Brian Stratton (President)

B r i a n   S t r a t t o n   O A M

AWI President 1964-1972 and 2006-2009

Jocelyn Maughan, Portrait of Brian Stratton OAM 2003, Oil, Courtesy: Jocelyn Maughan

At a time such as this, I recall the exhibitions of fifty years ago being of a more intimate nature, whilst the shows of today are bigger, brighter, bolder and more visually challenging. So here we are. After 82 years, the Institute continues on displaying paintings from the small to the large, from the ethereal to the hard-edge, from abstraction to heightened realism. It is all here. What happens in watercolour painting today is on these walls.Brian Stratton, Opening address, AWI 82nd Annual Exhibition, Gosford Regional Gallery, 2005

The decade of the 1960s was marked by momentous social, political and cultural reform throughout the Western world. Existentialist emphasis on individualism during the post-war years attained its apotheosis with the rejection of Establishment values by the generation of ‘baby boomers’ and the rise of youth counter-culture. Shifting paradigms in the visual arts in Australia were similarly an expression of sixties radicalisation, with the emergence of Pop art, op art, psychedelic art, minimalism, lyrical abstraction, post-painterly abstraction, hard-edge painting, colour-field painting and photorealism forcing the pace. In the eyes of this new generation of painters, who cast their gaze towards America for inspiration, the Australian art milieu appeared parochial by comparison. Positioning themselves at the spearhead of the forward thrust towards modernity, they brandished their brushes against what they perceived as the anachronistic, academic conventions of the prevailing style of Australian painting associated with national identity.1

A significant force in Sydney contemporary art was the opening of Central Street Gallery on 19th April 1966. Those pristine white premises, housed in a ramshackle industrial building situated in a lane between George and Pitt streets, would become Sydney’s citadel of the avant-garde where stalwarts of a local style of post-painterly abstraction sought to make their mark on contemporary art of the late 1960s.2

Central Street Gallery existed for less than five years but its impact was such that art historian Bernard Smith contends, ‘Curiously enough there have only been two real avant-garde groups in the whole history of Australian art: the group of young painters who introduced impressionism to Australia, with their exhibition of 9 x 5 impressions in 1889, and Central Street.’3

Though short-lived, Central Street’s legacy was the cultivation of an audience, and ultimately a market, for contemporary art in Australia. Two exhibitions contributed to this. The first was Two Decades of American Painting at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1967, which surveyed the work of abstract expressionists and major post-painterly abstractionists. Subsequently, the now historically important The Field exhibition, a survey of Australian colour-field painting, inaugurated the National Gallery of Victoria’s new building in 1968. Although decried by some critics as derivative, it launched the reputations of local exponents of the style and effectively nudged this country into the mainstream of international art. Moreover, as Mary Eagle, former Senior Curator of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia, pointed out, ‘The style it celebrated was defined by the professional art establishment rather than created by artists. The Field set an expectation that artists could be led, it made reputations (something museum curators are supposed not to do) and established the pre-eminence of fashion art, last-wave art and contemporaneity, which has continued ever since. Above all, it ignored the perennial obsession of Australia with Australian identity.’ 4

At the time Brian Stratton acceded to the presidency in 1964, the Australian Watercolour Institute was fraught with factionalism and contending egos arising from the continuing aesthetic conflict between proponents of representational and non-representational art. The door that had opened to let the future in was a banging one. Nonetheless, he proved a popular president, being much admired for his perspicacity, diplomacy and equanimity, in addition to his prodigious talent as one of this country’s major watercolourists. Stratton’s puckish face and avuncular style belied his flinty resolve and dauntless activism in his service to the advancement of the Institute, which he commendably stewarded through one of the most polemical periods in its history.

