Hugh Sawrey was a painter of the 'Outback' whose subjects reflected the independence and hardiness of country workers. Sawrey was an artist of regional Queensland whose popular appeal was predicated on these values but who was largely neglected by official art institutions.
Hugh Sawrey was born at Forest Glen, near Buderim, Queensland, in 1919, the second son of timber-getter George Sawrey and his wife, Jane. His mother was widowed by a falling branch so the young Hugh followed his mother through various station properties in outback Queensland where she worked as a cook. He left school at age fourteen and found his first job as a jackeroo at Jessievale Station in the Gulf Country and for thirty years went droving and, apart from the time he served in New Guinea during World War II, working on cattle stations in regional Queensland, the Northern Territory and the Kimberleys in Western Australia. He was largely self taught as an artist, initially experimenting with drawing with charcoal from campfires on any paper he was able to scrounge but during the 1960s when he decided on a career as an artist, took lessons from Caroline Barker and attended Jon Molvig’s drawing classes which, at that time were quite informal. Molvig ceased giving these classes in 1966.
After his war service he purchased a property but lost everything in the 1947 drought and in 1950 went to live on his mother’s property, 'Holdfast’, at Kogan Creek, 54 km north-west of Dalby. He continued sketching and completed his first significant work – a series of murals at the Kogan Creek Hotel based on themes from AJ 'Banjo’ Paterson’s poems – in 1959. The Kogan Hotel murals were auctioned at Tia Galleries, Toowoomba, 26 July 1981 after failing to sell at the Hotel on 23 August 1980.
He completed two murals for nearby Tara’s Commercial Hotel in 1960, You’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me and Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving. During his early years Sawrey executed other murals in regional hotels in exchange for accommodation including: Paterson’s bush christening in the lounge of a hotel in Barcaldine and In defense of the bush for a hotel in Emerald.
The positive reception of these murals inspired him, like many promising artists of the period, to enter art competitions in Brisbane. Sawrey submitted two works to the Redcliffe Art Contest and to the HC Richards Prize at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1961. He went to Brisbane in May 1963 to try to break into the local art scene and participated in an art competition organised by Lawrie Quinn, the host of the Royal Hotel, Queen Street – his Stock camp boys took first prize in the section. The Royal Hotel was just near the premises of Queensland Newspapers, publisher of The Courier-Mail and it was the journalists’ preferred watering hole. It was here that Sawrey met Lawrie Kavanagh who was to be his principal chronicler. The acceptance of his work by the bar’s habituates inspired Quinn to commission Sawrey to paint a series of five metre long murals based on Patersons’ Geebung polo club and Mulga Bill’s bicycle on the walls of the public bar. The hotel was demolished in 1968 to make way for Post Office Square but the murals were saved by architecture student Colin Barnett.
Apart from his paintings inspired by the 'bush poets’, Sawrey broadened his range to include portraiture. Among his portraits was a painting of a well endowed and blowsy woman which he submitted to the first Johnsonian Club Art Prize in 1963. Sawrey was furious when his work was treated disrespectfully and thought of giving up his attempt at an art career but was mollified when it was purchased by a group of members of the Club’s committee for the substantial sum of 35 guineas.
He took advantage of the publicity associated with Sir Francis Chichester’s round the world voyage 1966-67 with a painting of his boat, the Gipsy Moth, in a storm. Despite his later disavowal of publicity Sawrey further established his profile as an artist by contributing sketches to an exhibition for a Miss Australia Quest entrant, Geraldine Roffery. Keith Moore at the Grand Central Gallery became his dealer in 1964 and offered Sawrey his first solo exhibition the following year. He was commissioned for portraits of the Mayor of Mackay, Alderman J Binnington, and also for the Mayor of Dalby, Alderman RC Drew, and later exhibited a portrait of his then dealer, John Cooper of the Eight Bells Gallery, in the 1968 Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He occasionally painted other portraits in later rears. 1964 was also an important year for Sawrey as he met and shortly married the Tasmanian artist Gill Davis, who he met while she was in Brisbane to help maintain the backdrops for performances of the Tasmanian Dance Company. They had two sons, Jon and Tony.
As his art became financial successful they purchased a property at Coomera and began to establish a Quarter horse stud, transferred operations to a larger property outside Boonah in 1972 before finally moving operations to 'Bangtail’, a property outside Lurg, Banella, Victoria, in 1978. It was here that he painted a series based on the life of Ned Kelly. He recalled 'We’re living in the middle of Kelly country and I can almost feel the ghost of Ned Kelly when I’m riding in the evening’ ( Sunday Sun 8 December 1985).
'In the Forties in the Channel Country it was mainly horse work. It was open country and we mustered from one waterhole to the next. The men and women took pride in what they were doing and took pride in their gear, the belts and buckles, the stirrups, bridles and saddles. Today, it’s motorcycles and four-wheel drives, a real mechanical age. It’s a shame.’ ( The Sunday Mail , Brisbane, 2 February 1997).
