up and down the areas of London and looked at the contemporary art of today. One name comes to mind Peter Tyndall.
Were you still painting Australian scenes?
I had this theme of a lot of poetry. Getting back to my Nan and giving me my first set of paints. Being a school teacher she gave me, along with my paints, she would see me picking up a book of Henry Kendall or Banjo Patterson or C. J. Dennis. So I started to read these and that coupled with my love of the landscape I painted some of the figures from my own head in the landscape. Those books I still had with me, if not the books had the memory of the poems. So finding it difficult to find subject matter reminiscent of Australia, some of my subjects were more or less based on some of these characters. So they were neither Australian nor European in landscape. Landscape itself was just a basic backdrop to these stories. So they were a bit more universally appreciated.
Morning Acacia - oil on canvas c1982
So looking back on that trip to Europe in the 1970’s how do you think it influenced you future life as an artist?
It influenced me greatly because prior to that I realised what I was painting was fairly parochial as in one Australian art. My belief was if a painting looked anything like the Heidelberg School, if it looked anything like a Hans Heysen tree or anything like a Tom Roberts landscape you were on the right track. Which is correct in your late teens and early twenties, I realised to be a landscape painter you had to paint a tree. What did open my eyes was the fact you’d walk into a gallery and see the beautiful impressionist paintings. Then you’d see the looseness and the freedom that people like Monet achieved. Then you go from Monet and something that will always stick in my mind is Kandinsky. His early work was very much influenced by impressionism then expressionism. But then he coupled that with the feeling of freedom and movement. He was a great lover of music.
He started to research music and the colour combinations which give you that similar feeling of the spirit as a note would in music. That’s his movement. I thought that is a beautiful landscape but wait there. There’s not a tree, there’s not a mountain there’s nothing. They were landscapes it’s like sitting out here in my studio. It’s the movement of the trees and the cicadas. That sound of the buzzing coupled with the movement of the trees he was achieving that. That was a fantastic way of realising that just a continual scene and travelling round our countryside and seeing gum trees that were reminiscent of Hans Heysen would never capture the real essence of what Hans Heysen captured. He captured because he was German. Nobody before him had actually hugged or touched an Australian gum tree. He expressed that. That I suppose opened my eyes to art being much freer of what you are as a person. Of how you perceive things, if you’re influenced by Aboriginality, if you’re influenced by your forebears who have come off the land. If you’re influenced that’s your art. So I started to allow my art to move.
So what happened when you returned to Australia?
I came back to Australia. The galleries that I was exhibiting in then presented me with a nice little stipend again. While I was away for only six months at that stage, when I came back they had sold pieces that I’d left. It was nice to come back with some money to then continue with this dream to be able to continue with my painting as possible livelihood. My parents thought that was it. I had done my travelling and my little art adventure. Now reality would sink back in. I had more money then to come back to and that enabled me to pack my bags again and go out west. I went out to properties first of all relatives properties. We had family still on the land. So I was able to stay in shearing sheds and paint. It did give me that freedom… obviously in the back of my mind was to break away from this closely knit Heidelberg look of painting. We don’t need to follow the Australian tradition not that I was painting French countryside out there, but I was looking at things and experimenting. Trying to balance in those days, paintings that would go to galleries and would be accepted but also pushing the boundaries.
Xanthorrhoea - pen and ink 1994
So you were painting landscapes weren’t you?
How would you describe your style at that stage? Was it realistic, was it more expressionistic?
It would have been probably expressionistic. What happened in Australian art after we came through the era of the artists who had spent time either influenced by the impressionist or had spent time in Europe studying impressionists. Australian art took on that look. We accepted that as a natural thing. What they’re playing in cricket in India Australia’s influenced how we play cricket here. The world all moves as one. So my art was considered traditional and impressionistic. The galleries reflected that. The galleries that I was exhibiting with were very traditional. Having said that my work was probably on that contemporary side of traditional even then. There were still a lot of painters painting the beautiful Australian countryside on landscape as it was. I was painting things that were a bit… for instance go out to Broken Hill and Silverton and Tibooburra I was painting a harsher landscape that wasn’t necessarily as attractive to a lot of people. There was a sympathy to the landscape. So commercially I was still able to paint and sell and the process was continuing. My greatest breakthrough was being able to continue supporting myself. Having been able to travel, having to buy a car and then with a couple of exhibitions I was actually able to buy a house.
