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Ian Fairweather (1891–1974)

by Janet Hogan

This article was published:

Ian Fairweather (1891-1974), by Geoff Hawkshaw

Ian Fairweather (1891-1974), by Geoff Hawkshaw

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23531589

Ian Fairweather (1891-1974), artist, was born on 29 September 1891 at Bridge of Allan, Stirlingshire, Scotland, youngest of nine children of James Fairweather, deputy surgeon general, Indian Medical Service, and his wife Annette Margaret Dupré, née Thorp. From the age of six months Ian was raised by Scottish aunts until his parents returned from India in 1901. Educated in London, on Jersey (where the family lived) and at Champéry, Switzerland, he joined the British Army and was commissioned in June 1914. Two months later he was captured in France by the Germans. Between unsuccessful escapes, Fairweather read E. F. Fenollosa and Lafcadio Hearn, studied Japanese, began drawing, and illustrated prisoner-of-war magazines. While billeted at The Hague in 1918, he studied briefly at the Academy of Arts and privately with Johann Hendrik van Mastenbroek. Resigning his commission in 1919, Fairweather enrolled at the Commonwealth Forestry Institute, Oxford, before studying (1920-24) under Dr Henry Tonks at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, where he was awarded second prize for figure drawing in 1922. At nights he studied Japanese, then Chinese, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. About this time he met H. S. Ede who was to be a lifelong friend and supporter. From 1925 until 1927 Fairweather painted with a patron, though only four canvases—the only canvases he ever painted—resulted.

Having been employed as a farm labourer in Canada in 1929, he departed in May for Shanghai, China, to work, travel and paint. When he reached Bali in March 1933, he painted full time. Fairweather visited Western Australia and Colombo before arriving in Melbourne in February 1934. The exceptional quality of his work was immediately recognized by the art entrepreneur Gino Nibbi, and by local artists such as George Bell, 'Jock' Frater and Arnold Shore. Fairweather's work was presented for sale at Cynthia Reed's gallery in March. After six months unfinished work on a mural for the Menzies Hotel, he left Melbourne abruptly. Travelling through Sydney and Brisbane to the Philippines, he painted at Davao for a few months before returning to China. He lived in abject poverty, away from other Westerners, and at times was reduced to working with Chinese chalks. Much of his time was spent in absorbing the methods of calligraphy. In April 1936 he left China; he visited Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Borneo and the Philippines. Most of the work he did in 1937 was destroyed by a fire in his room in Manila. He suffered lead-poisoning, and part of the little finger on his right hand was removed following infection from an injury.

Meanwhile, through Ede's influence a successful exhibition of Fairweather's work was held at the Redfern Gallery, London; it was followed by exhibitions in 1937 at the Carnegie Institute's 'International', Pittsburgh, United States of America, and at the National Gallery of Victoria. In September 1938 Fairweather sailed for Australia and at Sandgate, near Brisbane, rented the Beach Theatre, a disused cinema, 'the most perfect studio I . . . ever had'. He could not afford conventional painting materials, so used a concoction of borax and water-glass, but 'mostly it fell off'. Disheartened, he went to Cairns in June 1939. He was unable to find work and initially lived with the Aborigines. His first known Australian subjects were two landscapes, 'Alligator Creek, Cairns'. Two figure studies, 'Portrait' and 'Lads Boxing', placed him among the first major Australian artists 'who felt merit in painting Aborigines or Islanders without condescension'. Because he had become allergic to oils, these paintings were his last in that medium. He turned to gouache, which encouraged his use of unstable surfaces.

In May 1940 Fairweather left Australia to support Britain's war effort. He was given a desk-job in censorship at Singapore, and another at Calcutta, India, and was appointed temporary captain in a prisoner-of-war camp for Italians, at Bombay. Following his discharge, he returned to Melbourne on 1 June 1943. His work had been exhibited in London, at the National Gallery in 1940 and the Redfern Gallery in 1942. He went north to Cooktown, Queensland, where difficulty in obtaining painting materials forced him to experiment with both soap and casein. At Sandgate, Brisbane, he applied unsuccessfully for the directorship of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, then became a labourer in an aircraft factory. In March 1945 he embarked in an old lifeboat, landed by chance on nearby Bribie Island, and found 'the idea of the bush that haunted me in India and brought me back here against all reason'. He stayed seven months, but, after the theft of his diaries, moved to Melbourne and to Lina Bryans's Darebin studio at Heidelberg. There he lived among other artists and worked tirelessly for two years, seemingly content. Most of the gouaches he produced were irretrievably damaged before reaching the Redfern Gallery.

At the end of 1947 Fairweather went back to Cairns and later sent his work to the Macquarie Galleries, Sydney. In September 1949 the gallery organized a solo exhibition, and subsequently showed his work almost annually until 1970. In 1949 he moved off again, through Bribie and Townsville to Darwin, where he lived in an old boat during 1951-52. His relatively scarce drawings mostly date from this Cairns-Darwin period. On 29 April 1952, having carefully studied seamanship and navigation, he set out for Timor in a small raft which he had made from discarded materials. After almost perishing, he collapsed on the beach at Roti, Indonesia, sixteen days later. He was interned, shunted to Timor, Bali and Singapore, then (apparently after diplomatic intervention) placed in a home for derelicts whence he was repatriated to England. It was some five years before direct references to the raft experience appeared in his painting (including 'Lit Bateau' and 'Roti'). In England, Fairweather dug ditches to help repay his passage, but his 'strange experience going home after twenty-five years . . . wasn't a happy one'.

