Fred Williams’s Pilbara series

Fred Williams first visited the Pilbara with his family in May 1979, at the invitation of his friend Sir Roderick Carnegie, Chairman of CRA Limited (now Rio Tinto). Excited by the unique qualities of this ‘new’ landscape and inspired by the possibilities it presented, the artist and his wife, Lyn, visited again in early June. By mid June, Williams had produced almost one hundred gouaches depicting the dramatic landscape of this remote area in Australia’s far north-west. Painted both on-site and in Williams’s Melbourne studio, the gouaches encompass the grand, impressive aspects of the landscape – including gorges, mountains and the fascinating flat-topped mesas – as well as intimate studies of spiders in their webs, and local wild flowers. Many of the gouaches are naturalistic and, in essence, document the landscape, depicting subjects from various viewpoints and at different times of the day. Others reveal the development of Williams’s vision of the Pilbara, as that vision was refined and clarified through the process of painting and the intervention of distance and memory. 

The distillation of Williams’s physical and emotional experience of the region continued in the Pilbara paintings, which he produced very quickly some two years later, between March and May 1981. The paintings adopt close-up and aerial perspectives, propelling the viewer into and across the landscape, and often incorporate compositional devices familiar from Williams’s earlier work. Large in scale and striking in colour, they are powerfully evocative of the Pilbara and, in many ways, operate as both symbolic and representational depictions of inland Australia. 

Rio Tinto’s magnificent donation of eighteen gouaches and thirteen paintings, selected by the artist from his Pilbara series and acquired by CRA Limited in November 1981, represents the most significant corporate gift ever made to the National Gallery of Victoria. Having been kept intact, this group of works possesses the unique ability to illustrate both Williams’s more immediate response to the landscape and the process through which he developed a distilled and enduring visual interpretation of it. The Rio Tinto gift also makes a significant addition to the Gallery’s representation of Williams’s late works. 

Kirsty Grant