Once that was done I had a studio. Probably the greatest breakthrough in my art was the ability to be able to say “I can live in a house and paint”. I was fortunate I guess. When I exhibited people in the radio, people in newspapers they picked up on it. It was all foreign to me but people actually wanted to interview me. I had people interviewing me on the radio about my exhibitions and my themes. I was painting themes back in the seventies. One thing was called “childhood in the bush” and that was just a matter of going out and staying on a property. My brother went out he was a teacher and he just wanted to break away from Sydney for a while. He went out to Mudgee and just watching the kids and their friends build billycarts and swing on ropes and fall in the river. I just started to sketch and paint those. It was a blessing, I mean I painted those pictures and they would sell immediately because of their attraction to people. Most of us in the city had relatives or had grown up with billycarts so that was nostalgic painting.
Acacias on the river - oil on canvas 1998
Were there any disappointments that you had in those early days as well?
There weren’t that many disappointments in those days. The disappointments occur when you move out of your comfort zone. Today artists that are moving, when I say moving, pushing the boundaries things are harder to sell. When you’ve got ten people walking into a gallery and nine out of the ten people want to buy what they remember me doing. Only one person is happy to move and question your work. So there’s nine sales you’ve missed. So it is difficult, you make that decision that no I want to persevere and keep going where I know my soul is taking me and what I need to do. You have your peers respecting you and peers that you’ll chat over a particular drawing or you’ll chat over a drink. Then you have major collections and universities putting collections together will contact you for a piece.
So the disappointments of missing out on being hung in the Archibald initially, mind you that came to fruition a few years later I was hung in the Archibald. I’ve been hung in the Kedumba Drawing Award which is regarded as the best drawing collection outside of the National Gallery in Canberra. Now that wouldn’t have happened to me going back thirty years. My paintings would be selling. But the trustees the likes of John Olsen, Margaret Olley, Colin Lancely that choose these participants. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to sell your work but you’re acceptance of keep going where you’re going.
What are the themes that have inspired you in your art?
It’s still the landscape. It’s a funny thing talking about an Archibald it’s specifically portrait. Portraits aren’t my forte I don’t paint portraits. But the subject matter I chose to paint was Charles Blackman whom I admired as an artist and whose thinking as an artist. It was wonderful to meet him and spend the time with him drawing. Unfortunately for him he wasn’t that well, looked pretty weathered. So I painted him as a landscape anyway. His face and all was very much a landscape. It was getting my hands into that paint and really getting that expression. The landscape is what always inspires me. Landscape can’t argue with you if you paint a landscape I interpret the landscape how I see it.
Charles Blackman - oil on canvas finalist Archibald prize 1999
Now when did you first move into the Shire here at The Hills?
I moved in about fifteen years ago. I grew up in Chatswood as I said and then I moved to the Central Coast and settled there for over twelve years. I built my house and studio at Macmasters Beach. That was a Shire that had a fair bit of art happening. I was in contact, because they were in the throes of developing a regional gallery, and a real large art community. I guess because of it being the Central Coast there was a lot of people living on the fringe. There was parts out at Kulnura and Somersby where a lot of art and craft and people in all the disciplines of art were living. It was just being generated and the Council were on track with this understanding and the art world was developing and evolving there. I was involved with some of the early days of the art societies up there, either in tutoring or taking four day workshops and so forth. Then I moved to here and one of the first things I did. I phoned up this Shire Council to speak to the community arts officer and there was no such being. That came as a shock for such a large shire. I then realised part of the reason we have community arts and things happening. It comes afterwards. It’s not the priority and it comes from within, it comes with pressure. That was a bit of a negative when I moved to this Shire was to say well there’s no nucleus happening there. A lot of the newspaper articles are about a few local art shows. There was no nucleus of art happening. There was no community art as in art for the people, art in the park, art activities, whereas Hawkesbury and surrounding shires were. It was a very young Shire well it goes back to farming days of course. It’s a very young Shire in so far as it was developing, housing was developing. A lot of young people were coming in. For that reason art wasn’t as important to the Shire and the Council as say the amenities and balancing their books.
Clearing rain - watercolour 2004
And has that changed?
It has we had a community arts officer appointed Stuart Slough. He was appointed there and no sooner took the reins and with his budgets he put together a brain storming network of what was needed in the Shire. Which was timely because there is a whole centre of Castle Hill was evolving. They realised that they had to do something with this little shopping centre putting in plazas and so forth. Plans went through Council for a new library and there was space there for art. There are community centres which are accessible for the arts. I know the Art Societies utilise them.
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