The Rabbiter and his Family by Russell Drysdale

The Rabbiter and his Family by Russell Drysdale (1938)

I thought as I had spent the last three weeks in Australia I should feature a work by an Australian artist.  I was based in Cairns during my stay and visited a number of small galleries.  Around this area the majority of galleries were displaying indigenous art, which although very colourful, was very similar in many aspects.  The main gallery in the city was, at the time I visited it, devoted to young artists and a display by the local art society.  I think to see major works of art one has to be in either Sydney or Melbourne.  However today I am going to showcase the work of one of the leading twentieth century Australian artists, albeit he was born in England and didn’t move to Australia until he was eleven years of age.  My featured artist is George Russell Drysdale, later to become Sir George Russell Drysdale.

Russell Drysdale was born in Bognor Regis, a Sussex seaside town on the south coast of England in 1912.  His grandfather was an affluent Scottish landowner and livestock farmer as was his father, George, who built on the family wealth by carrying on working the family estate.  Drysdale’s mother, Isobel Gates was English by birth.  Russell Drysdale father had moved to Northern Queensland, Australia where he owned and ran a sugar plantation along the Burdekin River.  The rest of the family moved out to Australia to be with him four years later in 1923.   It was at this time that the family moved and settled in Melbourne and Russell boarded at the nearby Geelong Church of England Grammar School. 

In 1926 his father bought Boxwood Park, an estate in the Riverina district, a pastoral region in the south-western part of New South Wales, which was a main source of beef and wool to markets in Australia and for export.  It was also the homeland of the Aboriginal people who were thought to have settled on this land for more than 40,000 years.   In 1929 Drysdale developed a detached retina in his left eye, a condition which was to trouble him for the rest of his life and left him virtually blind in that eye. He left school and in the following year spent six months working with his uncle, Cluny Drysdale, at the Pioneer estate, later acting as an overseer at the family property, Boxwood Park, in northern Victoria while his family travelled abroad.  Russell had initially intended to follow the family tradition and become a farmer but a quirk of fate changed his destiny.  It was whilst he was an in-patient at a Melbourne hospital, recovering from eye treatment, that he amused himself by drawing in pen and ink. His doctor Julian Smith, who was an amateur photographer, showed the drawings to Daryl Lindsay, a noted artist and who would later become Director of the National Gallery of Victoria.  Lindsay was impressed by the drawings and persuaded Drysdale to consider a possible artistic career.  

In 1935, at the age of twenty-four, he enrolled at the Bourke Street Studio School of Art in Melbourne, which was run by the artist, George Bell.   Bell had a profound and lasting influence on Drysdale and twenty-five years later, at the opening of Drysdale’s retrospective exhibition in 1960, Bell proudly stated: “He is my boy”.  Thus began the road to a very successful artistic career.    In 1935 he married Elizabeth ‘Bon’ Stephen, the daughter of an old Riverina family who were also of Scottish descent and  who lived near the Drysdales in Albury. The wedding took place on Drysdale’s twenty-third birthday. They went on to have two children, a son Tim and a daughter Lynne.   After finishing the three year course in 1938 he embarked on one of his many trips to Europe, where he spent time at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris.  It was during his time in Paris that he came under the influence of the great French painters of the day such as Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse.  Drysdale was also gratly influenced by the works of the Italian painter Modigliani.

By 1939 he was looked upon as a great aspiring artist but as yet Drysdale had not decided what genre of art he should concentrate on.  In 1940 he left Melbourne and moved first to Albury, the second largest town in the Riverina and later Sydney, where the art world was awakening to European influences, and he immediately found himself at home in this artistic environment.   It was whilst living in the Riverina region that Russell focused on life in this somewhat desolate region. 

