Born in Scotland, Fairweather was an intrepid traveller who spent time in Europe, China, Bali, the Phillipine Islands, Singapore and India. In 1952 Fairweather embarked on his most ambitious journey to date. Inspired by Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki expedition, the artist constructed a raft upon which he sailed solo from Darwin to Indonesian Timor. Suffering intense privations and debilitating physical effects, upon his return to Australia in August 1953 Fairweather departed immediately from Sydney to Bribie Island, which lies seventy kilometres north of Brisbane. With his move to Bribie Island and the construction of a hut, which served as both living space and studio, Fairweather found a refuge which ended his inveterate travelling. Over the next twenty years, the isolation and stability that the environment of Bribie Island provided, and which suited Fairweather's temperament, enabled the artist to create paintings which were acclaimed as the finest of his career and which secured his significant role in the history of Australian art.
Painted in 1963, Composition in Orange and Yellow is one of Fairweather's most abstract works, although the artist disliked this label, commenting that: "My paintings are not abstract. I was trained as a traditionalist and thence proceeded under my own steam towards the abstract; but never completely. Abstractism does not suit me and I will always put into my painting some representation." (I Fairweather cited in N Abbott-Smith, Ian Fairweather, Brisbane, 1978, p.130) A more appropriate term, that captures the evocative and mysterious mood of Fairweather's abstract paintings is provided by the artist himself. In an extant letter to Terry Smith dated 1959, Fairweather referred to a group of abstract paintings as 'soliloquies'. A soliloquy is a theatrical term used to describe a speech directed at oneself or made while the character is alone. The reality of course is that the soliloquy is in fact recited in front of an audience. The term therefore perfectly captures the introspection and isolation of Fairweather's creative process, that resulted in paintings that were destined to speak to a wider audience.
The patterns and palette visible underneath the geometry of orange overpainting in Composition in Orange and Yellow link this work to paintings from the 1964 Drunken Buddha series such as Chi-Tien Goes Begging. Fairweather was a scholar of Chinese literature and in 1965 his translation of a folkloric tale, The Drunken Buddha, from its original Mandarin into English was published. The importance of Chinese calligraphy upon Fairweather's paintings has been extensively commented upon, with its primary manifestation being in the artist's use of pictographs; a visual style similar to hieroglyphs, that straddles writing and imagery.
There are few works by Fairweather of this size that are privately held anywhere in Australia. It was not until the late 1950s that he painted any large scale works, and of the handful painted in the early to mid 1960s, works such as Epiphany 1962, Shalimar 1962 and Marriage at Cana 1963 are all in public collections.
It is important to remember that the artist was seventy-three years of age when he painted Composition in Orange and Yellow and living in conditions that would be considered primitive by ordinary standards. It is a measure of Fairweather's indomitable drive and ferocity of creative expression that the zenith of his professional life was reached during this period.
Murray Bail commented on the appeal of Fairweather's art in the following extract: "In Fairweather's work the brush strokes conceal and reveal - there is often a sense of mystery; Fairweather's art is not instantly comprehensible to the casual observer; but once the viewer's interest is caught there is a compulsive returning. This voyage of discovery, once begun, becomes a continuing passage." (M Bail, op.cit, 1984, p.20)