Graham Austin (President)

G r a h a m   A u s t i n   O A M

AWI President 1989-2003

Graham Austin, Self-Portrait 1987, synthetic polymer on canvas

Those artists who say, ‘I don’t bother myself with watercolour,’ may have good reason to ignore its challenge, whilst those who throw down the gauntlet often become addicted. Those who can, do. – Graham Austin, Introduction, Australian Watercolour Institute 75th Anniversary 1923-1998, The Beagle Press, 1998

On Sunday, 26th March 1989, John Caldwell emerged from the AWI Annual General Meeting and telephoned Graham Austin at home to ask if he would accept the office of President. Owing to family imperatives, Austin had been unable to attend that meeting but responded that he would be honoured to do so. Although he had anticipated a tenure of three years, it extended to fourteen, giving him the distinction of being the longest serving president in the history of the Institute.

Graham Philip Austin was born on 29 August 1941 at Women’s Hospital, Crown Street, Surry Hills, Sydney. The name on his birth certificate had been recorded as Michael John Wood but, two months later, was legally changed by his adoptive parents, James Henry Philip Austin, departmental foreman, and Phyllis, née Wharton. Austin recalls that, while playing outside at the age of four, he was summoned by his parents and informed that he had been euphemistically ‘chosen’ as their son. For the next sixty years, having been dissuaded from pursuing the matter of his origins, he would know nothing of his biological parents. In the interim, James and Phyllis Austin conceived a child of their own.

It wasn’t until 2003, under the provisions of the Adoption Information Act, that Austin obtained a copy of his original birth certificate bearing the name of his biological mother, Clarice Edna Wood, aged twenty, then domiciled in Granville. Extensive genealogical research yielded further relevant information and, with a view to tracing family members, Austin placed an advertisement in the ‘Search’ column of the Daily Telegraph, which appeared on 24 October 2003. That same day, he received an email advising him to contact Clarice Wood’s younger sister, Shirley. The sensationalism of the story she would recount concerning the circumstances surrounding Austin’s birth, replete with secrets, betrayal, adultery and murder, was worthy of a supermarket tabloid.

The third of six children, Clarice Edna Wood, known as Tess, was born in 1920 to Norman John Wood and Susannah Jane, née Poole. According to family oral tradition, Norman Wood’s father, Alexander Robb (Robert) Wood, born on 15 November 1859 in Auchterless, Aberdeenshire, Scotland,1 served as an engineer in the British Army during the Zulu Campaign in South Africa but deserted and subsequently emigrated to Australia, settling in Moss Vale, New South Wales. On 18 July 1887, in Sydney, he married Ellen Agnes Cushan, with whom he had two sons, the eldest being Norman.2

During the throes of the Great Depression, Norman Wood, who operated a secondhand furniture business in the Sydney suburb of Canterbury, struggled to provide for his large family. When his wife, Susannah, succumbed to breast cancer in 1933, Tess and her elder siblings left home to fend for themselves while the two youngest daughters were consigned to the Burnside Presbyterian Orphan Homes.

Shortly after the start of the Second World War, Tess and her sister, Mavis, fell pregnant to the same young lothario, British-born Frederic John Axford. Mavis, unaware of Tess’s condition, wed Axford on 1 March 1941 in Bankstown, New South Wales, whereas the unmarried Tess sought refuge in the home of a caring aunt in Granville, who solicitously guarded her secret. On 29 August 1941, Tess gave birth to a son, whom she called Michael John Wood before relinquishing him for adoption, and her sister, Mavis, likewise bore a son only two days later. Clearly, this created complex family relations whereby Austin’s father, Frederic Axford, was also his uncle and Austin’s first cousin his half-brother. Tess later married and relocated to South Australia, where she had two more sons. In an ironic twist, another younger sister, who was assisting Tess during her last pregnancy, would conceive a child with Tess’s husband.

