In 1956, the 29-year-old Fred Williams returned by ship to Australia after five years in England. Disembarking at Fremantle, Western Australia, Williams was astounded by the Australian light and landscape. ‘It became obsessive with me’, he later recalled. ‘I just thought that I would like to paint some pictures of it, and I set about doing it’ (James Mollison, A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, 1989, p. 35). Until this time, Williams had predominantly been a figurative painter, but now began an intense, lifelong study of the distinctive Australian landscape.
In August 1957, Williams travelled to the New South Wales town of Mittagong. Here, surrounded by lush bushland, he further developed his ideas about landscape painting. The property where he lived and worked provided a diversity of scenery, allowing the artist to sketch and experiment with many different motifs. In Treescape, Williams reduces the composition to a simplified, schematic design, wherein the flatness of the earth, trees and sky produces a wall-like solidity and sense of monumentality. Constructed with strong verticals and horizontals, the Mittagong paintings are sombre in colour, often depicting dense walls of gum trees surmounted by high, thin horizon lines.
Treescape was one of nineteen landscape paintings that Williams exhibited at Australian Galleries in Melbourne in July 1958. The exhibition had a significant and lasting influence. As one commentator put it: ‘After viewing every landscape painting shown in Melbourne in the past decade, I would unhesitatingly suggest young Fred Williams [as the most significant local landscape painter] because of the way in which he has added to the local gum tree tradition’ (Alan Warren, Sun, 14 April 1959).
Geoffrey and Minty Hillas, important Melbourne collectors of contemporary Australian art of the period, purchased Treescape from the 1958 exhibition.