Born in Sydney on 23 May 1936 to Allan Thomas Stratton and Edna Mavis Lynch, Brian Stratton was the only member of the Australian Watercolour Institute to twice preside as president. Stratton’s father, like many of his generation, was profoundly affected by the Great Depression of the 1930s and consequently devoted his life’s energies to the Union Movement. A bookbinder by trade, Allan Stratton was to hold numerous positions in the Amalgamated Printing Trades Union, being a vigorous campaigner in the industrial fight for the 40-hour week, which was formally approved by the Commonwealth Arbitration Court on 8 September 1947 to take effect from 1 January 1948. He became Head Teacher of Bookbinding with the New South Wales Department of Technical Education, relinquishing his union position but remaining for many years their Returning Officer. Eventually, there was a marriage breakdown with the result that, for most of his life, Brian Stratton has had a close association with his mother and her relations.

At the outbreak of World War II, Stratton was a child of three but he distinctly recalls that his first intimation of its gravity was two years later, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, when his teacher, Mr Farrell, announced to the class at Punchbowl Primary School, ‘Boys, we are saved. I got down on my knees last night and thanked God that America is in the War.’

He would witness the radical changes war wreaked on the home front. There were blackouts in cities and coastal areas and, due to petrol shortages, charcoal burners propelled cars while trucks and public buses were fuelled by massive bags of gas that was a by-product of iron manufacturing. With the entry of Japan into the war and the attacks on Darwin, women and children were evacuated from northern Australia. The widespread fear that this country would be invaded was somewhat attenuated by the influx of thousands of American soldiers. Holes were dug in backyards with galvanised sheeting for roofs as improvised air raid shelters but, when it rained, they flooded with water. Shop windows were boarded up and stringent rationing was in force for essential items such as food, fuel, clothing and footwear. Stratton remembers walking to school barefoot during winter frosts, wearing short pants mended with a succession of patches, always carrying with him a small drawstring bag containing cotton wool and an eraser. The cotton wool was intended to serve as earplugs while the eraser was to be clamped between one’s teeth in the event of bombing raids.

In his last year at Punchbowl Primary School, Stratton’s teacher, Mr Rufus, suggested that their classroom would benefit from some adornment on its barren walls. Money was collected and two reproductions were hung — Hans Heysen’s virtuosic 1909 watercolour, Summer, and Robert Johnson’s bucolic Burragorang Valley, the original oil painting having been a finalist in the 1939 Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. These two images were Stratton’s first visual experience of Australian art.

After obtaining his Intermediate Certificate, he commenced work in the printing industry, initially as a halftone, and then colour, etcher at the leading photoengraving company, Hartland and Hyde. Associated with Hartland and Hyde at that time was the renowned modernist photographer, Max Dupain. As the junior member of staff, one of Stratton’s tasks was to buy the lunches so that there were times he would be in the dark room with Dupain and his assistants, among whom was Kerry Dundas, son of the artist Douglas Dundas MBE, who played an important role in his future career. Dupain would use an early oil painting by Stratton in the background of one of his commercial projects.

Following a five-year apprenticeship at the School of Printing (later Graphic Arts), Stratton was awarded the Bronze Medallion by the Premier of New South Wales, Joseph Cahill, at Sydney Town Hall as ‘Most Outstanding Apprentice of the Year’ in his trade. Continuing his studies at night, he subsequently obtained the Higher Trades Certificate.

In 1952, at the age of 15, he commenced part time studies in drawing and composition at North Sydney Technical College two nights a week under the tutelage of John Godson (a member of the Australian Watercolour Institute from 1934-50). On one occasion, Godson showed the class some of his unframed watercolours, which were the first original landscapes Stratton had seen. By far the youngest member of the group, Stratton was confident that his drawing was solid but felt his compositional skills were lacking. One of the guest lecturers in composition was the newly appointed teacher, Peter Laverty, who would be appointed as State Supervisor of Art for New South Wales prior to serving as Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 1971 to 1977 and, subsequently, as vice president of the Australian Watercolour Institute.

