Fig. 4a 
Fred Williams

The latter half of the 1970s was a particularly busy period for Fred Williams: with his wife Lyn he made a number of trips to Europe and the United States; his exhibition schedule was crammed for long periods; and his public commitments continued unabated. In 1975 he had exhibitions of his recent paintings in Melbourne and Sydney, a large show of prints at Langwarrin (just outside Melbourne), and his work was included in painting exhibitions which travelled to Europe and China. He also received the rare accolade of an invitation to exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York. The following year brought some respite from this insistent schedule but his outdoor painting trips continued, as did his work on the Council of Trustees at the Australian National Gallery, a duty which he fulfilled vigorously and conscientiously. In May 1976 Fred and Lyn Williams travelled to Paris and Bologna and while there learned of the fire in Richmond which had damaged many of Williams’s stored paintings and all the gouaches which had been kept at the Barrett Malt Factory. In spite of this they continued to China where they journeyed for almost three weeks. The China experience had a great impact on Williams and acted as a catalyst to his imagination; he came back with a number of loose sketches and two sketchbooks, ready to throw himself into work. The China Sketchbooks are remarkable for the considered nature of the individual drawings and for the carefully poised juxtaposition of motifs across the double-page spreads; they are filled with a great variety of subjects, from landscapes to architectural details and political posters.1 A concise account of the China drawings appears in Ted Gott, Backlash: The Australian Drawing Revival 1976–1986, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 8–10, cat. nos 57–60. See also Patrick McCaughey, Fred Williams 1927–1982, Bay Books, Sydney, 1987, pp. 272–5, including illustrations of pages from the China Sketchbooks, plates 167–8. When Williams later came to describe and define the experience and to reconsider his own visual notes he chose drawing over any other medium. With drawing he could balance the conceptual and stylistic considerations as well as the descriptive aspects of the picture with the greatest economy. The resulting images are concise and stylised, with Williams working in his characteristic manner, extracting motifs from the world around him and reducing them to their pictorial essentials. As he drew the China works Williams was prompted to think about the role of drawing and its importance in artistic activity: 

I have always looked on drawing as the final critical analysis of any artist’s work. Have often thought that I have never had any idea of ‘how’ artists should be trained – but a pencil and paper tells you a whole lot – and people simply do not change – drawing exposes all. It’s certainly true of me.2 Fred Williams, Diary, 11 December 1976, quoted in Gott, p. 10. 

This observation clearly indicates Williams’s priorities, hints at his exacting standards, and reveals his perceptions about the importance of artistic consistency, whether in his own work or that of others. He identified himself as one of those artists who ‘paint the same picture all their lives’3 Williams, 20 September 1977. and felt an affinity for artists who, in various ways, did the same.

Landscapes of a Continent, Williams’s exhibition at MoMA, opened in March 1977 and occasioned his first visit to New York; he returned to Melbourne via New Zealand in early April. Back home he attempted to work as methodically as possible and went on his regular painting excursions but found the interruptions to his working routine at this time particularly frustrating. Then in August, while painting for a fortnight in the country near Canberra, he received a special gift from James Mollison, an old friend. It is noted in his diary as ‘a set (6 volumes) of Rembrandt’s draw[ing]s. very fine books & I will collect them tomorrow – a very nice gift’.4 ibid., 24 August 1977. The volumes were the second edition of Otto Benesch’s definitive catalogue of Rembrandt’s drawings.5 Otto Benesch, The Drawings of Rembrandt, 6 vols, enlarged edn, ed. Eva Benesch, Phaidon Press Limited, London, 1973. As was Williams’s practice, on his return to the studio he embarked on a process of refining his ideas and the studies made on field trips. This process of perfecting or ‘realizing’ ideas also characterises the broader patterns of his art in which theme and variation may be repeated across the various media over several years.6 Patrick McCaughey considers Williams’s practice of carrying a subject through several versions to its most complete and successful ‘realization’ to be one of the central issues of his art. See McCaughey, p. 331. Meanwhile the desire to resume drawing after a frustrating lapse from it gained momentum. He planned to focus his attention on completing a set of gouaches ‘& after this the long awaited drawings’.7 Williams, 11 September 1977. Finally, on Sunday, 18 September he reports: 

I work on and off during the day in the studio & also manage to do some copies from the Rembrandt books of his drawings – very rewarding books indeed – …Again not a very good day work-wise – but at least I spend most of the day in the studio & look in astonishment at the Rembrandt drawings & watch the themes appear and then reappear – They are the first draw[ing]s I have ever tried – or attempted to copy – it’s odd seeing that I have always been such an admirer of Daumier (& have his complete drawings). 

