'Escape artists of the North' was a term used to describe small
groups of artists and individuals who sought peace and inspiration by
heading to the wilder parts of the north of Australia.
Escape is a notion often espoused by artists. The thought of travelling to some exotic and idyllic location to paint and explore new frontiers is enticing.
One just needs to think of Paul Gauguin, leaving his city life
(and his family!) to live in the Marquesas or Robert Louis Stevenson’s
sojourn in Samoa and subsequent voyages through the Pacific islands, to
be fired with ideas of adventure in romantic places.
The Australian tropics have attracted many famous Australian artists,
keen to escape southern winters and the constraints of suburban life.
Searching for new experiences and a freedom to be themselves, a wave of,
now famous, artists moved north in the 1920s and 1930s, seeking new
subjects and ways of expressing their ideas.
Amongst the many 'escape artists' to heed the call of the unspoilt tropics, Yvonne Cohen and Valerie Abbitson, Margaret Preston and Fred Williams spent time on Timana, Bedarra and Dunk Islands, where Noel Wood and Bruce Arthur later set up studios.
Dunk Island had been settled by writer, E.J. Banfield and his wife, Bertha, in the early years of the 19th century. Ted Banfield built his house, grew crops and roamed the beaches and mountains, classifying the tropical rainforest plants and animals and creatures of the sea.
His publication, “Confessions of a Beachcomber” was translated
into several languages, stirring the yearning for romantic life on
idyllic tropical islands in adventurers all over the world.
Further north in Cairns and Thursday Island, Donald Friend, Ian Fairweather and Ray Crooke developed a satisfying relationship with the land and its people and did some of their best work during the war years and the decades following.
Donald Friend, in particular, formed life-long friendships with the Torres Strait, Aboriginal and Malay residents of Malaytown, on the outskirts of Cairns.
After many adventures, Ian Fairweather ended up living on Bribie Island, across from Brisbane, while Ray Crooke settled in Cairns where he still lives with his family. Daughter, Diana, is a painter too!
Others such as Russell Drysdale, Sidney Nolan and Alan Oldfield
spent shorter periods in the tropics, producing stunning paintings as a
result of their travels.
I have recently re-read a beautifully illustrated book by Gavin Wilson, "Escape Artists, modernists in the tropics". Published by Cairns Regional Gallery, the book was the catalogue for a major exhibition, curated by the author, of the work of twenty four well known Australian artists, which toured to six Australian cities in 1998 and 1999.
Sold as a book in its own right, it is now, sadly, out of print
but may possibly be found in libraries and second-hand bookstores.
I well remember my first trip to North Queensland in 1984; it was as though I had landed in a magical foreign country – except that the locals spoke English – albeit with a very drawling accent!
The mixture of people from the Torres Strait Islands, Asia and the local Aboriginal population added to that romantic and exciting impression.
Trips over the years to Broome, set on the edge of a pale turquoise bay in North Western Australia and the frontier town of Darwin in the Northern Territory had evoked similar responses.
The development of Australian art has been shaped and influenced
by the experience of artists who worked hard to understand and portray
this ancient and exotic landscape and its people.