Austin’s father, Fred Axford, a popular preliminary boxer and sparring partner of champion pugilist, Vic Patrick, worked as a private investigator. On the night of 27 May 1956, while peering through the window of a private residence in Castlecrag in the course of a divorce investigation, Axford was pursued by an occupant of the house and stabbed to death in a nearby gutter.3 His assailant, a 43-year old Dutchman, was acquitted of the charge of manslaughter, having testified in evidence that he believed Axford to be a burglar or ‘pervert’ when he chased him from his home.4 Upon his death, Frederic John Axford, age 33, of Christian Road, Punchbowl, left a wife, three legitimate children, an illegitimate son, about whom he would never know, and an estate with a probate value of £140.5 Tess had died in 1996but her surviving sister, Mavis, warmly welcomed her new-found nephew to the fold, as did all the members of his biological family, with whom he now maintains close contact. 

Austin’s adoptive family presented a contrast by virtue of their conventionality, providing him with a stable and financially comfortable home life in the leafy, salubrious, Sydney suburb of Russell Lea, on the Parramatta River. Although Jim and Phyllis Austin were strict disciplinarians, in retrospect, he considers himself fortunate for the positive opportunities they offered him. The proverb so often repeated by his father, ‘If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,’ still resonates in his mind, Austin says, like a mantra.

A fitter and turner by trade, Jim Austin was an airplane enthusiast. During the Great Depression, he would walk from Rozelle to Mascot with a friend to work on Charles Kingsford Smithʼs aircraft gratuitously to gain work experience. Both men were later employed by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, attaining management positions.

In 1947, while spending their annual family holidays camping at Lake Tabourie on the South Coast of New South Wales, a seaplane landed on the lake and the pilot offered joy flights to interested campers. Eager to pass on his affinity for aircraft to his son, Jim Austin took advantage of the proposal. The visual experience of that first adventure in the air would remain vivid for Austin throughout his life, later becoming the dominant aesthetic influence in his practice as an artist.

Adopting an atavistic approach to landscape painting, Austin employs a gallimaufry of pointillist dots to evoke the primitive pattern of the earth’s topography viewed from an aerial perspective. In its spirit and aesthetic effect, his imagery relates to aboriginal iconography and land mapping.

The early talent for drawing Austin demonstrated was encouraged by his parents, his father having been an amateur oil painter in his youth. It was with some surprise that Austin later learned that his biological mother, Tess, had painted flowers on china plates as a hobby. After completing his high school education, he was employed as a junior artist in a display company, attending evening art classes at the National Art School from 1958 to 1963. Among his first tutors were Jocelyn Maughan and Brian Stratton OAM, both AWI members. Later, Maughan encouraged him to teach drawing part time at Meadowbank Technical College, where she was Head of the Art School. Concurrently, Austin’s junior artist position had developed into a successful career in advertising as an art director and creative director, responsible for copywriting, designing and illustrating, at leading agencies such as George Pattersonʼs, Weston Advertising, and SSC&B:Lintas.

Meanwhile, Austin continued to pursue his activities as a painter and, in 1962, was awarded the first of his more than thirty-five art prizes, winning the watercolour section of the inaugural Drummoyne Art Prize. Two years later, he won the watercolour prize in The Mirror Waratah Festival Art Award. Other winners in that competition became AWI colleagues, notably Guy Warren, Hector Gilliland (then AWI Vice President) and Peter Pinson (later AWI President). A major award came in December 1968 when he won the Sun Newspaper Police Commissionerʼs Road Safety Poster Competition, first prize being a Holden Torana automobile and a $200 bank account.

In 1970, Austin moved to Cromer Heights, on the northern beaches, with his first wife, Thelma. Together, they adopted a boy and a girl. His second wife would bear him another daughter.

From 1966, Austin exhibited with the Australian Watercolour Institute and was elected a member in 1972, later serving on the Executive Committee under Brian Stratton OAM. His prior experience as foundation president of the Drummoyne Municipal Art Society (1964-1967), president of the Peninsula Art Society (1986-1989), representative for the arts on the Warringah Bicentennial Committee (1985-1987) and committee member of the Manly Art Gallery and Museum (1991-2001) rendered him well equipped to take the helm of the AWI, which he judiciously steered.