This is the only specific mention of Williams’s copies after Rembrandt, but it is possible that more were made on several other occasions during September.8 In his diary for 1977 Williams records that he made drawings on 22, 23 and 26 September. 

The group of drawings after Rembrandt comprises around thirteen sheets, including two ‘test’ pages: one in which he transcribes a selection of Rembrandt’s calligraphic strokes; the other in which he traces passages of tonal construction in one of Rembrandt’s drawings. The five drawings discussed here were acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria through a generous gift in 1988. Williams did not show them during his lifetime, and though James Mollison recalls the artist telling him about them he never saw the works.9 Letter from James Mollison to the author, 15 July 1988. Although these sheets may have been the first drawings Williams had ever copied in serial and systematic fashion, he had earlier done several free copies of paintings. In 1970 he had painted a version in gouache of Eugen von Guerard’s Waterfall, Strath Creek 1862,10 The gouache is now in the collection of the Australian National Gallery, Canberra. See Zara Kelly, Fred Williams: A Retrospective (exhibition checklist), Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1988, no. 293. and Landscape with black trunk, a water-colour of 1958, is a deliberate exercise after an Arthur Streeton painting, Young gums 1887.11 Williams’s water-colour is now also in the collection of the Australian National Gallery, Canberra. See Kelly, no. 252. 

Immensely knowledgeable about the history of Australian and European art, Williams was always aware that he was heir to great legacies of artistic achievement. In his earlier days he had formed a handy reference collection of postcards of works that had impressed him12 This information is documented in James Mollison’s A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams (forthcoming). and he had a large and constantly used library of art books. It was as natural for him to reach to his volume of Rembrandt’s collected drawings as it had been for Rembrandt several centuries earlier to refer to his collection of reproductive engravings after Italian Renaissance masters such as Leonardo. Copying works of art is a long-established artistic practice and a standard academic procedure; it may be a way of recording, of learning, analysing or of paying homage to another artist’s work.13 An informative, stimulating and well-illustrated account of the practice may be found in Egbert Havercamp-Begemann (with Carolyn Logan), Creative Copies: Interpretive Drawings from Michelangelo to Picasso, Sotheby’s Publications in association with The Drawing Center, New York, 1988. For an artist such as Williams copying was not a matter of mere mechanical transcription; it was an extension of his seeing and thinking. 

Yet, at the same time as he reported making these copies after Rembrandt, Williams still expressed some surprise that he should be doing so, especially as he realised that he could have done this earlier with Daumier, another artist whom he admired greatly. Though he tried to keep painting at a steady pace, both in the studio and outdoors, he felt he had reached a somewhat flat period in his work.14 Williams, 26 September 1977. Landscape was his chief though by no means exclusive concern and, with the added encouragement of his recent gift, it was to Rembrandt rather than Daumier that he turned. Williams singles out the periodic recurrence of themes throughout Rembrandt’s oeuvre – an aspect of a consistent artistic vision which he would have admired. It was a quality certainly true of his own work, a contemporary example being found among some of the China drawings which clearly hark back to his London Vaudeville subjects.15 Compare, for example, the drawing of a performing bear illustrated in McCaughey, p. 275, fig. 178, and also included in Kelly, no. 314. 

Williams had long been familiar with Rembrandt’s art; he once asserted that the National Gallery of Victoria’s impression of Rembrandt’s dry point The Three Crosses (Hind 270 iv) was the greatest work of art in the Melbourne collection.16 A comment made in conversation with the author, c. 1976. Nevertheless, it should be borne in mind that Williams had many ‘favourite’ works of art, a point which is clearly demonstrated in Mollison’s forthcoming book. He knew Rembrandt’s etchings and his experimental etching procedures very well, and this knowledge clearly informed his own etching practices.17 Williams’s claim that ‘Rembrandt had said that a plate was not lost until it had a hole in it’ should not be taken literally. It simply indicates that Williams understood the experimental impulse that drove Rembrandt to rework many of his plates through several – sometimes quite drastic – changes of state. The comment is a paraphrase and appears in James Mollison, ‘Fred Williams – Printmaking Voyages’, Imprint, vol. 23, 1–2, June 1988, p. 8.More specifically, he was also familiar with Rembrandt’s drawn and printed landscapes. In the early 1960s when he painted in the You Yangs he was attracted to a particular knoll in the area which he described as Rembrandtesque because of its scale and the clustered configuration of vegetation and buildings.18 ibid., p. 12. Nevertheless, the etching (JM 208) that followed Williams’s gouaches of the subject does not carry with it any sense of intimacy; rather, its veil of aquatint conveys a dark, romantic character more in keeping with Goya than Rembrandt. 

