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