We are grateful to Lyn Williams and Geoffrey Smith for their assistance with this catalogue entry
The early 1960s were a pivotally important period for Fred Williams, during which his own distinctive and expressive interpretation of the Australian landscape began to emerge. Recognition of his growing ability came quickly: in 1963 he was awarded the Helena Rubinstein Travelling Art Scholarship, perhaps Australia's most prestigious award at the time, which enabled Williams and his wife Lyn to travel through Europe for seven months from May 1964. In August 1963, Williams' dealer, Rudy Komon, began to pay the artist a stipend, for the first time enabling Williams to paint full time. The freedom to travel and to paint proved crucial to the maturation of Williams' art, providing a framework to explore a series as seminal as the Upwey Landscapes was to the development of his distinctive vision of the Australian landscape.
Prior to his departure for Europe, through his You Yangs series, Yellow Landscape and Hillside paintings, Williams' work had begun to display a new gestural freedom. This new expressiveness, away from the stricter forms of the earlier Forest series of 1961-62, nevertheless remained contained within Williams' characteristically elegant formal framework. It is as though the artist recognised in the se canvases the seeds of his later, revolutionary vision: during his travels through Europe he did not paint at all, instead studying at first-hand the work of the great European masters. After this hiatus, Williams seamlessly recommenced work. "It was as though", wrote Patrick McCaughey, "he picked up the brush the morning after the last paintings of the year before. That says a lot about the nature of his art and the certainty of his direction. He literally carried his vision with him intact feeding off his own art; one painting stimulating the next, one series provoking its counterpoint." (P. McCaughey, Fred Williams, Sydney, 1980, p.166).
In August 1963, the Williams family moved from a converted stable in Hawthorn to a new house and studio in a valley at Upwey in the Dandenong Ranges, south-east of Melbourne. It was from this studio that Williams, on his return from his travels in late 1964, began a new small but pivotally important series of Upwey Landscapes, to which this painting belongs.
The Upwey series and related works were as highly acclaimed for their distinctive rendering of the Australian bush at the time of their execution as they are now. They garnered several major art prizes for Williams, including the Georges Invitation Art Prize, the W. D. and H. O. Wills Prize and the Wynne Prize. These prestigious awards established both Williams's critical reputation and a high level of public recognition and awareness of his unique visual interpretation of the Australian landscape.
This work, Upwey Landscape, is considered by Patrick McCaughey, author of the 1980 monograph on Fred Williams, to be the finest of the core group of the series. It is the last known painting of the group to be held outside a public collection, with other works in the series held in the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria (to which this work is companion), the National Gallery of Australia, the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, the Newcastle Region Art Gallery, and London's Tate Modern.
Upwey Landscape was initially exhibited in Rudy Komon's first exhibition following the refurbishment of his Gallery in June 1965, and was received with great enthusiasm by contemporary critics. Thornton Wallace, in his review for the Sydney Morning Herald described Upwey Landscape as "the best Australian landscape this reviewer has ever seen. It's a remarkable synthesis of Australian dry-brown scrub by this ever-improving Melbourne painter". James Gleeson, writing for Sydney's Sun-Herald stated that "Fred Williams and Lawrence Daws have surpassed themselves. Williams' Upwey Landscape restates the tradition of Australian landscape painting in Twentieth-Century terms. It is in a direct line of descent from Roberts and Streeton, yet it is an entirely personal conception."
Unlike the delicate mark-making that characterised the You-Yangs series which preceded them, the Upwey paintings are saturated with darker, earthier colours and a more substantial and tactile figuration. The high horizon line, which is another feature of these works, had its basis in the actual view from Williams's studio, for as Mollison recorded: 'His house was in a valley, and from the studio his view above the surrounding trees confirmed his use of a narrow band of sky for the Upwey landscapes. (J Mollison, A. Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, Canberra, 1989, p. 89).
In Upwey Landscape, Williams adopted the monochromatic background that had become familiar through the earlier You Yangs and Forest paintings. Ochre, in varying intensities, provides the background for trees and scrub rendered with painterly daubs and swirls of green and grey. Their placement on the canvas bears the hallmarks of antecedent works in their careful, almost Cubist placement, reminiscent of the You Yangs landscapes. But in Upwey Landscape the trees and bushes range across a broader space: contained within a subtle lattice of vigorous and fallen tree-trunks and a hilltop ridge, "The dialogue between space and substance in the landscape continued but with a new amplitude and breadth Williams' painterliness is unstrained and unstraining, letting the painting 'breathe'." (McCaughey, op. cit., p.169).
This balance extends to the overall structure of the painting, which is divided into three principal horizontal sections. Vegetation proliferates in the densely painted central section, but gradually, towards the base of the canvas and at the sides, this fades to a delicately painted tawny ground interspersed with small touches of taupe and brown. The contrast is greatest at the upper section of the work, where the hillside gives way to a soft pink sky, linked to the ground by the slender trunks and delicate foliage of the tallest trees. The "handsome proportions" of the painting are based on a rectangle: "the sky, the earth and the overall shape of the painting. It is no accident", writes McCaughey, "that this work comes at the beginning of the series; Williams is alive and responsive to the new format Here, the painting wears the new monumentality lightly and Williams' brush is unlaboured." (Ibid, p.170).
The immediate critical and commercial acclaim that greeted Williams's Upwey landscapes was a precursor to the significant position that they would come to occupy in Australian art history. The clarity of structure and the certainty of touch displayed by Williams in Upwey Landscape afforded the Australian bush landscape a new stature in the mid-1960s, and the power of his vision of the grace and monumentality of his subject endures today.