Williams left no indication of the sequence in which these drawings were made, and it is possible that more existed but were destroyed when he culled his works with a critical eye not long before he died. The entire Rembrandt series is annotated with the letter ‘R’ or, in a single case (A woman hanging on the gallows, fig. 5a), with Rembrandt’s name in full, and all the drawings appear to have been done on a heavy BFK Rives Velin Arches paper. Williams made no attempt to copy the drawings either to their real size or to the size in which they are reproduced in Benesch; all are invariably very much larger, though this is difficult to convey in reproduction. The scale is appropriately adjusted to the larger sheet size and, overall, it is translated with relative accuracy. A feature common to all the landscapes is the centring of the principal motif on a wide expanse of paper and the disregarding of the margins of Rembrandt’s compositions. A corollary of this is that Williams eliminates the sense of a panorama extending beyond the edges of Rembrandt’s designs. This is entirely in keeping with Williams’s practice, since he was not interested in conventions of creating spatial illusions in the representation of landscape, but more concerned with analysing pictorial construction. 

Rembrandt and Williams shared one problem in particular: how to depict the predominantly flat, featureless and unspectacular landscape of their native countries. The extent to which their solutions paralleled each other is in many ways remarkable. Both confronted the difficulties directly, making them a feature through pictorial means, creating pictorial accents and seeking essential rather than incidental qualities. However there were important divergences: Rembrandt’s landscapes tended towards the intimate; Williams’s towards the impersonal. The very decision to isolate Rembrandt’s motif in the middle of a large sheet makes the outcome less intimate. Williams had used the device of homing in on a small section of the landscape in some of his You Yang views and it remained a useful compositional principle, but he was more concerned with the depiction of immense spaces and developed a fascination for the bird’s eye or mapper’s view. 

Despite the fact that he had transcribed a compendium of Rembrandt’s calligraphic strokes on a test sheet, when it came to copying Houses among trees (fig. la) Williams made no attempt to emulate the graphic style of Rembrandt’s drawing, which Benesch describes as constructed ‘like crystallinic geologic strata… seemingly influenced by the drawing technique of the Titian circle’.19 Benesch, vol. vi, p. 253, under no. 1326. Using a pen and a brush he approaches Rembrandt as a springboard for his own experimentation and works instead in the manner of an oriental calligrapher, a reflection of his long-standing admiration of Chinese landscape painting which had been revitalised by his recent visit to China. 

There is indeed an oriental quality not only in the calligraphy but also in his manner of keeping details to a minimum and compressing the space throughout the landscapes of the Rembrandt series. In Canal with a bridge (fig. 2a) and Trees surrounding a garden door (fig. 4a) Williams uncovers and analyses the pictorial structure of Rembrandt’s drawings to reveal the skeletal design. This he does by reducing the composition to its essential elements, emphasising the main horizontal, vertical and diagonal axes and by tracing eye-paths with wash or densely applied ink. Williams recomposed Rembrandt through lessons derived from Cézanne and from his own experience of the Australian landscape whose distinctive features, according to him, were its monotony and lack of a focal point.20 Mollison, A Singular Vision. His decision to copy the View of the Amstel (fig. 3a) might therefore be seen as a natural choice. This is the most minimal of all the drawings; descriptive details are pared away, the area of sky is expanded and the space compressed. Instead of analysing Rembrandt’s drawing through passages of tone, Williams here picks out the distribution of graphic accents and chief motifs. The comparative size of the central stooping figure is diminished, and the description of human activity, which is of intrinsic importance to Rembrandt’s landscapes, is thereby relegated to a purely formal relevance. Amsterdam’s skyline disappears altogether. The space itself is made impersonal, unspecific, as Williams’s characteristic concern with pictorial structure asserts itself. 

 

A woman hanging on the gallows (fig. 5a) is one of only three figure subjects which Williams decided to copy. Unlike the copied landscapes this subject is not shifted into the distance through its placement on the sheet; it is enlarged as if viewed from closer quarters. The drawing is unusual not only for this and for the gruesomeness of its subject, but because it bears evidence of Williams’s deliberate decision to change details of Rembrandt’s composition. Rembrandt himself had made analogous but much more radical decisions on several occasions that we know of, notably when he reworked an etching plate by Hercules Seghers (Hind 266), and when he substantially retouched a drawing by Domenico Campagnola in order to strengthen and impose his own sense of articulation on the design (Benesch 1369). As a number of his figure studies suggest, Williams was interested in unusual poses and it is not surprising that he should try to copy this drawing (which had already been copied in Rembrandt’s lifetime). An examination of the technique reveals that he went about it with great care and this is perhaps the reason that it is the only sheet which is titled in full.