In the first nine years of his stewardship of the AWI, Austin generated a 347.5% rise in AWI accumulated resources by increasing the sales commission by 2.5%, to realise a small share from the painting sales, and doubling the membership fee from $25 to $50 per annum. This was instrumental in securing sufficient funds to produce, on his own initiative and effort, the Institute’s first book, The Australian Watercolour Institute 75th Anniversary 1923-1998, published by The Beagle Press with a foreword by Dr. Brian Kennedy, Director, National Gallery of Australia, which was of inestimable value in the promotion of the Institute and its members. The majority of the 1500 books published were sold so that the production costs were recuperated, effectively putting the AWI on a solid financial footing for the future.

One of Austin’s goals, like that of his predecessors, was to investigate the possibility of finding permanent premises for the AWI. Considerable time and energy was expended in this pursuit with disappointing results due to the elevated cost of Sydney real estate in relation to the Institute’s finances. His other goals, however, were admirably achieved, particularly in relation to establishing an international presence. Under Austin’s presidency, the AWI participated in the International Watercolour Biennial at the Museo Nacional de la Acuarela in Mexico City (1990,1994, 1998, 2002) and the Biennial Watercolour Exhibition in Busan, Korea (2002). The AWI also exhibited at Wagner Gallery, Hong Kong (1996) and conjointly with The Federation of Canadian Artists in both Canada and Australia (1992, 1993). The organisers of these exhibitions received government sponsorship and provided high quality, colour catalogues illustrating exhibitors’ works.

During the earlier years of Austin’s term as president, AWI annual exhibitions were held at the S.H. Ervin Gallery, attracting large and approbative audiences — a third of the works, on average forty to fifty paintings, being sold. Dr. Brian Kennedy, Director, National Gallery of Australia, opened the successful, celebratory AWI 75th Anniversary Exhibition at the S.H. Ervin Gallery in 1998. However, subsequent to the 1999 annual exhibition, changes in the directorship, curatorial policy and direction of the S.H. Ervin Gallery inevitably culminated in a quest for another venue. From 2001, AWI annual exhibitions would be held alternately at Gosford Regional Gallery and Mosman Art Gallery.

In addition to the annual shows, Austin organised exhibitions at Newcastle Regional Gallery (1991), Wollongong City Gallery (2002) and Wagner Gallery (2001, 2002), where Peter Laverty, former director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and previous AWI Vice President, delivered a superlative opening speech on 11 September 2002, just hours before coordinated terrorist attacks destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York.

In 2003, to mark the AWI 80th anniversary, a website was created, primarily based on the contents of the 75th anniversary book, with the objective of promoting the Institute, its members and their work. The warmth, humour, probity, magnanimity and vision that characterised Austin’s role as president endeared him to all. In recognition of his extraordinary contribution to the Institute, Austin was made a Life member in 1997.

Apart from his professional activities, Austin has been a Freemason for almost fifty years, having followed his adoptive father into that fraternal organisation. Exercising his exceptional marketing and advertising skills, he served for twenty-seven years (fourteen as vice president) on the Board of the Masonic Youth Welfare Fund, now called ‘A Start in Life’, raising substantial charity dollars for needy children.

Graham Austin was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2006 for service to the visual arts as a painter, particularly through the Australian Watercolour Institute.

His work is held in public and private collections in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan. 


  1. National Records of Scotland, Statutory Births, Registration Number 173/00 0083.
  2. Australia Marriage Index, 1788-1950, Registration Number 870.
  3. The Argus, 28 May 1956, p. 5.
  4. The Canberra Times, 13 October 1956, p. 11.
  5. New South Wales, Australia, Index to Deceased Estate Files, 1923-1958, B147245.

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)

Copyright © Australian Watercolour Institute