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Sunday Arts Magazine

24 Oct 2022

Fred Williams – NGV

Art Exhibition, Arts, Sunday Arts Magazine, Visual Arts

Fred Williams – NGV

Fred Williams:
The London Drawings is the first
exhibition dedicated to
Williams’s London period
(1952–56). The exhibition
explores the range and power of
William’s drawings from this
formative period through some
160 drawings of extraordinary
calligraphic energy. These
include superb series of works
that Williams made in London’s
music halls, at the zoo, on the
city streets, and in formal life
drawing classes.

Presenting a surprising counterpoint to the artist’s celebrated, abstracted landscape paintings, these drawings reveal
Williams’s early aspirations to be a figure painter. This early commitment to drawing and painting the human figure is
less well known to the public and reveals Williams’s extraordinary observational skills and ability to capture the world
around him.
Williams left Melbourne for London in December 1951 and there he turned to observing people in particular:
performers at the music halls; workers going about their business; passers-by in the streets; models in life classes at
the Chelsea Polytechnic; and artist friends and fellow students.
The most important group of works is the large sequence of London’s music halls, which were places of popular
entertainment frequented by the working and middle classes. Williams sketched the performers on stage: jugglers,
acrobats, vaudeville performers, singers and dancers, including such legendary performers as Max Miller and others.
Characterised by a dynamic energy and graphic economy, these drawings capture the actions, gestures and
expressions of the performers. Williams was also interested in the audience and their reactions, with numerous
drawings focussing on the absorbed spectators. These range from amusing caricatures to sensitive studies of
audience members dimly illuminated in the gloom of the auditorium.
A further highlight is a group of drawings completed at London Zoo. These large sequences of drawings show
Williams’ skill in dealing with the forms of exotic creatures – big cats, elephants and giraffes – and in drawing moving
subjects. The drawings were usually drawn in red or black conte crayon, and Williams sometimes added wash back in
his rooms to further accentuate or define details.
The works on display offer a fascinating insight into both post-war London and the artistic processes of one of
Australia’s most significant artists, who often used his drawings as the basis for works in other media, including oils,
gouache, and etching. In addition to the 160 drawings, twelve gouaches and thirty etchings are included in the
exhibition and reveal how the artist explored the same motifs across different media.
A recent gift of more than 600 early drawings by the artist from Lyn Williams AM and Family further strengthens the
NGV’s internationally significant holdings of works on paper by Fred Williams, which comprise nearly 1,500
impressions of the artist’s prints, 286 etching plates and some 120 later gouaches, drawings and watercolours.
Tony Ellwood AM, Director of the NGV, said: ‘Fred Williams is celebrated for his iconic paintings of the Australian
landscape, yet his outstanding achievements as a draughtsman of the human figure are little known. This revealing
exhibition shines a light on Williams’ extraordinary drawing practice and reveals his life-long commitment to the
medium – which he maintained both before and after he developed his distinctive, abstracted style.’

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