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Sir George Russell Drysdale (1912–1981)

by Mary Eagle

This article was published:

Sir George Russell Drysdale (1912-1981), artist, was born on 7 February 1912 at Bognor Regis, Sussex, England, son of George Russell Drysdale, a gentleman of private means and Scottish ancestry, and his wife Isobel, née Gates, who was English. George Russell Drysdale was his grandfather. Having relinquished a commission with the Black Watch, his father returned in 1919 to Pioneer, the family’s sugar farm on the Burdekin River in northern Queensland. The family moved to Melbourne in 1923 and `Tas’, as he was known, went to Geelong Church of England Grammar School. When his father acquired Boxwood Park in the Riverina district in 1926, Tas was introduced to the inland plains that had been memorialised by novels of Tom Collins [Jospeh Furphy] and Marcus Clarke, by the work of the nineteenth-century Aboriginal artist Tommy McCrae, and by Tom Roberts’s paintings `Shearing the Rams’ and `The Breakaway’.

A detached retina was discovered in Drysdale’s left eye in 1929. In his final year at Geelong Grammar, possibly as a form of therapy, he had five sessions a week in drawing, including perspective, three-dimensional form, the art of memory, and design in plant forms. Eye exercises introduced Drysdale to art and perhaps determined his career; moreover, his great images—remarkable for their depth of space—were to be produced by one who had effective vision in one eye only.

During the spring of 1930, with a school friend, `Bunny’ Reed, Drysdale oversaw the shearing and farm work at Boxwood Park in his father’s absence, then worked for some months at Pioneer with his uncle Cluny Drysdale. After accompanying Cluny to Britain on family business in 1931, he returned to Boxwood Park. Plans to be a farmer receded in 1932 when he was recovering in a Melbourne hospital from an eye operation. Julian Smith, his surgeon and a gifted photographer, showed Drysdale’s drawings to (Sir) Daryl Lindsay, who suggested that he take lessons from George Bell. During the first few months that Drysdale attended his classes, Bell advised him against mere illustration and unreflective imitation, advocating the study of `form’ in modern art. The reproductions he showed to Drysdale had no meaning for the young man, who made an appointment to see (Sir) Keith Murdoch: the press baron squashed his aspirations to be an illustrator. Travelling in Europe in 1932-34, Drysdale took note of works of modern art and began to change his mind about its appeal.

In 1934, while working at Boxwood Park, Drysdale did some painting, including an oil of the foothills east of Albury similar in style to landscapes of the region painted concurrently by Bell and Rupert Bunny; and he courted Elizabeth (Bon) Stephen of Albury. She was knowledgeable about modern art, having travelled through Europe in 1930 with Lucy Swanton, who was to become Drysdale’s art dealer in Melbourne and later at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney. On 8 February 1935 Drysdale and Bon married in a civil ceremony in Melbourne.

After undergoing surgery on his eye that year, Drysdale re-enrolled at the Bell-Shore school, Melbourne. Bell’s teaching was towards the intellectual marriage of form and idea. In May 1937 Peter Purves Smith arrived and for seven months shared Drysdale’s working space, spurring him on in friendly rivalry. The period was decisive for both young artists. Following Tas’s first solo exhibition in April 1938, the Drysdales went to London, where he took some lessons at Iain Macnab’s Grosvenor School of Modern Art. For a time Drysdale shared Purves Smith’s studio in Paris, and bought day tickets for life drawing at the Grande Chaumière; his paintings over the next two years paid luscious homage to the School of Paris. With war threatening, the Drysdales retreated to London in October, and in April 1939 sailed for home.

In Melbourne Drysdale shared Bell’s home studio and was unwillingly drawn into acrimonious politics within the Contemporary Art Society. To his dismay he was not accepted for military service because of his eye. Doubly frustrated, he retreated with his family to Albury in mid-1940 and offered to manage Boxwood Park: its new owner, Bunny Reed, was absent on military service. Having supervised the shearing, he admitted the gesture was `ridiculous … one of the stock and station agents could do it far better’, and moved to Sydney.

