Lurg’s outback artist
Coo-ee is a regular column highlighting events in Benalla’s history.
Hugh Sawrey was born in Queensland in 1919. After he left school, he worked in cattle stations across the outback.
When World War II started, Hugh served with an RAAF unit flying Catalina flying boats.
After the war, he bought a property but his business failed in 1947.
Hugh then lived at Holdfast at Kogan on the Darling Downs with his mother.
Hugh worked in outback Queensland to help balance the budget — droving, shearing and horse-breaking.
Around campsites at night, Hugh painted, at first, with charcoal from the campfires.
As he grew more confident, Hugh began to paint murals in Queensland pubs.
In Kogan, he also painted murals on local buildings to help pay bills.
In 1950, Hugh married his first wife, Betty.
On their wedding night, they argued over her terrier. Betty left Hugh over the dog.
Four years later in 1954, they divorced.
In 1964, Hugh decided become a full-time artist.
He moved to Brisbane where he studied under Caroline Barker.
She had taught artists like Betty to
Churcher and Margaret Olley. He took lessons with her for two years.
The year he moved to Brisbane, he met horse-mad Gill from Tasmania, 25 years his junior. They married in 1964.
Sawrey painted the fast-disappearing station life that he had experienced during his time in the outback.
He also painted paintings based on Banjo Patterson’s poems, mostly as murals on pub walls.
His work was impressionist in style, often with almost abstract backgrounds.
By 1972, Sawrey’s art was becoming financially successful.
Gil and Hugh established a quarter horse stud at Coomera, then at Boonah in the Gold Coast hinterland.
They christened it the
Gradually, Hugh and his wife took part in cutting competitions that showed off the quarter horse to advantage. Gill was a particularly successful rider.
In 1978, they sold up at Boonah and moved their quarter horse stud and cutting school to a property at Lurg.
Sawrey continued to paint prolifically, including a series based on the life of Ned Kelly.
His paintings have continued to increase in value and are widely exhibited.
The highest price for one of his paintings was $167,900 in 2015.
Sawrey often returned to Kogan to keep in touch with friends like Nelson “Darkie” Dwyer, former Kogan publican and to promote the idea of an Australian
Stockman’s Hall of Fame to be erected at Longreach with the help of R.M. Williams.
It took the sale of several of Sawrey’s paintings as initial seed capital but the Hall of Fame was opened in 1988 by the Queen.
It is a a memorial to explorers, overlanders, pioneers and settlers of outback Australia. That year, Sawrey was awarded a CBE.
Hugh Sawrey died in Benalla in 1999. Gill Sawrey died here in 2021.
Hugh Sawrey is commemorated in Kogan with a life=size sculpture.
Titled Bush Friendship, it shows Sawrey with “Darkie” Dwyer.
It depicts the two men sitting across a table from one another, playing cards.
— John Barry, Coo-ee