An influential figure in Stratton’s career was his teacher of life drawing, Douglas Dundas MBE, President of the Society of Artists and a trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW. During model breaks, his insights into art societies and galleries, as well as his informed responses to questions about artists and paintings, was an education in itself for Stratton. A member of the selection committee for full-time teachers of art, Dundas would be Stratton’s first Head of School in TAFE. In 1970, Stratton interviewed Dundas in his studio, recording eighteen hours of tape concerning his life and career, which culminated, in 1974, in an edited, print version entitled, Douglas Dundas Remembers, copies of which are retained in State galleries and libraries throughout Australia. The original tapes were forwarded to the National Library in Canberra only to be destroyed when the delivery van burnt out. Stratton subsequently completed a 90-minute follow up interview, which he presented to the library.

The following year, Stratton began working in watercolour, assiduously producing three full-sheet paintings per day during his holidays from work. In 1954, he joined the Tuesday night ‘Still Life Wash’ class taught by New Zealand-born, realist painter, Alfred Cook, Head Teacher of Commercial Illustration and Commercial Art, who had a life-long passion for watercolour, working almost exclusively in that medium. His watercolour demonstrations were revelatory for Stratton, who cites Cook as the most important influence of his career in his approach to painting. By his third year in that class, he was doing as much teaching and demonstrating as Cook was, with his encouragement. Consequently, in 1959, upon the recommendation of Alfred Cook, L. Roy Davies, Head of National Art School, invited Stratton to take this class. For the next few years, he worked in the printing industry by day and was involved in Technical Education most nights of the week, teaching in the Art School and studying at the School of Printing.

In 1962, he was appointed a full-time teacher of Art in the New South Wales Department of Technical Education, which came as a surprise to Stratton, who had foreseen the possibility of a teaching position within the School of Printing but a vacancy never occurred. However, after five weeks in the Art School, the Head of the School of Printing approached him to transfer to his staff. Stratton declined the offer and retired nearly thirty years later as Senior Head Teacher of Art and Design at Liverpool College of TAFE.

At the age of twenty, in 1957, Stratton won his first art award, the South Strathfield Watercolour Prize, adjudicated by Sir Erik Langker and watercolourists, G.K. Townshend (AWI) and Rufus Morris. On the advice of Alfred Cook, he had made a minor adjustment to the work, a holiday painting from Kurrajong, after which Cook announced prophetically, ‘This looks like a prize-winner to me’. After the award presentation ceremony, G.K. Townshend commented to Stratton, ‘This will not be your last prize,’ a prognostication that proved correct. To date, Stratton has won more than 280 art prizes, culminating in two prestigious international awards at the 2010 Shanghai Zhujiajiao International Biennial Watercolour Exhibition at Quanhua Watercolour Art Gallery, Zhujiajiao, and the 2013 Shenzhen International Watercolour Biennial, in Shenzhen. The subject of both winning entries was one of Stratton’s preferred painting locations, the north face of Crookhaven Heads on the south coast of New South Wales. Like Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire and Arthur Boyd’s Pulpit Rock, Crookhaven Heads has been a recurrent motif in Stratton’s oeuvre, the artist having painted, since 1985, in excess of 200 works at this site. Invariably, his watercolours are technically proficient, closely observed and masterfully rendered both in their realism and depth of illusion.

Following the Shanghai Zhujiajiao International Watercolour Biennial, Stratton was invited to hold a solo exhibition, Sand, Sticks and Stones, the first in the International Watercolour Masters series at the Quanhua Watercolour Art Gallery, with the production of a book-quality catalogue containing 30 full-page reproductions. The most touching moment of his career, Stratton says, was during the opening in Zhujiajiao when his interpreter, Jo Jo Chen, daughter of Quanhua Watercolour Art Gallery Director and eminent watercolourist, Xidan Chen, introduced two Chinese artists who had travelled 3,000 kilometres to view his exhibition and to meet him.  

