Frederic Bates

F r e d e r i c   B a t e s   O A M

AWI President 1972-85

Frederic Bates (1918-2009), Self-Portrait, Oil, Collection: Royal Art Society of NSW

In the history of Western art, watercolour painting, from Durer through Delacroix to the individual brilliance of Turner and Cézanne, and later Klee and Kokoschka, to name a few, has long been a practice by painters who haven’t limited their work to one medium. – Frederic Bates, Foreword, AWI 50th anniversary catalogue, 1973

During his long stewardship, Fred Bates was committed to increasing the membership of the AWI and expanding its scope through national and international exhibitions. His equanimity ensured cohesion at a time when the plurality of styles, philosophical approaches and individual affiliations led to some dissonance within the Institute. Among those who held the office of vice president under Bates were Margaret Coen and Hector Gilliland, both AWI stalwarts for more than half a century and exemplars of the values at the core of its culture.

Relatively small in stature, with a sturdy, athletic physique, a distinctive fringed haircut and sizeable spectacles, Bates was an avid sportsman, having played rugby in his youth and golf throughout his adult life. Also passionate about pétanque, his boules box accompanied him everywhere for the matches he spontaneously organised with artists and students at Centennial Park, Sydney, or during painting excursions.

Close friend, colleague and former student of Bates, Ian Chapman (currently AWI Vice President), remembers him with great affection as an affable, unassuming man whose gentle demeanour belied his formidable force of character and tenacity of purpose. “Fred was very much an old-fashioned gentleman,” Chapman says, “who didn’t address people familiarly by their given names unless invited to do so. As AWI President, he worked tirelessly, often calling upon his contacts in high places for the advancement of the Institute, particularly in connection with annual exhibitions, which resulted in many paintings being sold.”

Frederic Henry Bates was born on 6 April 1918 in Annandale, Sydney, to Henry David Bates, engineer, and Hobart-born Ouida Coralie Thorne. The family relocated to Blackalls Park, a suburb of Lake Macquarie, New South Wales, where Bates spent his early years, later studying art at Newcastle Technical School, from 1935 to 1939, under cartoonist, illustrator and former staff artist for the New York Times, Reg Russom. That early graphic training would serve Bates in good stead, inspiring him to create the Nugget and Slim comic characters, which appeared in The Land for several years, before taking over that newspaper’s long-running editorial feature, The Burrcutter and His Mate, as a cartoon strip in 1954.

During World War II, Bates served, from 1941 to1946, with the Australian Infantry Battalion 1st Infantry Brigade and 1st Australian Parachute Battalion, rising to the rank of Lieutenant. In 1943, he had married Enid Frances Daniel in Toronto, New South Wales, and they settled post-war in Beverly Hills, southern Sydney.

Following a short refresher course at the National Art School, Bates worked as a freelance artist and graphic designer until being invited to teach at the National Art School by Harold Abbott, then Head of the School of Art. In 1965, he began lecturing in art and design at various technical colleges, as well as at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales, and served for many years on the TAFE Fine Arts Committee. From 1953, he regularly participated in the annual exhibitions of the Australian Watercolour Institute and was elected a member in 1966.

Although Bates was represented in numerous group exhibitions throughout Australia and abroad from 1949, including the Royal Art Society annual shows, he mounted his first Sydney solo exhibition at Artarmon Galleries in 1969, comprised of atmospheric Sydney vistas, evocative outback landscapes and eclectic images from his extensive travels to England, France, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, the United States, the Bahamas and Africa.

Predominantly a plein air landscape artist who described his own style as impressionistic, Bates sought to capture in his imagery the light, atmosphere and genius loci of remote areas of Australia, from the Hammersley Ranges to the Gulf of Carpentaria, and derived particular delight in depicting the inhabitants of isolated inland townships. The mass of Sydney’s suburban red roofs, akin to the expanse of great red plains of inland Australia, had a particular resonance for Bates, frequently finding expression in his paintings.

