Fred Williams drew himself into one of Australia’s most significant artists


Fred Williams left Australia for London in December 1951 for the usual reasons that many ambitious young artists do so. Before he would become regarded as a great abstract landscape painter, he wanted to encounter first-hand and study some of the most revered artworks of the Western canon, as well as absorb London’s wider cultural milieu—which in the early 1950s was a sizeable contrast to that of Williams’s Melbourne location.

“Williams went to London as a 24-year-old, after he had completed his formal artistic training in Melbourne, intent on studying the great masterpieces in the museum collections there,” says Cathy Leahy, curator of Fred Williams: The London Drawings at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia. “He was looking to broaden his horizons, to extend his knowledge, and consolidate his art training. It was an exploratory period in which he was searching for abiding values that would be permanent rather than just fashionable.”

While Williams, who died in 1982, is known for his energetic visions of the Australian landscape, Fred Williams: The London Drawings comprises 160 drawings, 30 etchings and 12 gouaches from Williams’s four years in London, from 1952 to 1956. These works can be regarded as the artistic manifestation of his process of discovery: Williams would experiment by drawing or painting almost all subject matter that crossed his path. Offering an insight into the eager mind and broad interests of a young artist, the show chronicles a formative period prior to Williams’s singular landscape style that would make him one of the most respected Australian artists of the 20th century.

Installation view of Fred Williams: The London Drawings, open at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia from 21 October 2022–29 January 2023. Photo: Tom Ross.


“The works are figurative, and depict several different subjects: the music hall, its performers and audiences; life drawings of zoo animals; and scenes of London and its inhabitants—workers, people in the street, everyday people,” says Leahy. “His drawings are based on deep observation, yet they are incisive—Williams captured the essentials of his subject with incredible economy.”

Leahy chooses two works that offer particularly compelling examples of Williams’s aesthetic during this time. Seated female, from above, 1952-56, uses an elevated viewpoint in a “bravura display of skill and original conception” as the exhibition text explains. Another is Elephant, c. 1953, Williams’s “largest and most resolved zoo drawing”, and among the most realised drawings in the exhibition.

Williams’s music hall depictions also stand out. For many critics over the years, these drawings have suggested the influence of one of the major figures in British Impressionism, Walter Sickert, many of whose most famous works also represent the music hall and theatre (himself inspired by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec). But for Leahy, the Sickert comparison only goes so far.

“Williams denied he [Sickert] was a major influence,” explains the curator. “These subjects were also addressed by many European artists of the 19th century interested in depicting modern life… Williams looked widely at the art of his predecessors and was aware of this tradition.”

While in London, Williams worked for a picture-framing company in Kensington, in a badly paid job that left the artist struggling financially throughout his time in the UK. However, this employment, along with his dedication to studying the collections in major galleries and his studies at Chelsea School of Art, allowed him to return to Australia in 1956 as a distinctly different artist.

“Williams said that this period slowed him down, and that looking at the masterpieces of Western art history made him realise the standard he had to achieve to be a great painter.”

Fred Williams: The London Drawings
National Gallery of Victoria
21 October—29 January 2023

Feature Words by Barnaby Smith