In a 1953 essay for the New Statesman, John Berger writes that “for the artist, drawing is discovery”. At the time, Berger was also a drawing tutor at the School of Art at the Chelsea Polytechnic, where Australian Fred Williams studied for a few years from 1952.
There’s evidence Williams and Berger crossed paths in two quick pen and ink drawings of the critic, shown in Fred Williams: The London Drawings. Both believed that drawing was fundamental to artistic practice, as technique and as an act of looking.
After his time in London, Williams became one of Australia’s most significant landscape painters. His most famous works in oil and gouache are condensations: the distilled essence of the Australian landscape in tonal minimalism. Born in Melbourne in 1927, he studied at the National Gallery Art School and also took classes at artist George Bell’s private school. In 1952 he travelled to London to expand his horizons and hone his craft.
There are 160 drawings – plus 12 gouaches and 30 etchings – from his time in London in this exhibition at the NGV’s Ian Potter Centre. Spanning two large rooms, the works on display were never intended to be exhibited. They are quick studies, the deliberate and thoughtful workings of a young artist trying to find his language.
In the first room, Williams’ 25 nudes are sketched mostly in red, black and brown conté crayon. Williams used the crayon’s end for line work, its side for shading, smudged it with a finger for tone, wetted with a brush or ground it to make tinted washes. With limited materials, these nudes show the breadth of Williams’ raw talent. It’s believed Williams would sometimes make three of these works in an hour, as is evidenced here: the same model is sketched from multiple angles. The repetition reveals dedication. These drawings are vigorous, exciting.
In the same room is Williams’ Zoo series – line drawings of giraffes, rhinos, a secretary bird and elephants. He’d visit the London Zoo with fellow Australian artist Francis Lymburner, and the two sat drawing for hours. There’s a gibbon, simple in its execution but pulsing with energy as if Williams has captured it mid-swing. A wall of big cats sleeping and stretching. The most significant is a puma shown in red and black crayon with a brown wash on blue paper, drawn on the back cover of Williams’ sketchbook – good paper was expensive so Williams used anything he could find. Against the blue, the red conté is luminous, the puma seemingly alive and menacing.
Also on display are many drawings of elephants in profile. Thought to be a tribute to Rembrandt and Goya’s depictions of elephants, Williams’ drawings differ in that they show the animal in motion, portraying its lumbering weight in just a few lines of pen and ink or crayon and – later – in an etching.
In the second room, half the wall is painted green-grey like a London fog. This provides the background for Williams’ scenes from his life in the city and beyond: on-the-spot pen and ink and later pencil and wash, drawings of canal barges, window-washers, picture-framers from his job at the Old Brompton Road frame shop of Robert Savage, and scenes from life on the street. Around the room are chairs stationed in pairs, with etched versions of the drawn works lying flat on surfaces, inviting the viewer to stop and observe just as Williams did.
Etching was new to Williams when he attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts, which became Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, in 1954. He brought his drawings of everyday life to class and transferred them to the plate, creating more than 100 etchings of scenes in London. Friends recalled that on the table in his bedsit was a container of acid for bathing the etching plates, right next to where he ate his lunch.
Interspersed between drawings and etchings are photographs of Williams’ time in London, taken on an old box Brownie. Photos of friends, trips to the countryside – the latter turned into some of his first landscapes. Williams later admitted he found the English countryside uninteresting, too ordered and symmetrical. His lack of interest in this subject shows. It feels as if Williams drew them not because they were beautiful or memorable but because he just couldn’t stop drawing.
The last series in the exhibition – a huge collection of work made from frequent evening visits to London’s music halls in Chelsea, Islington and Paddington – shows the artist Williams would become. He’d sit in the cheap seats and quickly draw the audience above, below and beside him: small groups of women and children; couples leaning forward, enraptured by the stage. On display also are the etchings and, in two instances, paintings made from the drawings. Each further showcases how the artist pushed himself to define and redefine the scene to suit the medium, showing an innate understanding of the limitations and possibilities of the materials.
As well as the audience, Williams drew the performers. These drawings of vaudeville clowns, dancers, trumpeters and puppeteers are full of nuance and character. On one wall we see an acrobat, a dancer. He portrays a trapeze artist – again the same character repeated, refined – in a drawing, then an aquatint. It really comes alive in gouache and watercolour. There is less detail in the painting but it somehow reveals more: the lines are more assured and the audience is in silhouette, captivated.
In this series, we are shown familiar gestures that will later emerge in charcoal and paint. The squiggle of a performer’s hand and thick, off-kilter lines that look slapdash will 10 years later appear as trees abstracted by the shimmering haze of distance or dust, as in Hillside Landscape (1965-1966) or Burnt Landscape (1969). The images and what they depict are very different but the gestures are clearly from the same hand.
In that 1953 New Statesman essay, Berger writes: “the heart of [drawing] lies in the specific process of looking. A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see.”
And that’s what’s on full display in Fred Williams: The London Drawings: an artist in the throes of discovery. He’s learning how he wants to see the world and just how much he’s capable of showing. It’s a remarkable thing to witness.
Fred Williams: The London Drawings is showing at the Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia, until January 29, 2023.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2022 as "Following the line".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription