Russell Drysdale

Sir George Russell Drysdale, AC (7 February 1912 – 29 June 1981), also known as "Tass Drysdale", was an Australian artist. He won the prestigious Wynne Prize for Sofala in 1947,[1][2] and represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1954. He was influenced by abstract and surrealist art, and "created a new vision of the Australian scene as revolutionary and influential as that of Tom Roberts".[3]

Sir Russell Drysdale

Russell Drysdale with some canvases, taken by Australian photographer Max Dupain
Born(1912-02-07)7 February 1912
Died29 June 1981(1981-06-29) (aged 69)
EducationGeelong Grammar School
Known forPainter
Notable work
Moody's pub (1941)
The Drover's Wife (1945)
Sofala (1947)
The cricketers (1948)
West Wyalong (1949)
AwardsWynne Prize 1947 (Sofala)

Early life and career

George Russell Drysdale was born in Bognor Regis, Sussex, England, to an Anglo-Australian pastoralist family, which settled in Melbourne, Australia in 1923. Drysdale was educated at Geelong Grammar School. He had poor eyesight all his life, and was virtually blind in his left eye from age 17 due to a detached retina (which later caused his application for military service to be rejected).[4]

Drysdale worked on his uncle's estate in Queensland, and as a jackaroo in Victoria.[1] A chance encounter in 1932 with artist and critic Daryl Lindsay awakened him to the possibility of a career as an artist. Supported by a fellow artist, Drysdale studied with the modernist artist and teacher George Bell in Melbourne from 1935 to 1938. He also made several trips to Europe; during 1938–39, he attended the Grosvenor School in London and the Grande Chaumière in Paris.[5] By the time of his return from the third of these trips in June 1939 Drysdale was recognised within Australia as an important emerging talent, but had yet to find a personal vision. His decision to leave Melbourne for Albury and then Sydney in 1940 was instrumental in his discovery of his lifelong subject matter, the Australian outback and its inhabitants. Equally important was the influence of fellow artist Peter Purves Smith in guiding him towards his characteristic mature style with its use of desolate landscapes inhabited by sparse figures under ominous skies.


Drysdale's 1942 solo exhibition in Sydney (his second in point of time; his first had been in Melbourne in 1938) was a critical success, and established him as one of the leading Sydney modernists of the time, together with William Dobell, Elaine Haxton, and Donald Friend. In 1944, The Sydney Morning Herald sent him into far western New South Wales "to illustrate the effects of the then-devastating drought".[6] With his series of paintings of drought-ravaged western New South Wales and, later, a series based on the derelict gold-mining town of Hill End, his reputation continued to grow during the 1940s. Sofala, a painting of the nearby town of Sofala, won the Wynne Prize for landscape in 1947.[7] His 1948 work, The cricketers has been described by the National Gallery of Australia as "one of the most original and haunting images in all Australian art."[8]

London 1950

His 1950 exhibition at London's Leicester Galleries, at the invitation of Sir Kenneth Clark, was a significant milestone in the history of Australian art. Until this time, Australian art had been regarded as a provincial sub-species of British art; Drysdale's works convinced British critics that Australian artists had a distinctive vision of their own, exploring a physical and psychological landscape at once mysterious, poetic, and starkly beautiful. The exhibition initiated the international recognition of Australian art that quickly came to include Dobell, Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Clifton Pugh, and others who came to national and international prominence in the 1950s.

Last years

Drysdale's reputation continued to grow throughout the 1950s and 1960s as he explored remote Australia and its inhabitants. In 1954, together with Nolan and Dobell, he was chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale, and in 1960, at Bouddi near Gosford, New South Wales. Also in 1960, he was the first Australian artist to be given a retrospective by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.[9]

In 1962 he co-wrote a travel book, Journey Among Men, with Jock Marshall. They dedicated it to their wives, "who were good enough to stay at home".[9]

In 1963 the Reserve Bank of Australia, then led by H. C. Coombs, appointed him to a small committee supervising the note designs for the new Australian decimal currency (which finally came into fruition in 1966).[10]

In 1969, Drysdale was knighted for his services to art, and in 1980, he was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia.[11] His later years saw a marked falling off in the quantity of his output, which had never been large.[12]

Drysdale died in Sydney on 29 June 1981. At his request, Sir Russell's cremated remains were placed in the shade of a tree by the church in the burial ground beside historic St Paul's Anglican Church, Kincumber.

Personal life

He was married twice, and had a son, Tim, and a daughter, Lynne. Tim took his own life in 1962, aged twenty one, and the following year, Drysdale's wife Bon also committed suicide. In 1964 Drysdale married Maisie Purves Smith, an old friend.[13]

Soon after Tim's suicide, Drysdale made the acquaintance of the composer Peter Sculthorpe, who had recently lost his father. The two spent a working holiday together in a house on the Tamar River in Tasmania, and became lifelong friends. Sculthorpe came to regard Drysdale as a role model, admiring the way he reworked familiar material in new ways. He said: "In later years he was often accused of painting the same picture over and over again. But his answer was that he was no different to a Renaissance artist, striving again and again to paint the perfect Madonna-and-Child. Since then, I've never had a problem about the idea of reusing and reworking my material. Like Tass, I've come to look on my whole output as one slowly emerging work". He dedicated works to Russell Drysdale and to the memory of Bonnie Drysdale.[14]

