Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

The Voy­age, First Day (1992). Cairns Re­gional Gallery Col­lec­tion. Ac­quired 1999. On dis­play, Cairns Re­gional Gallery, Queens­land.

IN 1985, Alan Old­field was vis­it­ing Moss­man, just north of Port Dou­glas in trop­i­cal Queens­land, when he came across an old book in his ho­tel room about the life of Mary Wat­son. He was so in­spired by her tragic story that over 13 years he painted The Story of Mrs Wat­son, a se­ries of 15 works.

Wat­son was 21 in 1881. She’d been mar­ried for less than two years and had a four-month-old baby named Fer­rier. She lived with her hus­band, a fish­er­man who har­vested beche-de-mer, or sea cu­cum­bers, on re­mote Lizard Is­land, off the coast of Cooktown. Un­be­known to Wat­son and her hus­band, how­ever, they had built their home on a sa­cred site of the lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple.

When Wat­son’s hus­band left on an ex­tended fish­ing trip, a group of in­dige­nous peo­ple ar­rived on the is­land to con­duct a cer­e­mony. Up­set by the pres­ence of Wat­son and two Chi­nese ser­vants, they killed one ser­vant and in­jured the other. Wat­son, her baby and the in­jured ser­vant, Ah Sam, es­caped Lizard Is­land in the only thing that could float, a beche-de-mer tank. With only a few ra­tions, an um­brella and some clothes, they drifted for eight days over 60km be­fore land­ing on a coral atoll, where they un­suc­cess­fully tried to find wa­ter.

Dur­ing this time, Wat­son kept a di­ary. The last en­try reads: ‘‘ Oc­to­ber 11. Ah Sam gone away to die, have not seen him since 9th. Fer­rier more cheer­ful. Self not feel­ing well. Have not seen any boat of any de­scrip­tion. No wa­ter. Nearly dead with thirst.’’

Wat­son and Fer­rier’s bod­ies weren’t found un­til Jan­uary 1882. She was curled up in­side the boat, her baby at her breast. The di­ary and a loaded re­volver were dis­cov­ered by her side.

At Cooktown it was as­sumed Wat­son had been kid­napped and killed and so, in re­tal­i­a­tion, po­lice and na­tive troop­ers shot about 150 Cape York Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple who were not in­volved with the Lizard Is­land at­tack.

Old­field’s se­ries, The Story of Mrs Wat­son, is part of the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of the Cairns Re­gional Gallery, and when I visit, one of the most mem­o­rable paint­ings, The Voy­age, the First Day, is shown to me by the gallery’s di­rec­tor, An­drea May Churcher. It de­picts Wat­son, her baby in her arms, and Ah Sam look­ing back to­wards Lizard Is­land from which they have just es­caped.

‘‘ Old­field has painted a sym­bolic nar­ra­tive,’’ ex­plains Churcher. ‘‘ For Old­field, the story of Mary Wat­son is about that sense of loss and in­no­cence. It is very much about the idea of some­one be­ing in a for­eign land, and it’s about the clash of cul­tures. It was a tragedy on both sides, with the mas­sacre of hun­dreds of in­dige­nous peo­ple.

‘‘ In The Voy­age, First Day, they seem ma­rooned there in the mid­dle of nowhere; there is that ter­ri­ble sense of hope­less­ness. Old­field re­ally cap­tured that vast­ness, open­ness of the land­scape. And there is this amaz­ing in­ten­sity of colour, which is dif­fi­cult to cap­ture with­out it be­com­ing like a sou­venir brochure.’’

The Story of Mrs Wat­son was the artist’s last ma­jor se­ries of paint­ings. Old­field, who was born in 1943, had an eclec­tic ca­reer. Ini­tially, he im­pressed with his hard-edge colour field paint­ings. He was, for in­stance, picked to show in the ground­break­ing ex­hi­bi­tion The Field at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria in 1968. But in­flu­enced by the Ital­ian Re­nais­sance and his re­li­gious faith, from the 1970s he turned to more fig­u­ra­tive work. He trav­elled ex­ten­sively over­seas, es­pe­cially with his part­ner, Jim Davenport.

Old­field was on the full-time lec­tur­ing staff at the Univer­sity of NSW’s Col­lege of Fine Arts, and he also pro­duced set and cos­tume de­signs for the Aus­tralian Bal­let and the Syd­ney Dance Com­pany. He died from can­cer in 2004.

Oil, acrylic on can­vas board. 305mm x 380mm

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