This attitude, a concern to preserve the spirit of the pioneering years of the pastoral industry in Queensland, was the genesis of the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame at Longreach in western Queensland. Sawrey read about the Cowboy Hall of Fame in the USA and wanted to do something similar. In December 1974 he invited an American friend, David Briggs, to come and discuss the idea with him and registered the name on 12 December with the Department of Corporate Affairs, Brisbane. He invited the support of RM William (another great outback identity) and together they set in place the initial infrastructure for the organization. He auctioned a painting of his local hotel, The Dugandan Pub, to provide the base funding and in 1983 painted a series of works including Theplainsman and his wife (a painting of Bill and Edna Kelly of Morella) from which were produced lithographs to raise funds for the building. The Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth on 29 April 1988 and as a result Sawrey was awarded an Order of the British Empire on 14 January 1989. The success of his vision ensured that he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia on 20 January 1999 for 'his service to the preservation of Australia’s rural heritage through the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre and to the promotion of tourism’. His philanthropy was also acknowledged. Sawrey continued to support the Hall of Fame by participitating in the endurance rides from Winton to Longreach.
Sawrey’s initial inspirations were the poems of the 'bush poets’ of the late nineteenth century as it was recorded:
'Five decades ago, when he worked the Diamantina in south-west Queensland . . . [and] after a hard day’s work in the saddle, he’d join his mates around the campfire and, as the flame flickered on their faces, they would recite the poems of [Henry] Lawson, [ A.B. 'Banjo’] Paterson and [Will] Ogilvie who captured the spirit and the hazards of the bush, and the men and women who lived in it’. (Op. cit.)
In 1985 Sawrey provided the illustrations for 'The Banjo’s’ best-loved poems, a book of works which were selected by his grand-daughters. He achieved a greater profile in 1994 when his series of twelve paintings depicting the theme of Waltzing Matilda celebrated the poem’s centenary and the exhibition was opened at the National Gallery of Australia by Prime Minister Paul Keating on 12 December 1994. Subsequently the display toured around Australia in Boeing 727 jet plane owned by Ansett-ANA which was decorated with Sawrey’s painting of Waltzing Matilda . Sawrey’s appreciation of popular literary culture extended to CJ Dennis as he was commissioned to paint a series on his poem The sentimental bloke .
In 1981 Sawrey published a book, The art of Hugh Sawrey, which was launched by Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and which included a series of the exploits of the early explorers. As the decade progressed he shifted from works with a literary inspiration to paintings which connected with his experiences in the pastoral industry in Queensland and the Northern Territory. His freely executed and sketchy 'impressionist’ style gained his work a popular following.
In 1986 Sawrey’s largest painting, Tilbooroo cattle along the Paroo River, (150 × 180cm) was included in his exhibition at Galloway Galleries in Brisbane and the then Arts Minister, Peter McKecknie, lobbied unsuccessfully for its purchase by the Queensland Art Gallery. Sawrey said of his work and this painting in particular:
'I think I’ve chronicled the whole outback. It is the genuineness and stark reality of the bush that I love. The basic things inspire me, the bush itself. It absorbs my interest because out there you realise you are just nobody, just a cog in the whole business.’ ( The Courier-Mail , Brisbane, 16 July 1986)
The peak decade of Sawrey’s popularity was from 1987, with a series of exhibitions at Wyn Schubert’s Art Galleries, Broad Beach on the Gold Coast. This led to considerable activity by imitators, inspiring Sawrey to impress his thumb-print over his signature. The notable exception to his depictions of the outback was a series that he painted in Paris and exhibited in the Art Galleries Schubert in 1996.
Oral traditions were hugely important as he moved from Queensland to live in Kelly Country when he determined to paint a series on our most famous 'outlaw’.
In 1985 Sawrey produced a series of works to honour the 19th century cattle-baron Sir Sidney Kidman (1857-1935) who became the largest landowner in Australia. Kidman’s rise to fame and fortune is widely known but Sawrey depicts Kidman in relation to his vast holdings in the Channel Country. Oral traditions continued to be significant to Sawrey. How else but in an outback pub would Sawrey have heard of a stockman called 'Mudmaps’ whom he depicted discussing the movement of cattle with Sir Sidney.
Sawrey was true to the tradition of history painting in Australia. It wasn’t the epic poems of the Greeks that inspired him but Australian bush-poets; it wasn’t high moral values that were espoused but the values of mateship and it wasn’t the heroism and valour in long ago battles but the heroic effort to wrest a livelihood from the unyielding Queensland outback.
Although Sawrey lived in Victoria he maintained his close links with outback Queensland and continued touring the state for three or four months every year to build up his impressions. His paintings were executed in studios he maintained in Queensland and also in Victoria. His best documented expedition was in the company of his mate Lawrie Kavanagh and his sketches of sites and incidents along the route with Kavanagh’s text were published as Outback in 1993. A landscape depicting western Queensland was left unfinished at his death in 1999. As recorded in the numerous reports by Lawrie Kavanagh in his series 'Kavanagh’s Queensland’, published in the Sunday Mail between 1993 and 1994, Sawrey was as large a character as any he depicted.