Looking Directly at The Sun – Lloyd Rees

Is it possible for a painter to transform the way we experience the natural world? For us, Lloyd Rees and his painterly perspective has done just that. His paintings shifted in us the way we ‘see’ our Australian landscape. Growing up as we did, under the influence of Rees’ painterly and melodious lines, his playful light – his work has somehow become part of our mind’s eye, and we have been forever changed.

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Left: Lloyd Rees by Michel Lawrence / The South Coast, 1980 – Lloyd Rees

 

Whenever we drive through Gerringong (NSW) in particular, we find it almost impossible not to see Rees’ languid strokes, those Rees-esque undulatingly hills, gently and soulfully captured. And this is after all what great art is about, the kind of art that gets in, changes the way one perceives the view around, forever noticed now through languid brushstrokes and those muted, ruddy tones.

Brett Whiteley was so inspired by Rees that he created an actual series called Lloyd Rees ‘The Road to Berry’ in homage to his capture, his genius.

For us, Lloyd Rees has taught us many times about the poetry that can be found in light, how it lifts and shapes our scape view. His delicate, arresting touch and sensual approach feels to us just as it did to him – like an ongoing search to find the synergies and harmonies between humans and nature.

‘He assimilated the atmosphere of a place and infused this into his image. He worked slowly and returned to the site day after day, often finishing his paintings in his studio and using the initial drawing as a reminder of his strong sensation in front of nature.’ – Ann Gray

 

Top: Port Jackson fig tree, 1934 / Abov: Morning on the Harbour, Hunters Hill 1951 – Lloyd Rees
 

Born in Brisbane in 1895, Rees was a brilliantly skilled painter, draftsman and printmaker originally inspired by European landscape artists such as Corot and Turner. He so lovingly and captivatingly reinterpreted these perspectives into a new, Australian sensibility, finding the sweet spot within Australiana that has gone on to inspire and inform so many landscape artists since.

Rees’ influence as a painter was enhanced through his contributions to the Sydney art world over decades. A member of the Society of Artists from 1932, Rees was also its president in the 60s and he taught painting and drawing at the University of Sydney for more than 20 years (up until the late 1970s).


‘His approach varied throughout his life from the precise analytical drawings and paintings produced during the 1920s and 30s, through the rhythmic, more sombre works of the 1940s and 50s, to the visions of light that characterised his late works.’ – AGNSW


Top: The Summit Mount Wellington 1973 / Mount Coot-Tha, 1922 – Lloyd Rees

 

Rees studied at Brisbane Technical College with contempories such as Godfrey Rivers and Martyn Roberts before moving to Sydney in 1917 to work as a commercial illustrator.

He travelled to Europe for the first time in the early 1920s and studied for a time at art college in Chelsea, London with his travels through Europe and the influences he found within the work of the European modernists, having a profound impact on his developing artistic practice.

But it was Sydney Harbour and its outreaching suburbs that provided Rees with his greatest inspiration, shaping and growing his ongoing aesthetic and his uniquely stylised Australian vision. He once described his first view of Sydney as:

‘When… the ship cleared the great cliffs of North Head and the harbour spread itself before me with all its bays and vistas, its sculptured foreshores and russet green vegetation, and later its buildings caught in the golden light with rows and rows of them defining the contours of the hills, and the whole bathed in opalescence of colour never previously seen – is it any wonder that Sydney then and there entered my heart never to leave it again …’ – Lloyd Rees, 1916

 

Top: Morning on the harbour, 1933 / Top: Bathurst landscape, 1951 – Lloyd Rees

 

In 1926 Rees married schoolteacher Winifred Dulcie Metcalfe, after a long and heartbreaking broken engagement to another woman. Dulcie died the following year, after giving birth to their stillborn child and the trauma of these events caused Rees to have a nervous breakdown which led to periods of depression throughout his life. Dulcie’s friend, Eva Marjory Pollard helped him to recover and in 1931 they married. The couple lived at McMahons Point, overlooking the harbour, and at Balls Head until 1934, when they built an ‘Italianate villa’ styled home at Northwood.

During the early 1930s Rees concentrated on small pencil drawings enhanced by delicate washes of watercolour. These smaller works came to inform and influence his flourishing signature style.

 ‘….the drawings I did were merely enough to indicate the rhythm [of the landscape]. And a lot of them haven’t even survived … I always practically invariably, however short the session, cover the whole canvas always ... I never start with a section and then move from it. I must cover the whole thing. – National Gallery


From the 1940s until the 1960s Rees was part of the Northwood group, a small group of friends who would go on painting excursions around Sydney Harbour and northwestern Sydney. Regulars of the Northwood group included Roland Wakelin, George Feather Lawrence and John Santry.