It was as a foundation member of the Ryde Art Society (later City of Ryde Art Society), in 1959, that Stratton initially learned the dynamics of societies, presiding as President from 1962 to 1969 and becoming a Life Member in 1968. During his tenure as president, he organised exhibitions and annual awards, attracting art luminaries as guest speakers, such as Douglas Dundas, John Coburn, Peter Laverty, Elwyn Lynn, Alfred Cook and Henry Hanke, among others. He also liaised with Drummoyne Council for the establishment of a new society and strongly supported the Drummoyne Art Society in its formative years. At the opening of the Ryde Art Society’s 50th Annual Art Award in 2010, Stratton delivered an address, being the only exhibitor in the first and fiftieth exhibition. Since 1958, he has also been a member of the Royal Art Society, being elected a fellow in 1964.

When Stratton was nineteen years of age, Alfred Cook encouraged him to submit a work for the Australian Watercolour Institute’s annual exhibition, which was accepted for hanging. Douglas Stewart, noted poet, art critic for the Bulletin and husband of artist Margaret Coen, commented favourably on his work in his review of that 1955 exhibition. As an exhibitor in the next two AWI annual exhibitions, Stratton’s work was hung next to those by Kenneth Macqueen. Inevitably, lessons were learnt about being eclipsed by the power of Macqueen’s paintings. After exhibiting with the AWI for six years, Stratton was invited to membership, together with Elaine Haxton, in 1961, and served on the AWI Executive Committee from 1962-63. During that time, membership was extremely difficult to obtain, as the Institute was split on ideological grounds between traditional and modernist painters, and a two-thirds majority vote of members was required. Through a later amendment to the Constitution, in 1987, a simple majority of votes is now the requirement.

Upon George Duncan’s resignation of the AWI presidency in 1964, he approached Stratton to succeed him in that role. Thus, Stratton was nominated for the office, as was Alfred Cook, his mentor. To Stratton’s astonishment, Cook accepted the nomination, presenting Stratton with the immediate dilemma of whether to withdraw or go to a ballot. He has never comprehended why Cook stood, being certain that he voted for him. In what was perhaps the most bittersweet event of his life, Stratton was elected, with Alfred Cook and George Duncan serving as vice presidents. His saddest duty as president was writing a letter of condolence to Cook’s widow in 1970. An initial difficulty he faced was filling the position of AWI Secretary. As no member was prepared to assume that role, Stratton’s then wife, Adrienne (neé Moore), supported him and the Institute with distinction as secretary throughout his presidency. One of Stratton’s initial undertakings in his role as president was to draft letters to the Art Gallery of New South Wales requesting a comprehensive exhibition of watercolours and to Douglas Dundas, then Head of the National Art School, pointing out the lack of watercolour instruction given to painting diploma students. The AWI annual exhibitions were timed to coincide with Stratton’s TAFE vacation to allow for his manning of the shows.

George Duncan was also Director of the David Jones Art Gallery (1953-1963), located in the Elizabeth Street store, where the AWI had held its annual exhibition for a number of years. The loss of this central, well-patronised venue, due to Duncan’s retirement from the directorship of the David Jones Art Gallery, would affect the fortunes of artists and societies for years to come, presenting a particular problem for the AWI in siting its annual exhibitions.

At the beginning of the decade, there were five major art societies in New South Wales – the Royal Art Society, the Society of Artists, the Contemporary Art Society, the Australian Watercolour Institute and the Australian Art Society — but only one gallery available to stage their exhibitions, notably the space on the top floor of the Education Department building in Bridge Street, Sydney. This space was in extremis satisfactory, although ill lit and in a state of disrepair. To redress this situation, Erik Langker, President of Royal Art Society, Lloyd Rees, President of Society of Artists, Jack Santry, Secretary of the Society of Artists, Guy Warren, Contemporary Art Society and Stratton collectively met with the then Minister for Education, the Hon. Frank Wetherall, with the objective of securing improvements to the venue. Unfortunately, their deputation was to no avail. In a few years, the Society of Artists and Contemporary Art Society, together with the Australian Art Society, were no longer existent but, interestingly, Lloyd Rees, John Santry and Guy Warren would subsequently become members of the AWI.