Drysdale's second wife Maisie was the sister-in-law of the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, with whom Peter Sculthorpe discussed collaborating on an opera based on the Australian adventures of the Irish actor Gustavus Vaughan Brooke.[14]

Style and themes

Australian art scholar and gallery director Ron Radford argues that, towards the end of World War II, Drysdale triggered "'a general reddening' of Australian landscape art".[6] Radford describes Drysdale's work as follows: "His dried up earth suggested that man had lost control of the land - nature had fought back and taken back".[6] Drysdale's Australia was "hot, red, isolated, desolate and subtly threatening".[6] His The Drover's Wife "cohabits in Australians' minds with Sidney Nolan's Carcass paintings" as conveying a sense of desolation.[6] Drysdale's red presents "a landscape deeply, intrinsically inhospitable" and conveys the "utter alienation" of the figures he paints in the landscape.[6]

Drysdale's use of colour photography as an aide-mémoire was the subject of an exhibition in 1987 at the NGV and publication which reveals in previously unknown photographic imagery this method of working and his stylisation in interpretation of subject matter and specific locations.[15]

Christine Wallace suggests that Drysdale "was the visual poet of that passive, all-encompassing despair that endless heat and drought induces", but that it was Sidney Nolan who, with a similar view, "most powerfully projected this take on Australia to the outside world".[6]

Lou Klepac, summing up in his 1983 work on Drysdale, says: "He found in the common elements of the landscape permanent and moving images which have become part of the visual lingua franca of modern Australia...Those who see in Drysdale's paintings a world remote from the comforts and pleasures they depend on, feel that he depicts loneliness and isolation. To him it was the opposite, a liberation from the anguish of the civilised world."

In June 2017 one of Drysdale's last works, Grandma's Sunday Walk (1972), sold for $2.97 million, "the fifth-highest price for any Australian artwork at auction".[16]

See also


  1. Short, John Rennie (2005). Imagined Country: Environment, Culture, and Society. Syracuse University Press. p. 211. ISBN 0-8156-2954-0.
  2. Drysdale, Russell (1947). "Sofala". AGNSW collection record. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Retrieved 9 May 2016.
  3. Osborne, Harold, ed. (1970) Oxford Companion to Art, Oxford, Oxford University Press
  4. Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved 21 December 2017
  5. "Drysdale, Russell (1912–1981)". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 10 August 2007.
  6. Wallace, Christine. "Clean, orderly and laminex coloured" (PDF). Griffith Review. 19 (Re-imagining Australia).
  7. "Wynne Prize". AGNSW prize record. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Retrieved 16 February 2014.
  8. "The cricketers". Federation: Australian art and society. National Gallery of Australia. Retrieved 31 August 2009.
  9. John McDonald, "The past master", Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April 1998, Spectrum, p. 12s
  10. Reserve Bank of Australian Museum: Alternative Decimal Banknote Designs. Retrieved 21 December 2017
  11. "Sir Russell Drysdale (1912–1981)". Eva Breuer Art Dealer. Archived from the original on 30 December 2012. Retrieved 10 August 2007.
  12. "Russell Drysdale 1950-81". ABC and NGV. Retrieved 15 January 2016.
  13. Russell Drysdale 1950–1981 Archived 25 July 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  14. Graeme Skinner, "Pete and Tass; Sculthorpe and Drysdale", ABC Radio 24 Hours, August 1997, p. 34
  15. Boddington, Jennie & Drysdale, Russell Sir, 1912-1981 & National Gallery of Victoria (1987). Drysdale, photographer. National Gallery of Victoria , 1987, Melbourne
  16. Russell Drysdale's outback painting Grandma's Sunday Walk sells for $3m at auction ABC News, 25 June 2017. Retrieved 26 June 2017.

Further reading

  • Klepac, Lou (1983). The Life and Work of Russell Drysdale. Bay Books. ISBN 0-85835-685-6.. Republished as Russell Drysdale in 1996 by Murdoch Books (ISBN 0864115237)
  • Smith, Geoffrey (1997). Russell Drysdale 1912–81. National Gallery of Victoria. ISBN 0-7241-0197-7.
  • Dutton, Geoffrey (1981). Russell Drysdale: A Biographical and Critical Study. Angus & Robertson. ISBN 0-207-14430-3.
  • Dutton, Geoffrey (1989). Russell Drysdale 1912–1981: A Biographical Sketch. Mallard Press. ISBN 1-86325-801-9.
  • Drysdale, Russell (1974). Russell Drysdale's Australia. Ure Smith. ISBN 0-7254-0212-1.
  • Drysdale, Russell (1981). Drysdale Drawings (1935–1980: 16–31 March 1981). Melbourne: Joseph Brown Gallery. ISBN 0-9595056-1-X.
  • Drysdale, Russell (1985). Russell Drysdale: Paintings, 1940–1972. New South Wales: S.H. Ervin Museum and Art Gallery, National Trust of Australia. ISBN 0-909723-63-X.
  • Da Costa, Caroline (1989). Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend : works on paper and selected paintings by two highly acclaimed Australian artists, 23 November – 16 December 1989. Savill Galleries. ISBN 0-9587524-1-9. OCLC 27615173.
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