Noel Wood's escape to the tropical paradise of Bedarra Island in far North Queensland fostered a romantic image and the colourful paintings he produced there established a considerable profile during the 1930s and 1940s.
Noel Wood was born at Strathalbyn in South Australia in 1912 the fourth and youngest son (the eldest, Rex, became a printmaker of note) born to Anglican minister the Reverend Thomas Percy Wood and Fannie née Newbury. His paternal grandfather, also Reverend Thomas Percy Wood, produced watercolours in India from 1882. Noel Wood trained at the South Australian School of Art, Adelaide under Marie Tuck and Leslie Wilkie and from his early years was regarded as a capable portrait painter. Wilkie, a portraitist of note, said that he would never be without work as long as he painted portraits. That, however, was never Wood’s interest. It appears he lived in Melbourne for a time working as a photographic model for Vogue and also produced fashion drawings.
The Reverend Wood married Noel and Eleanor Weld Skipper at St John’s Church, Monalta, South Australia on 25 August 1933 and they went to live in his brother’s small cottage 'Eumala’, on Kangaroo Island, South Australia. They stayed for about two years and Wood painted consistently. On their return to the mainland Wood provided linocuts for Chapbook issues 1 and 2 in 1935 and 1936. According to daughter Ann, they purchased a Model T Ford with the profits from three successful exhibitions in South Australia and drove to North Queensland in 1936. The couple visited Townsville and eventually, Bedarra Island, in the Family Island Group where they purchased 15 acres of land at Doorila Cove, on the north-eastern corner of the island. It was as remote an existence as he desired, as Mission Beach on the mainland was 40 minutes away by motor boat. Wood set up a series of gardens to emulated a life of self sufficiency. Two daughters, Virginia Maray and Ann Oenone, were born.
Wood began a series of successful exhibitions from the late 1930s. His images of his tropic idyll captured the public’s imagination and, at that time, he was possibly the most widely recognised artist in Australia. When the war came Eleanor and their two daughters were evacuated in 1940. They eventually settled at Woodend, Victoria and essentially maintained separate existences. Successful exhibitions were held in Brisbane and Sydney in 1946 but, unfortunately, an exhibition proposed for Sydney the following year was terminated when the paintings were lost in transit (according to daugher Ann the shipment was sent via rail). Despite this set-back Wood continued his planned trip to Europe in 1947 and, after painting in Ireland and France was living in London by March 1949 but by May 1950 was conducting art classes in Cairns. Wood travelled overseas later in the decade when he worked as an assistant art director for the film industry in the USA for two years before returning to Australia in about 1957. He stopped painting in the 1970s to devote himself to his garden.
In 1982 Sean Dixon travelled from Townsville to Thursday Island by canoe and recorded his visit to Bedarra Island:
It was here we met Noel Wood, a fascinating man of around 70 years. He had lived the life of a recluse on his island for 45 years – having travelled overseas thrice [sic] to pursue his work as an artist painter, the spell of Bedarra bound him to return. Noel built his house from driftwood and local materials, living out the fancy of a shipwrecked mariner with the island, as it was, to be the sole provider. He subsequently introduced many varieties of exotic tropical fruits and vegetables, not the least of which were the coconut palm and Taro plant, to supplement his early diet of fish and native plants. In all to create for himself the authentic 'Tropical Island Paradise’.
Wood, in fact, practiced permaculture decades before the concept was popularised in the 1980s.
Although life was difficult in the early years of Wood’s sojourn on the island, the romantic vision of his hermit-like existence, so favoured by writers when they reported on his activities, was never quite accurate. Timana Island, also part of the Family Island Group, became the winter residence of Melbourne sisters and painters Yvonne Cohen and Valerie Albiston from 1938. Another neighbour was Hugo Brassey who owned Dunk Island. A portion of Bedarra Island was acquired by a Frank Coleman in 1938 and, shortly afterwards, paying guests began to arrive on the island. Several small resorts on various parts of the island (one of which became the Bedarra Hideaway Resort in 1981) were developed in the following years. Wood’s studio, a 'true bohemian artist’s pad’, had undergone a modern makeover, “the epitome of modern minimalist luxury design by noted architects Engelen Moore” according to Elizabeth Kind in the Financial Review of 2001. By the 1980s the modern tourist world had well and truly caught up with Wood. The ABC produced a feature on his life, The island and the painter , which went to air on 12 February 1987. Wood settled in the Montville area in 1988 but soon returned to Bedarra Island. He planned to sell his parcel of land in 1993 but retired to Mission Beach in 1996. He died at the Tully Hospital on 10 November 2001.
The paintings which established Wood’s reputation reflect the bold colour and lush vegetation of the tropics. As Ross Searle in the catalogue of his 1991 exhibition at Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, Townsville remarked on the work of Cohen and Wood:
“Cohen’s painting, like that of her contemporary, Noel Wood, was more intuitive in conception and showed a far more vigorous approach use of colour and feeling for design in its treatment of the luscious vegetation. They were after all living in the most idyllic of circumstances, and were profoundly influenced by the environment.”
The developing awareness of the importance of tourism to North Queensland and its pioneering artists, demonstrated by the exhibitions `Artists in the tropics’ 1991 and `Escape artists: modernists in the tropics’ 1998, has established Wood’s profile. A profile, one must add, established on a small body of identified work. He exhibited in Brisbane and Sydney into the 1950s, and his landscape subjects of the tropical north found ready appeal when he exhibited in group exhibitions such as at the Australian Art Academy, Melbourne in 1939. Three works were included in the 'Exhibition of Queensland Art’ at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1951 and other group exhibitions include 'Queensland Artists of Fame and Promise’ (Brisbane) in 1953, and the Gold Coast City Art Prizes 1968 and 1971.
Research Curator, Queensland Heritage, Queensland Art Gallery