The Northwood group had no real manifesto and were considered quietly conservative at the time, given the painterly excitement happening in Europe. They tended towards a neo-impressionist sinuous style of landscape painting and were less fashionable than the Sydney abstract expressionism of the time and the Melbourne post war voices of disquiet – think Sidney Nolan and the Angry Penguin types. But Rees’ immense talents still got him noticed. He won the Wynne prize in 1950 for The Harbour from McMahon’s Point with a painting whose foundations flowed back to those earlier, ‘work up’ drawings. The best painters are always the ones who drew, drew, drew!

For us, it has to be the south coast paintings though. These are the ones that really hit us in our heart and it’s interesting to us to see Rees found inspiration in the same place as Boyd and Nolan did (both lived at various times near Berry and Cambewarra Mountain).

‘I might be out the whole morning and realise that I hadn’t looked at the subject once. I’d been looking at the picture all the time, the canvas. But the sense of environment, you know, to be working on a headland and to get the ozone off the ocean, the waves pounding, that was to me what made it so important working out of doors.’ – (from an interview with James Gleeson, 18 August 1978, National Gallery).

Rees often holidayed near Berry with his family, with his first visits dating back to the 1940s. He returned again and again over the years, eventually building a cottage, ‘Caloola’, overlooking the headland at Werri Beach. In commencing a painting Rees would find a site that attracted him ‘it finds you, not you it’, sometimes working on two pictures at once – one in the morning and another in the afternoon. It was on one of these family holidays that he painted a number of his stunning works tied to the coastal area, including The road to Berry ,1947.

 

The road to Berry, 1947 – Lloyd Rees
‘A diminutive landscape dominated by a sombre rhythmical movement painted with fluid brushstrokes, the work came to have special significance to a number of younger artists, including John Olsen and Brett Whiteley.’ – AGNSW
Rees returned to Europe again during the 50s and 60s, entranced as he was by the Mediterranean and domesticated scapes of old Italian and Greek towns. Here again he immersed himself within the European landscape view and honed his dappled touch, particularly his Turner-esque light play and his evocative, fluid and textural technique.


From the late 60s until his death, Rees found inspiration in the Tasmania landscape after his son settled there. Painting through his failing eyesight, his work became more and more expansive, more expressive. 

Visiting Central Australia for the first time in 1976, he also painted the Olgas and Uluru.

In 1982 at the age of 87, Rees again won the Wynne Prize, this time for Morning on the Derwent 1982, a subject that inspired his lithographic series Sandy Bay Set (1983-84) which charts the sensation of light passing on one sunlit day over the River Derwent in Hobart.

Rees wrote two memoirs: The Small Treasures of a Lifetime (1969) and Peaks and Valleys (1985). In 1986 he and his wife moved to Hobart to be near their son and Marjory Rees died there in 1988. In that year the Australian Bicentennial Authority named Rees one of 'two hundred people who made Australia great'.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales, which holds the most comprehensive collection of Lloyd Rees works (of any institution), hosted two retrospectives of Rees’ work during his lifetime, in 1942 and 1969, as well as a posthumous drawing retrospective in 1995.

‘He altered his palette from warm reds and greens to light blues, pinks and yellows; he changed from painting the strong forms and sensuous curves of a scene to daring images evoking an ethereal aura of the universe. Whatever the approach, he was always concerned with the beauty of light and the way it radiates over and illuminates a landscape.’ – Ann Gray

His many sketchbooks are now held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, comprising approximately 700 images in pencil, carbon pencil, wash, watercolour and ballpoint pen.


Rees painted right up to his death in 1988, by which time he was in his nineties. His later works showed a preoccupation with the spiritual dimension of the relationship with and portrayal of the landscape, and this became the focus of his final book in collaboration with author Renée Free: Lloyd Rees: the last twenty years.

His later works show an abstraction of form and a focus on the source and effects of light on the landscape, such as in his work The Sunlit Tower, painted when he was 91 years old. This painting won him the Queensland Art Gallery’s Manton Prize in 1987. He claimed that one of the benefits of his failing eyesight in his old age was that he could look directly at the sun.

‘From quite an early age I was overwhelmed with the fact of endlessness... Planetary systems can blow up, but the universe is endless, and our little life is set in the midst of this, and everything in it has a beginning and an end... [This] gives to life a sense of mystery that is always with me’ – Lloyd Rees

Rees was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 1985. and the Médaille de la Ville de Paris in 1987 in honour of his artistic achievements.

A wonderful collection of works are available to view here.

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WORDS 

Jennine Primmer