B r i a n G a s t o n
AWI President 1985-1989
The fact that we watercolourists constantly rave on about the purity and transparency of our medium can be attributed solely to the nobility of character which calls us to take up the sable brush and gum-bound pigments in the first place. – Brian Gaston, Foreword, AWI exhibition catalogue, 1962
In the catalogue of Contemporary Australian Watercolours: New Zealand Tour 1977-78, which comprised paintings by thirty-eight members of the Australian Watercolour Institute, Brian Gaston described himself as ‘a student of sorts for 45 years, now a frustrated painter and struggling architect.’ That self-assessment is indicative of Gaston’s laconic, self-deprecating humour that endeared him to so many.
As artist and past AWI President Frederick Bates noted in the introduction to Gaston’s solo exhibition at the Duke of Wellington Gallery in 1993, ‘Brian’s gentle, self-effacing demeanor is offset with a dry, often sardonic wit, which laced the paragraphs of the Institute’s newsletters and did much to build a camaraderie amongst watercolour artists in all states.’ In his role as AWI President, he is remembered by colleagues as ‘one of nature’s gentlemen’ and ‘the most loved and respected member of the AWI, not only as an artist but as a man.’1
An eminent architect and watercolourist, William Brian Gaston was born in Sydney on 10 September 1917 to William Gaston, salesman, and Leila Marthe Alcock. He attended Sydney Technical High School prior to enrolling in the architecture diploma course at Sydney Technical College in the late 1930s. In accordance with the Architects Act 1921, successful completion of this six-year course gave graduates the right to register as architects and qualification for membership of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.2 In 1940, Gaston achieved the highest pass in New South Wales in stage three of his architecture course, winning the prestigious Kemp Memorial Medal for academic excellence. Completing his course with Honours, he was awarded an Associateship of Sydney Technical College in 1942.3
After serving in the Australian Imperial Force with the Royal Australian Engineers between 1943 and 1946, attaining the rank of Lieutenant, Gaston worked in London with Robert Atkinson, architect, illustrator and watercolourist, before returning to Sydney in February 1948 to pursue his profession as an architect. Initially, he was an associate of the Sydney architectural firm, Stafford, Moor and Farrington, later becoming a partner from 1956 to 1979. Among the significant projects for which Gaston was responsible are Tennyson Power Station, Brisbane (1947); the Frank G. Spurway Building in Maddox Street, Alexandria (late 1940s); the Wormald Brothers building in Young Street, Waterloo, which was awarded the 1947 Sir John Sulman Medal; Ryde Civic Centre (1964); McCaughey Institute, Jerilderie, New South Wales; and Qantas hangars 131, 191, 247, with the associated annex, at Sydney Airport (1975).
Gaston married Pauline Hopwood Webb in 1949, with whom he had three daughters, instilling in them a profound love of art. Susan Gaston-Delprat is a practicing artist, like her father, and administrator of the Julian Ashton Art School with her husband, artist Paul Delprat.
Gaston studied classical drawing and painting under Julian Ashton, at the eponymous Julian Ashton Art School, Sydney, and attended classes at the Royal Art Society for many years. A long-standing exhibitor with the RAS, of which he had membership since 1970, he became an associate in 1982.
Within his own art practice, Gaston had a predilection for Australian and European landscape subjects, particularly Gallic and Hellenic, as well as urban scenes of Sydney. Sydney Harbour and the Opera House also featured in a series of woodblock prints. Gaston’s appreciation of Greek and Italian classical architecture found expression in a number of his paintings. He much admired the ‘P&O’ nautical-inspired genre in both domestic and commercial architecture for its curved, projecting profiles, circular porthole windows and strong geometric forms.
Gaston worked mostly in his studio, built as an addition to his home at Balmoral, Sydney, from both photographs outdoor sketches, always carrying with him a small sketchbook, even during his final hospital admission.
From 1983, he became interested in exploring abstraction stylistically, simplifying subjects into bold overlying shapes and experimenting with techniques using layered washes over large sheets of 300-gsm paper. The November 1988 edition of Australian Artist magazine featured his article ‘Making the Transition to Abstraction’ and he subsequently became one of the few AWI members to work exclusively in an abstract idiom.
In 1968, Gaston began exhibiting with the Australian Watercolour Institute. Elected a member in 1971, Gaston served as Honorary Secretary from 1979-1984 before acceding to the office of President in 1985 and was awarded Life Membership in 1993. During Gaston’s tenure as President, the AWI acquired rented gallery premises at 81½ George Street in the historic Rocks area of Sydney, which he personally refurbished. However, when the per annum rental for these first floor premises became prohibitively expensive in 1987, the AWI was once again homeless. Gaston’s friend and AWI colleague, Allan Hondow, affectionately recalls that, ‘Brian’s energy, intelligence and superb sense of humour enabled him to control meetings of the society in a time when opinions on matters sometimes differed greatly and the group could become quite fractious. We worked together on the design of quite a few AWI exhibition covers over the years and it was always a pleasure to be in his company.”
His work was shown at the Holdsworth Gallery (1987, 1988), Mosman Gallery (1988), Leonard Gallery (1988) and is held in institutional and private collections in Australia, Europe and the UK.
Brian Gaston passed away, aged 74, on 12 July 1993 and was cremated with Anglican rites.
- Hedstrom, Tony, letter to Brian Gaston, June 1993.
- Max Germaine, Artists and galleries of Australia. Vol. 1, Rev. 3rd ed., Craftsman House, Roseville, N.S.W., 1990, p 241.
- Department of Technical Education, Handbook, 1944 session, pp. 12, 86.
Copyright © Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen
Extract from Brushes with History: Masters of Watercolour by Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen (The Beagle Press, 2015)