Among the reasons for the demise of these societies was the proliferation of art galleries, which meant that established artists were disinclined to belong to a group when their professional needs were being met by private dealers. Another factor was the aforementioned absence of a suitable space that could accommodate a large number of works. Also, there was a change in the purchasing policies of State galleries, particularly the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Prior to this change in the purchasing policy, a quorum of trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, as well as Directors of other State galleries, would visit exhibitions on the preview day and have first pick of the works displayed to acquire for their respective collections. This ensured that, by the time the public attended, the exhibition was off to a successful start with sales well underway. Stratton recalls an occasion when, just before the policy was abandoned, Hector Gilliland had three works purchased from one show by three State Galleries. This trifecta not only added greatly to the artist’s reputation but also increased the status of the Institute and the annual exhibition.

From 1965-66 and 1969-71, Stratton replaced Rah Fizelle as representative of the Australian Watercolour Institute on the Australian National Advisory Committee for UNESCO (Visual Arts), which generally met in Canberra under the auspices of the Commonwealth Government. That committee comprised such luminaries as Sir Erik Langker (artist, art administrator, Trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW, President of the Royal Art Society and pioneer of the Sydney Opera house), Eric Westbrook (artist, Head of Victoria’s Ministry of the Arts and influential director of the National Gallery of Victoria), Alan McCulloch (art critic, art historian, curator, gallery director and publisher of The Encyclopaedia of Australian Art), Ronald Appleyard (art administrator, curator and writer) and Professor Sir Joseph Burke (who was educated at King’s College, the Courtauld Institute and Yale University before arriving in Australia in 1946 to take up his appointment as the Herald Chair of Fine Arts at Melbourne University). Stratton found him the most compelling among the participants. After one meeting, Sir Erik Langker exasperatedly remarked to him in the lift, ‘They can talk, can’t they!’ Stratton shared the same view that, in the main, it was indeed a talkfest, as he cannot recall that committee achieving anything of significance.

After a period of 32 years, having been made an AWI Life Member in 1989, Stratton re-joined the Executive Committee in 2004 purely to make up numbers. In 2005, he opened the 82nd Annual AWI Exhibition at Gosford Regional Gallery, which marked his fiftieth consecutive year of exhibiting with the Institute and, in 2011, he joined the elite group of artists who have held membership in the AWI for fifty years or more, notably Margaret Coen, Hector Gilliland, Jean Isherwood, Kenneth Jack, Ronald Steuart and Max Angus, who was made an Honorary Life Member in 2004.

The year 2006 was an unusual one in the history of the AWI, with all senior members of the AWI Executive Committee stepping down. Stratton stepped into the breach and was elected for a second term as president with a new team of officers and committee, the major priority on the agenda being a book, The Australian Watercolour Institute: A Gallery of Australia’s Finest Watercolours, which the Book Committee did an admirable job in producing, with a print run of 4000 copies. After three years in office, with confidence that the group had the ability to serve the Institute well, Stratton stood down in 2009. He remains an honorary member of the AWI Executive Committee and a valued advisor.

Stratton’s work has been exhibited in the United States, New Zealand, Mexico, Canada, Korea, Hong Kong and China, and he has been invited to judge over 100 art awards. He is represented in numerous public and private collections in Australia and overseas, including the Art Gallery of Western Australia and Art Bank.

In 2006, Brian Stratton was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to art as a painter and educator, and to professional organisations, including the Australian Watercolour Institute.

ENDNOTES

  1. van Nunen, Linda, Brought to Light II: Contemporary Australian Art 1966-2006, Queensland Art Gallery, 2007, pp. 33-34.
  2. Ibid
  3. Smith, Bernard, Smith, Terry and Heathcoate, Christopher, Australian Painting 1788-2000, Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2001, p. 433.
  4. Eagle, Mary and Jones, John, A Story of Australian Painting, Macmillan, Sydney, 1996, p. 266.

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)