Although it is difficult to see because of the subtle and superbly controlled application of tone, the drawing was first prepared with a pearly film of transparent grey wash and the subject was next blocked in with graphite and additional grey wash. Then, at this late stage, Williams decided to change the position of the gibbet. Rather than starting afresh he erased it – an especially difficult task in view of the prepared ground, and an alteration that he was not able to hide. The paper’s surface in the area just below the woman’s feet is severely marked and scumbled, and the pentimenti may be seen quite clearly. By shifting the gibbet further to the left the body is allowed to swing in a macabre way rather than slump pathetically as in the Rembrandt sheet. The addition of a dark maroon ground further alters the tonal relationship established by Rembrandt and changes the mood of the piece, bringing it closer to one of Goya’s etched Caprichos than to Rembrandt’s depiction. Williams noted in his diary for Friday, 23 September that he was reasonably pleased with the day’s drawing session in the studio and that he had gone to the National Gallery of Victoria to see the Goya etchings. The etchings he saw were the complete set of first edition impressions of the Caprichos acquired a year earlier through the Felton Bequest and shown publicly for the first time.21 The exhibition was installed in the Robert Raynor Gallery from 1 September to 30 November 1977. However the point must also be made that Williams already knew these famous prints; he owned a book of the complete Goya etchings and had seen the British Museum impressions when living in London in the early 1950s. Their technique exerted a fundamental influence on his own etching manner.22 See Mollison, ‘Fred Williams’, pp. 7–8. 

There is nothing tentative about Williams’s drawings after Rembrandt; even with their occasional corrections they are confident, fluent and superbly controlled and articulated. Williams may have gazed at the reproduced drawings in astonished admiration but he approached Rembrandt on equal terms, as one master analysing another master’s craft. 

  

Irena Zdanowicz, Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1989).   

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Mrs Lyn Williams for allowing me to quote from Fred Williams’s diary, for permission to reproduce the drawings and for making several helpful comments on this essay. I am also indebted to Mr James Mollison who generously allowed me to read a typed draft of his forthcoming book, A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, and to Gerard Hayes for his remarks on an early version of the text. 

Notes

1          A concise account of the China drawings appears in Ted Gott, Backlash: The Australian Drawing Revival 1976–1986, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 8–10, cat. nos 57–60. See also Patrick McCaughey, Fred Williams 1927–1982, Bay Books, Sydney, 1987, pp. 272–5, including illustrations of pages from the China Sketchbooks, plates 167–8. 

2          Fred Williams, Diary, 11 December 1976, quoted in Gott, p. 10. 

3          Williams, 20 September 1977. 

4          ibid., 24 August 1977. 

5          Otto Benesch, The Drawings of Rembrandt, 6 vols, enlarged edn, ed. Eva Benesch, Phaidon Press Limited, London, 1973. 

6          Patrick McCaughey considers Williams’s practice of carrying a subject through several versions to its most complete and successful ‘realization’ to be one of the central issues of his art. See McCaughey, p. 331.

7          Williams, 11 September 1977.

8          In his diary for 1977 Williams records that he made drawings on 22, 23 and 26 September. 

9          Letter from James Mollison to the author, 15 July 1988. 

10        The gouache is now in the collection of the Australian National Gallery, Canberra. See Zara Kelly, Fred Williams: A Retrospective (exhibition checklist), Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1988, no. 293. 

11        Williams’s water-colour is now also in the collection of the Australian National Gallery, Canberra. See Kelly, no. 252. 

12        This information is documented in James Mollison’s A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams (forthcoming). 

13        An informative, stimulating and well-illustrated account of the practice may be found in Egbert Havercamp-Begemann (with Carolyn Logan), Creative Copies: Interpretive Drawings from Michelangelo to Picasso, Sotheby’s Publications in association with The Drawing Center, New York, 1988. 

14        Williams, 26 September 1977.

15        Compare, for example, the drawing of a performing bear illustrated in McCaughey, p. 275, fig. 178, and also included in Kelly, no. 314. 

16        A comment made in conversation with the author, c. 1976. Nevertheless, it should be borne in mind that Williams had many ‘favourite’ works of art, a point which is clearly demonstrated in Mollison’s forthcoming book. 

17        Williams’s claim that ‘Rembrandt had said that a plate was not lost until it had a hole in it’ should not be taken literally. It simply indicates that Williams understood the experimental impulse that drove Rembrandt to rework many of his plates through several – sometimes quite drastic – changes of state. The comment is a paraphrase and appears in James Mollison, ‘Fred Williams – Printmaking Voyages’, Imprint, vol. 23, 1–2, June 1988, p. 8. 

18        ibid., p. 12. 

19        Benesch, vol. vi, p. 253, under no. 1326.

20        Mollison, A Singular Vision

21        The exhibition was installed in the Robert Raynor Gallery from 1 September to 30 November 1977. 

22        See Mollison, ‘Fred Williams’, pp. 7–8.