Charles Meere's art practice encompassed landscape, still life and portraiture, mural design, and black and white illustration. He is best known for his Art Deco style works of the 1930s and 1940s, in particular his iconic painting, Australian Beach Pattern, of 1940.
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Mathew Charles Meere, painter and illustrator, was born in England on 6 December 1890. He was educated at St Bonaventure’s Grammar School and the West Ham Technical Institute in London. He served with the London Regiment in World War I, on the Western Front. Hospitalised in France, he met Denise Moreau, a nurse, and they married in 1919, spending their honeymoon visiting the war graves of friends. After the war Meere obtained a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London where from 1919-22 he studied design and mural painting. A son, Desmond, was born in 1920. The family settled in the old city of Dinan in Brittany, where Denise and her mother ran a tea shop. Some of Meere’s paintings of the environs of Dinan are in the Musée du Chateau de Dinan. He also spent some time in Paris, where he attended Colarossi’s, one of several Paris ateliers that provided studio space, models, and tuition for foreign as well as local artists.
In 1927 Meere left his family and travelled to Australia, where he worked as a commercial artist for the Catts Patterson advertising agency, and for Smith and Julius at 24 Bond Street, Sydney, a hub of artistic life in Sydney. He exhibited a painting, Spring, Adelaide Park, with the Society of Artists in 1930, visited Western Australia, and returned to London, where he worked as a commercial artist with Berlei. In 1933 he moved permanently to Australia with Anne Carter, who became his second wife.
He set up a commercial art and painting studio at 24 Bond Street. His fine art painting practice encompassed landscape, still life, and portraiture. He exhibited with the Society of Artists. Douglas Dundas records that he and Meere worked well together in hanging the Society of Artists exhibitions. Meere taught figure drawing at East Sydney Technical College in the late 1930s, where, instead of the existing practice of using partially clad models, he insisted on fully nude models in accord with European practice. His commitment to traditional methods, not only in art training but also in his own art practice, appears to have insulated his work from the main stream of the modernist movements then gaining strength in Sydney, although certain of his paintings in this period are outstanding examples of Art Deco style. His East Sydney Technical College student Freda Robertshaw joined his studio in 1938 and continued to work with him until 1944, her paintings being heavily influenced by his version of Art Deco during this period.
Having submitted an entry for the 1937 Sulman Prize competition for mural painting, he publicly challenged the competence of the judges, who had stated that they had found no entry worthy of the award. He challenged on the basis of his qualifications in this field, having studied mural painting under Anning Bell, Rothenstein and others at the Royal College of Art. He went on to win the 1938 Sulman Prize, then worth £75, for Atalanta’s Eclipse, an Art Deco play on Guido Reni’s Atalanta and Hippomenes (c.1618-19). In 1939 he began his best-known work, the highly complex Australian Beach Pattern of 1940. That he exhibited the cartoon for this painting at the Society of Artists 1939 Annual Exhibition indicates the importance the work had for him. The painting itself was exhibited in the Sulman Prize competition and with the Society of Artists in 1940.
His infant son Michael, born 4 December 1938, died in August 1939, on the eve of World War II, and his first son, Desmond, is thought to have died in Paris in 1942. Wartime shortages of staff and paper led him to give up his commercial art studio. He worked as an illustrator with the Daily Telegraph from 1942, and for the Sydney Morning Herald from late 1945 to 1949. His pen-and-ink portrait of Prime Minister Ben Chifley was commissioned by the Australian Labor Party for use in the 1949 election campaign – it was published in newspapers and in the Women’s Weekly in December 1949. It became the subject of a court case when the Brisbane Courier Mail of 8 December 1949 incorporated the image, complete with Meere’s signature, into a cartoon attacking Chifley. Meere sued for damages to his reputation as an artist, and in 1951 won the case, receiving £800 from the newspaper, a sizable sum at the time.
He was one of seven artists in various media invited to submit a work for the Jubilee Art Competition announced by Prime Minister Menzies in December 1950 as part of celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Federation in 1951. He won the 1951 Wynne Prize with Never Never Creek, Gleniffer. Meere’s exhibition at David Jones’s Gallery in August 1952 attracted damning commentary from critics in the press, his cool, formal style at the nadir of fashion at that time. Through the 1950s his landscape subjects indicate travel in the Bellingen area, Lismore, and Tumut, and in 1960 a visit to Tasmania. He died in Sydney on 17 October 1961.
His artistic reputation survived the scorn of the critics in the 1950s, and the indifferent response to a retrospective exhibition of his work held at Art Lovers’ Gallery Artarmon in March 1966. His painting Australian Beach Pattern 1940 was purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1965. The National Trust purchased Triptych in the early 1970s. It is now held in the S.H. Ervin Gallery collection, along with Atalanta’s Eclipse, which was acquired by the Gallery as part of the Alan Renshaw Bequest in 1978. In 1987 a major retrospective curated by Linda Slutzkin and Dinah Dysart was exhibited at the S.H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney and at the Nolan Gallery at Lanyon in Canberra.
While the greater part of his oeuvre comprises traditional still life, landscape, and portraiture, his reputation largely rests on a few works of the late 1930s and early 1940s, when Meere came into his own as an impressive exponent of Art Deco style. Edward Lucie-Smith has described Atalanta’s Eclipse as “surely one of the most elegant and accomplished of all the high-style classical compositions produced by Deco artists”. Meere’s Australian Beach Pattern has become one of the best known and most often reproduced of all paintings in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Rich in allusion, peopled with an intricate array of monumental, idealised bodies, this compelling, enigmatic work has achieved iconic status as a representation of Australian beach life. Further notable instances of his Art Deco style are Meere’s two mural designs, Triptych c.1939 and Nymphs, Hermes and Pan c.1938, and views of Dinan painted in 1941 and 1944.