HORACE Trenerry is not one of the more familiar names in modern Australian painting. Casual visitors to public art collections may recall him, if at all, as the author of pale, rather bleached landscapes in opaque chalky paint with a distinctly blue cast.
The contrast with his older South Australian contemporary and acquaintance Hans Heysen, who became one of the legendary figures of Australian art, could not be more striking. Although highly able, Trenerry ( born in Adelaide in 1899) did not have Heysen’s spectacular talent and fluency, nor was he given the same opportunities to travel and study abroad; indeed he only left Adelaide for a short stay in Sydney in 1922-23, when he met the celebrated landscape painter Elioth Gruner.
Heysen was precociously brilliant; but he also had a more intangible quality that is vital if an artist is to achieve significance, and that is impersonality. Personal and intimate feelings are a necessary starting-point in the artistic process, but they must be transcended as the individual recognises the existence of a world beyond the bounds of the self, and becomes attuned to the feelings and experiences of other men and women, contemporaries as well as predecessors. Heysen, as Rebecca Andrews’s survey at the Art Gallery of South Australia demonstrates ( it closes tomorrow before opening at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery in April), was exceptionally attuned to the national mood of his time.
Trenerry, if anything, seems to have retreated into idiosyncrasy with age, exacerbated by increasing illness. He suffered from the congenital neurological disease Huntington’s chorea, whose symptoms include failing co-ordination and control over voluntary movement, so that sufferers are sometimes mistakenly thought to be drunk. Some loss of mental faculties eventually follows. When the young Jeffrey Smart met Trenerry after World War II ( as he recalls in his autobiography, Not Quite Straight ) the older man was living an impoverished, lonely and eccentric life on the coast at Port Willunga. He moved into the Adelaide Home for Incurables in 1951, where years later he died in obscurity.
It would have been difficult for anyone meeting Trenerry in middle age to imagine that 20 years earlier he had been successful and popular, even glamorous, despite his modest origins as the son of a butcher; but we can gain a more rounded picture of the artist from a small but important exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW.
Although titled The Late Landscape Paintings of Horace Trenerry, the selection includes a number of good earlier works. A new study by Barry Pearce is forthcoming, but unfortunately will not appear until later in the year. Nor does the exhibition have a catalogue, although the images can be viewed on the gallery website. The only unsatisfactory thing about this virtual exhibition is that the works are inexplicably not in chronological order: starting with the 1930s, it goes back to the ’ 20s before returning to the ’ 30s and then on to the ’ 40s.
The earliest pictures belong to Trenerry’s stay in Sydney in 1922-23, and of these the finest is Boat on the Hawkesbury : it is a composition that in many ways belongs to the end of the Heidelberg tradition, and the subject, two young women in a rowing boat in early morning light, could have been painted 10 or 20 years earlier in the Edwardian period. For an artist in his early 20s, the picture has poise and compositional gravity as well as delicacy of touch. Trenerry is especially sensitive to qualities of light and shade, to create a sense of depth and sculptural volume in the background hills, and to evoke mood.
After his return to South Australia in 1923, Trenerry moved to the village of Woodside in the Adelaide Hills, and the next decade or so was the most prosperous and successful period of his life. The pictures are small plein-air works, painted in a quick and lively manner, and it is not surprising that his exhibitions sold well.
The artist captures the character and mood of places but the tone is unassuming. Landscape with Hill and Cattle ( 1927), for example, has a few cows grazing in the middle ground while a farmhouse is perched on the hill in the background. Fences and a dirt path help to lead the eye into the distance.
The effect is at once picturesque and natural, but makes no claims to grandeur of compositional