Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 2, 2009

Fairweather by Murray Bail, and Fred Williams, by Patrick McCaughey

IF_Jacket.inddFred WilliamsI am indebted to Christoper Allen for an excellent review of two re-issued books about Australian artists.  In Points of Departure – a generous two page spread in the Weekend Australian (Aug 1-2, 2009) he writes seductively about Fairweather by Murray Bail, and Fred Williams 1927-1982 by Patrick McCaughey.  I want them both.

$125 each, though, is a bit out of my league, even at my most extravagant, so I was ecstatic to find that one of my libraries already has them in the catalogue, and I have reserved them both using oPac. The Casey Cardinia library has an excellent art collection, but I was not expecting to find these two available so readily. 

I am intrigued by Ian Fairweather because of references to him in Margaret Olley, Far from a Still Life.  He was a recluse, and I confess I had never heard of him until I read the rather bizarre anecdotes about him in Meg Stewart’s book.  The best way to see some of Fairweather’s work (apart from in a gallery, or Bail’s book of course)  is to Google his name and then select images from the menu at the top – though you need to be careful not to confuse the subject of Murray Bail’s biography with another (very good) artist called Ian Fairweather. 

Fred Williams jumperI suspect that Fred Williams is better known.  I fell in love with his gorgeous paintings ages ago, and even knitted a jumper using one of his designs from a book called The Art of Knitting by Jerry Rogers, now out of print and sometimes available for a song on eBay.  Garments made from designs in this book were featured in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1991, and since I couldn’t afford to buy the originals, I bought the book and the yarn and made the Fred Williams one myself.  The design was interpreted by Maria Galinovic from a painting called Hardy River, Mount Turner Syncline which usually lives at the Ian Potter Centre at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Perhaps the reason I like Williams’ work so much is because, like him, I’m an urban person.  I see the landscape of the Australian interior as remote, and nothing to do with me or the life I lead.  I like it when it’s aesthetically pleasing; I get bored by hours on the road when there’s nothing to see except gum trees, or less.  So I read, of course,  authors like Penny Vincenzi, big fat books with large print so that I don’t lose my place when we drive over the bumps in the road.  Williams shows me that there is a beauty in the remote landscape, in places I am unlikely to visit. 

The distant, patchy view of the landscape imagined by Williams, on the other hand, is essentially urban, the experience of the city-dweller looking at the landscape without the intimacy of involvement. It is a sophisticated and aesthetic viewpoint, which is why the images lend themselves to refined and almost minimalist play of variation in the artist’s remarkable etchings. [2]

Christopher Allen also makes the point that these two biographies are written in very different styles, appropriate to their subjects. 

As men, Fairweather and Williams could not have been more unlike each other. It is not a matter of nuances of personality but of existential extremes, almost contrary archetypes of the artist. Each was entirely dedicated to his art and yet one was a plump bourgeois bon vivant while the other was an emaciated, ascetic loner, a refugee from his social class and even — like some moral outcast in a novel by Joseph Conrad — from his own people.

Fairweather’s life is dramatic and mysterious, at times taking on the appearance of a living allegory; Williams’s is so uneventful that his biography is nearly irrelevant. It seems, indeed, entirely appropriate that the monograph on Williams should be written by a critic and art historian, while the one on Fairweather is the work of a novelist. [1]

I am looking forward to collecting these books from the library ASAP!

Update 10.8.09

I’ve got them…I love them…I don’t want to give them back!  From what little I’d seen of his work online I hadn’t realised what a rich diversity of paintings Fairweather created, mostly in a sombre palette, reflecting his unhappy moods.  Bail writes really well, the only handicap to reading the book being that its size and weight makes it a bit cumbersome for reading in bed.   Some of the paintings are quite haunting; nearly all of them are beautiful.  There are hundreds of paintings reproduced in both these books, and the colours in the Fred Williams are just gorgeous, especially the Pilbara series.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have one of these paintings on the wall where I could could see it every day!  The books would be the next best thing. 

Maybe one of them will turn up on eBay one day…


[2] ibid.


  1. […] as an unskilled labourer.  Appleton’s poverty-stricken search for work reminds me of  Murray Bail’s marvellous book about Ian Fairweather, that wonderfully talented artist who could not support himself as a painter and was reduced to […]


  2. Hope you don’t mind a reply to this old post.

    I have just ordered both the Fairweather and Williams books via Fishpond with a good discount. Reading your commnets makes me even more impatient for their delivery.

    A week ago I saw the Williams Exhibition at the National Gallery in Canberra. An amazing display fo even more amazing paintings. They have to be seen “in the flesh” to be believed. Sad to know I’ll probably never get the chance to see most of them again.

    I wrote some brief comments about the exhibition here:

    My blog also has a link to a short documentary about Williams that was recently broadcast on the ABC, but I’m not sure how long it will be available on the ABC website.


    • Hello Tim, I’m delighted to read your response to my olrd post, and I hope the books live up to your expectations. I wish I could have got to the Fred Williams exhibition, and I enjoyed reading your blog post about it. (I sneaked a peek at your reading blog too, of course!)
      Thanks for posting the ABC link, I’ll have a look at that ASAP!


  3. […] before.  I borrowed Murray Bail’s Ian Fairweather from the library a while back and enthused about it here but I didn’t absorb that Fairweather was a Sinophile and that he was sufficiently expert in […]


  4. […] Buddha which I reviewed here and whose work also features in Murray Bail’s Fairweather (here); and she describes Louis Kahan’s stunning portrait of Patrick White (which won the 1962 […]


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