Eventually his relations funded his return to Australia. Reaching Sydney in August 1953, he headed straight to Bribie, 'glad to be back in the sun . . . in the friendly bush'. On a site affording him almost complete solitude, he erected two Malay-style thatched huts of local bush materials in which to live and work. 'Roi Soleil' (1956-57) began his larger works. From mid-1958 Fairweather used synthetic polymer paint, often mixed with gouache; thereafter his works were generally more stable. Thirty-six abstract paintings sent to the Macquarie Galleries in 1959-60 are among Australia's finest. 'Last Supper' (1958) was the first of his great religious subjects; 'Monastery' (1961) won the John McCaughey Prize in 1966; and his largest, 'Epiphany' (1962), Fairweather thought his best. His exhibition at the Macquarie Galleries in August 1962 remains significant in Australian art history. From early 1963 Fairweather devoted more time to translating and less to painting: he translated and illustrated The Drunken Buddha (1965). His painting, 'Turtle and Temple Gong', won the W. D. & H. O. Wills prize in 1965. A travelling retrospective exhibition of eighty-eight of his works, mounted by the Queensland Art Gallery that year, enabled Fairweather to see, for the first time, his paintings publicly shown. His work had also been included in the Bienal de Sao Paulo, Brazil (1963), and toured Europe with 'Australian Painting Today' (1964-65) and Asia with 'Contemporary Australian Paintings' (1967-68).

Bribie's increasing accessibility and tourist appeal—acknowledged in 'Barbecue' (1963)—together with the publicity that surrounded his exhibitions, prompted Fairweather to leave Australia on 7 August 1965. He went to Singapore and India, then returned in September. One year later he flew to London, where he contemplated establishing a studio. Realizing that he was a misfit, he came back to Bribie. He briefly resumed abstract painting in 1968, producing his last great work, 'House by the Sea'. In 1973 his fellow artists bestowed on Fairweather the International Co-operation Art Award for his outstanding contribution to art in Australia. About 1970 publicity had prompted investigations which revealed that he owed a five-figure sum to the taxation office. Fairweather's inability or unwillingness to accept his increasing income had prompted the Macquarie Galleries to establish a trust account on his behalf. The realization of his financial security came too late for his enjoyment. Plagued by arthritis and cardiac disease, from 1969 he had found it hard to stand and paint (in his customary manner) over a low, flat table. He died on 20 May 1974 in Royal Brisbane Hospital and was cremated with Presbyterian forms.

Fairweather's work is held by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, all State and many regional galleries, the Tate gallery, London, the Leicester art gallery and the Ulster museum, Belfast. Many influences affected him, including Turner, Cézanne, Chinese culture and Buddhism. Chinese calligraphy, Post-Impressionism, cubism, abstraction and Aboriginal art strengthened and individualized his style. The content of his work was significantly autobiographical, and mostly reflective. A master colourist, he used colour sparingly. Starting as a landscape painter, he became more interested in figures, almost exclusively in people 'generally speaking'. 'MO, PB and the Ti Tree' is a rare portrait of individuals. He worked slowly, making many alterations as ideas occurred to him, whether by day or at night. 'Painting to me is something of a tightrope act; it is between representation and the other thing—whatever that is. It is difficult to keep one's balance'. A tall, slim figure, with intense blue eyes, Fairweather had a shy, gentle and dignified manner. He resented interference with his style of life, which was reclusive, self-disciplined, austere, and determinedly unrestrained by society. His painting, an 'inner compulsion', was self-consuming—'It leaves no room for anything else'.

Select Bibliography

  • Queensland Art Gallery, Fairweather: A Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue (Brisb, 1965)
  • C. McGregor et al, Australian Art and Artists in the Making (Melb, 1969)
  • N. Abbott-Smith, Ian Fairweather (Brisb, 1978)
  • M. Bail, Ian Fairweather (Syd, 1981)
  • Philip Bacon Galleries, Ian Fairweather, exhibition catalogue (Brisb, 1984)
  • Niagara Galleries, Ian Fairweather: Paintings & Drawings 1927-1970, exhibition catalogue (Melb, 1985)
  • Film Australia, 'Contemporary Painting, 1950-1979', video (Syd, 1989)
  • G. Dutton (compiler), Artists' Portraits (Canb, 1992)
  • Art and Australia, 12, no 7, July-Sept 1974, p 40, 21, no 3, Autumn 1984, p 337
  • I. Fairweather: artist biography files and confidential files (Queensland Art Gallery Library, Brisbane).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Janet Hogan, 'Fairweather, Ian (1891–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ian Fairweather (1891-1974), by Geoff Hawkshaw

Ian Fairweather (1891-1974), by Geoff Hawkshaw

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23531589

Life Summary [details]


29 September, 1891
Bridge of Allan, Stirlingshire, Scotland


20 May, 1974 (aged 82)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.