In the early 1940’s Drysdale began to illustrate the life of Australia’s rural frontiers in his own enigmatic style.  His paintings often depicted the barren ochre-hued heartland of his country and the harsh conditions experienced by the people that had to work the land.  He held his first solo exhibition in the Riddell Galleries in Melbourne in 1938 and his second four years later in Sydney.  The latter received great acclaim and at that time Russell Drysdale was acknowledged as being in the forefront of the modernist movement in Sydney.  He received many commissions including one from the Sydney Morning Herald who wanted him to do a series of works depicting the devastating drought conditions in western New South Wales and the demise of the deserted mining town of Hill End.  The series of paintings he produced immediately enhanced his artistic reputation.   

At the request of the art historian Sir Kenneth Clarke, Drysdale staged an exhibition of his work at the Leicester Galleries in London.  Up until this time, critics had looked upon Australian art and Australian artists as being simply provincial but this exhibition was to change the minds of the art critics and finally they were willing to look more carefully at the Australian art scene.  Drysdale spent much of the 1950’s and 1960’s painting scenes from the remote Australian outback.  The early 1960’s was to prove a tragic time for Drysdale as his son Tim committed suicide aged just twenty-one and the following year his wife also took her own life.  A year later in 1964 Drysdale married again, this time to Maisie Purves Smith who had been his long time friend.

 In 1969 Drysdale was knighted for his services to art and in 1980, a year before his death he was awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia. In 1980 Drysdale suffered a stroke which ended his painting career.  He died in Sydney in 1981 aged 69.

My Daily Art Display’s featured painting today is by Russell Drysdale and is entitled The Rabbiter and his Family which he completed early on in his career in 1938 and which now hangs in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra  In this painting we can clearly see that Drysdale was influenced by the work of Modigliani.  Look at the expressions on the faces of the older members of the family.  It is very obvious they are not pleased to see us and there is no question of them asking us to come and join them inside.   There is a defensive attitude about their stance with them spread out wide as if to prevent us from getting past.  It may well be that they, in this remote outback area, are unused to visitors or maybe they believe we are in some way going to force change to their lives.  It has to be said that the two young girls and the baby don’t have the same hostile expressions as seen on the faces of the mother, father and grown-up son.  They are probably too young to be suspicious of our intentions.

The son stands next to his father.  He is probably about twelve years of age.  He, like is sisters, stands before us barefooted and like his mother his head is tilted slightly sideways in a questioning expression.  His arms are folded across his chest in an uncompromising and belligerent fashion.  To the left of him is the large brown family dog who eyes us menacingly.  His young sister is next to him.  Note how she too has tilted her head in an enquiring manner.  She is somewhat concerned by our presence.  See how she wraps her arm around her father’s waist which affords her some comfort. 

In the centre of the group is the father.  His arm and hand lies protectively around the shoulder of his daughter.  His other hand is hooked into the belt around his waist.  He has the darkest skin of all the family members which is probably due to the number of hours he works outside under the ferocity of the unforgiving sun.  Next to him but slightly behind him is the mother.  She is dressed in a shapeless orange dress and on her feet she wears what look like a pair of blue bedroom slippers.  Clutched to her breastm is a very inquisitive baby, who is wrapped in a white shawl the colour of which matches the shirt worn by the son.  On the far right of the group is the younger of the two daughters whose bright reddish orange hair matches the colour of her mother’s dress and the little girl’s pale blue dress tones in with the colour of her mother’s slippers.  Finally to the right of the group is the second family dog, which show no interest in us and is concentrating on relieving an itch on the back of its neck as it scratches away unconcernedly.

In the background we have a dark-blue meadow dotted with flowers and one art historian has likened this with the designs on the Lady with the Unicorn series of tapestries which are at the Musée de Cluny in Paris.  In the background to the right of the family and in front of their yellow-walled house we see a ploughed area with vegetables.  The precious rainwater is collected in a large tin water tank which is connected to the guttering of the house.  The fields depicted in this painting are in triangular curving segments and we get a great sense of the undulation of the land.

Some say that there is a naiveté about Drysdale use of colour in this painting but maybe that is what makes the work so appealing.  Although there is a somewhat menacing look upon the faces of the elders in this picture the cartoon-like way in which Drysdale has portrayed them all has added a little humour to the scene and may in some way elicit an affectionate sentiment from us, the viewer.