Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Strachan, David Edgar (1919–1970)

by Barry Pearce

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

David Edgar Strachan (1919-1970), by Barry Newberry

David Edgar Strachan (1919-1970), by Barry Newberry

State Library of New South Wales, Australian Photographic Agency - 12012

David Edgar Strachan (1919-1970), painter and printmaker, was born on 25 June 1919 at Salisbury, Wiltshire, England, eldest of four children of Major James Charles Power Strachan, Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force, and his wife Eleanor Margery Isobel, née Tapp, who came from Bath. The family moved to Adelaide in 1920 and to Creswick, Victoria, in the following year. David was sent to Creswick State and Geelong Church of England Grammar schools. By the age of 16 he wanted to be an artist. Accompanying his mother to London in 1936, he enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art, where he met Godfrey Miller. In 1937 he attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris, and painted at Cassis on the Mediterranean Sea. He returned to Australia in April 1938 and studied at the George Bell School, Melbourne.

Strachan's earliest known paintings, such as 'Mother and Child' and 'Victorian Family' (both 1940), had an eerie, staged look which was to become characteristic of much of his work. His growing interest in classicism blended with a fascination for the dream-state and became reinforced in his work after he moved to Sydney in 1941. There he was befriended by Jean Bellette and her husband Paul Haefliger, who were to be driving forces behind the Sydney Art Group (founded 1945). He lived on the top floor of the Haefligers' house at Double Bay, and together the three artists drew from models whom the Haefligers hired. In this period Strachan painted and exhibited some of his most poetic works—mainly figurative and landscape subjects, and still-lifes of haunting beauty. His flowers, bowls of fruit, birds, and angelic figures glimmered out of the darkness as things not of this world, evoked faintly, like mythological personages in a gently spoken narrative. He 'spent an erratic war' painting camouflage at Bankstown aerodrome with other artists, among them (Sir) William Dobell, and dancing minor roles with Hélène Kirsova's ballet company.

In 1948 Strachan settled in Paris. His paintings, included by Peter Bellew in an exhibition at the Musée National d'Art Moderne, had been well-received by French critics two years earlier. In 1950 he began tentative experiments in etching. These led to the formation of the Stramur-Presse, a business venture which published etchings and lithographs of leading French and English artists. His most important project was a series of twenty-two colour etchings illustrating Alister Kershaw's book of poems, Accent & Hazard (Paris, 1951).

Strachan continued to exhibit in Australia and maintained a lively social life with Australian friends. From Paris, he went for weekend painting trips with Moya Dyring in her car and, after 1957, visited the Haefligers on Majorca. He lived in London in 1955-57. His paintings became progressively less soft in effect, his palette brightened, and his forms, especially the still-lifes, became spikier. In the late 1950s his attention drifted towards the study of Hindu philosophers and Jungian psychology. For most of 1957-58 he was enrolled at the C. G. Jung-Institut, Zürich, Switzerland. In 1959 he worked in Silvio Daneo's silkworm factory at Bricherasio, Italy.

In May 1960 Strachan returned to Sydney. He lived at Woolloomooloo before buying a house at Paddington in 1963. Having learned in Paris, he was a remarkable cook, and introduced his friends 'to a style of kitchen-based living among scrubbed wooden furniture, tiles, handsome pots and pans, massed herbs and vegetables, fine cuisine, witty conversation, books and music'. Over the ensuing years he involved himself energetically with the art scene, exhibiting, teaching (1960-65) at East Sydney Technical College, fund-raising for memorials for Thea Proctor and Dyring, and as the last president (1965) of the Society of Artists.

His paintings were out of harmony with the prevailing fashion for abstraction, but he won the Wynne prize for landscape painting in 1961 and 1964 (shared). Perhaps the most moving works of Strachan's last ten years were the mining landscapes, including those he painted near Hill End, leading up to his vast canvas, 'Lewers Freehold Mine'. This was a history picture, depicting the mine as it might have appeared in 1874. He presented it to the Creswick Historical Museum in 1970 in memory of his father.

Strachan died from injuries received in a motorcar accident on 23 November 1970 on the Hume Highway near Yass and was cremated. His family preserved the interior of his Sydney home much as he had left it, with the atmosphere of dusty, lived-in antiquity that he loved so much. As an artist, his closest affinity was probably with the French Symbolist Odilon Redon. Strachan's work is represented in public and private collections throughout Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Thomas, David Strachan, 1919-1970, exhibition catalogue (Syd, 1973)
  • L. Klepac, B. Pearce and J. McDonald, David Strachan (Syd, 1993)
  • Art and Australia, 8, Mar 1971, p 330, 10, Apr 1973, p 332
  • Hemisphere, 20, Oct 1976, p 19
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 June 1973
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Jan 1993, 'Good Weekend'
  • H. de Berg, interview with David Strachan (transcript, 1962, National Library of Australia)
  • Strachan papers (Art Gallery of New South Wales Archives).

Citation details

Barry Pearce, 'Strachan, David Edgar (1919–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/strachan-david-edgar-11786/text21083, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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