In 1970, Bates was awarded the Wynne Prize for his painting, Redfern, Southern Portal, while fellow AWI member, Eva Kubbos, won both the Trustees’ Watercolour Prize (which Bates had won in 1965) and the Pring Prize held in conjunction with the Wynne landscape exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

When Fred Bates succeeded Brian Stratton as President in November 1972, the membership totalled forty-six, eight of those members representing Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia, while the financial balance was $1609. One of his first tasks as president was to coordinate the Institute’s successful 50th annual exhibition at Blaxland Gallery, Sydney, which was opened by Sir Roden Cutler, then Governor of New South Wales.

Unlike British and American watercolour societies, the Australian Watercolour Institute never possessed premises of its own. However, this was rectified in 1974, with the assistance of a $2000 Federal Grant, when the Institute was finally housed in a rented commercial space at 171 George Street, the carpet having been donated by a supporter, June Windspear, and the walls painted by members. A further grant of $1000 helped fund a reciprocal exhibition with the American Watercolour Society shown in 1975 at the 108th AWS Annual in New York (opened by the Australian High Commissioner) and subsequently at Blaxland Gallery, Sydney (opened by the American Ambassador). The following year, with another small Government grant of $500, AWI exhibitions travelled to Adelaide, South Australia, before being shown in Victoria and, with sponsorship from Qantas and the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, an exhibition curated by both Bates the Director of Hastings Cultural Centre toured to eight provincial galleries in New Zealand in 1977.

The AWI relocated, in 1980, to new premises at 18½ George Street, situated in the historic area of The Rocks, Sydney, where the Institute began to acquire and exhibit a small archival collection of watercolours by deceased members. The AWI annual exhibition that year was held for the first time at the S.H. Ervin Gallery, housed in the National Trust Centre on Observatory Hill, Sydney, then under the administration of its founding director, Clytie Jessop. The S.H. Ervin Gallery would remain the venue for the Institute’s annual exhibitions for two decades, buoyed by large audiences and brisk sales. Over the next few years, AWI exhibitions travelled to Canberra, Narrabri, and Young, while a collaborative exhibition was held in Melbourne with members of the Old Watercolour Society Club and the Pittsburgh Watercolor Society, the American content having been organised by Robert Wade. Upon his retirement, the AWI had a credit balance of $10,091.

Upon his own initiative, as an adjunct to his teaching activities, Bates led numerous

international study and painting tours, uncommon at that time, to Britain, Italy, Spain, Belgium

Holland and, most frequently, France, being inducted as a member of l’Ordre des Citoyens

d’Honneur de Rocamadour in 1983. He also conducted painting classes on the round-the-

world liner Orsova in 1988.

His awards include the Sir Will Ashton Medal (1988); Wynne Prize (1970); Wynne Trustees’ Watercolour Prize (1965); Mosman Art Prize (1957); Stanthorpe Art Prize (1972); Chrysler Air Temp Design Award (1972); Rockhampton Art Prize(1974); Lufthansa to Europe Art Prize (1977); Hamilton City Art Prize (1977) and Camberwell Art Prize (1991). Bates was, himself, an adjudicator of numerous Australian and international art prizes.

A member of the Royal Art Society since 1950, he held the office of president from 1986 to 1992 and Honorary Membership of the American Watercolour Society was conferred on him in 1975.

In 1992, Bates was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in recognition of his service to the arts as an administrator and artist.

Fred Bates died on 8 May 2009 and was cremated with Anglican rites.

His work is held in the collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, S.H. Ervin Trust, Wollongong University, University of Southern Queensland and regional galleries throughout Australia.


Campbell, Jean, Australian Watercolour Painters 1780-1980, Rigby, Australia, 1983.
Brackenreg, John, The Australian Landscape in Oils and Watercolour, John Brackenreg, Sydney, 1980.
Roberts, Tom, Australian Impressionist & Realist Artists, Graphic Management Services, 1990.
McCulloch, Alan, Encyclopaedia of Australian Art, Hutchinson, 1968, 1977.
Germaine, Max, Artists and Galleries of Australia and New Zealand, Lansdowne Editions, 1979.

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, Sydney, 2015)

Copyright © Australian Watercolour Institute