According to his biographer Lou Klepac, `Drysdale felt that it was only when he got to Sydney that he really began to paint’. In his country themes, from 1941, Drysdale produced significant art. The major paintings of the next forty years commenced with `The Crow Trap’, `Man Reading a Paper’ and `Man Feeding His Dogs’ (1941). The back-country theme evolved through `Home Town’ (1943), `The Drover’s Wife’ (1945), `Sofala’ (1947), for which he won the Wynne prize, `The Cricketers’ (1948), the group portraits of Cape York Aborigines in the early 1950s, `Native Dogger at Mount Olga’ and `Basketball at Broome’ in 1958. His characteristic image throughout was the figure-in-landscape. In 1959 figures and background melded together suggestively in paintings such as `Snake Bay at Night’. The culminating work, `Man in a Landscape’ (1963), was the image of an Indigenous Australian who, as Drysdale explained to the owner, Queen Elizabeth II, was trying to hold on to his land. Unlike his contemporaries (Sir) Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, Drysdale did not incorporate literary subjects and characters from external sources into the Australian scene but sought to represent people in their places. His memorable achievement was to suggest that certain types of country Australians (from 1950 the types tended to be Aboriginal) represented a foundation for national identity.

Drysdale joined the board of Pioneer Sugar Mills (Pty) Ltd in 1947; he established strong ties with Pioneer, calling it his `spiritual home’. Through painting he expressed something of his, his father’s and grandfather’s love of the land, while retaining a wider choice than was available to those whose lives were tied to it. His art reflected the British-Australian experience, representing Australia to British as well as to Australian audiences; thus he resolved the so-called `provincial’ dilemma of whether to look for meaning within Australia or outside.

The repertoire of Australian types that he developed was at a level of myth too well understood by Australians to engender a sense that they were his personal creation. At inception his successful figures already had the stamp of myth. In sequence, exaggerated renditions of life on a country farm followed tall-story sessions with Purves Smith; images of wartime’s dislocated domesticity (cocooned soldiers sleeping uncomfortably at Albury railway station) followed his recognition of the symbolism in Henry Moore’s drawings of Londoners in underground shelters; drought and erosion subjects followed a trip to western New South Wales with the journalist Keith Newman of the Sydney Morning Herald; images of deserted mining towns were stimulated by George Farwell’s evocation of ghost towns; and a six-month journey through the north of Australia with his son, Timothy, led to totemic beings that melded human and animal. Characteristically, Drysdale remained in touch with his subjects, his mode being the daydream and the doodle by which key characters took on a life of their own. Thus the drover’s wife `Big Edna’, for example, had several incarnations in Drysdale’s art. By 1950, his practice when planning an exhibition was to use a few completed paintings to `seed’ the titles of other works, which he would then produce.

Drysdale’s career was international although, unlike other major Australian artists of his generation, Nolan and Boyd for example, he did not choose to live abroad. He was a regular exhibitor in London (at the Leicester Galleries in 1950, 1958, 1965, 1972), where he attracted critics and buyers. Like other internationally successful artists of his generation, he did not have to depend largely on public patronage. In 1941 the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, acquired `Monday Morning’ (1938) from the Art of Australia 1788-1941 exhibition then touring the United States of America, and the Tate Gallery, London, bought `War Memorial’ (1950) from Drysdale’s first London exhibition, but many of his major works were sold privately, with Sir Kenneth Clark, Captain Neil McEacharn, Kym Bonython and Edgar Kaufmann among notable collectors. Between 1942 and 1962 he had nine exhibitions at the Macquarie Galleries, Sydney. The first of many monographs about him appeared in 1951, written by (Sir) Joseph Burke, who held the Herald chair of fine art at the University of Melbourne. In 1960 a retrospective of Drysdale’s work was organised by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The creativity of his colour photographs was recognised when Jennie Boddington organised a posthumous exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Tragedy entered Drysdale’s life in the early 1960s with the suicide of his son, Timothy, in July 1962 and of Bon in November 1963. On 20 June 1964 at Holy Trinity Church of England, Millers Point, Sydney, he married Maisie Joyce Purves Smith, a librarian and the widow of his friend. They lived at Bouddi Farm, near Gosford, from 1966. A member of the board of trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1962-76) and of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board (1963-76), he was knighted in 1969 and appointed AC in 1980. Three months after a major exhibition of drawings at Joseph Brown’s gallery, Melbourne, Sir Russell died of cancer on 29 June 1981 at Westmead and was cremated. He was survived by his wife and the daughter of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Dutton, Russell Drysdale (1964)
  • M. Eagle and J. Minchin, The George Bell School (1981)
  • L. Klepac, The Life and Work of Russell Drysdale (1983)
  • J. Boddington, Drysdale Photographer (1987)
  • G. Smith, Russell Drysdale 1912-81 (1997)
  • Drysdale papers (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

Mary Eagle, 'Drysdale, Sir George Russell (1912–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 February, 1912
Bognor Regis, Sussex, England


29 June, 1981 (aged 69)
Westmead, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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