Sir Russell Drysdale


The West Wyalong Connection

One of the most important and distinctive Australian artists of the 20th Century, Sir Russell Drysdale, came to West Wyalong in 1949 with his lawyer friend John Nagle (who was working on a case here).

Drysdale made sketches in court to pass the time. He also made a sketch of Main Street from this viewpoint, which became the subject of one of his most powerful paintings, West Wyalong.

In 1988, the (then) curator of The Art Gallery of NSW, Barry Pearce, described it as one of Australia's ten greatest paintings. The painting was loaned to the gallery for eight years until it's valuation in 1996 of $600,000 proved irresistable to the owner Mrs Joyce Landau, who decided to sell. The painting now forms part of the private collection of Joy Chambers-Grundy and Reg Grundy AC OBE.

Bland Shire Council, in partnership with Barrick Cowal Gold, commissioned Gillie and Marc to create a commemorative bronze sculpture of an easel similar to that used by Drysdale in his studio with a representation of the painting West Wyalong in bas-relief.

Drysdale in his studio at Rose Bay
Extract from an interview by JAMES GLEESON with SIR RUSSELL DRYSDALE

19 October 1978

JAMES GLEESON: Before we get onto more general matters, could we just for a while talk about West Wyalong, which I hope one day will come into the National Collection. Can you remember painting that?

SIR RUSSELL DRYSDALE: Yes. I do. Very much indeed because a very old friend of mine, who comes from the Riverina and who’s family I’ve known for a long time, from Albury, and who’d been a legal family for a long time, who is now Mr Justice Nagel and he sits on the Supreme Court Bench and as you probably know has conducted this commission into prison reform which has been a big thing. He was practicing as a leader at the Junior Bar in those days and down in the country he had quite a lot of old soliciting firms who used to employ him on various cases. He had to go down and argue a case in the court at Wyalong. He said to me, ‘Would you like to come down just for the weekend?’. So I drove down with him. I was rather fascinated with the town itself. I mean, I’d known it but I hadn’t gone back to it for years, not since I’ve become a painter anyway. Mind you, I saw it a little while ago; visited it a while ago.

JAMES GLEESON: Has it changed?

SIR RUSSELL DRYSDALE: It has. It has, very much indeed. It’s not the place it used to be. The temples of Mammon, for instance, all the banks have got fine new buildings in it, you know. The old verandas have gone—all that kind of thing. But I painted it, because I remember that evening. I was standing outside the pub under that veranda looking down the street. It was around about half past six in the evening when everybody’s having tea.

JAMES GLEESON: Deserted, empty, yes.

SIR RUSSELL DRYSDALE: Except the light in the window of the dagos, which we could always get a feed at, you know. You could drive 50 miles in those days and hit a town at that time and you wouldn’t find a soul abroad. They’d all be at home having tea. But you’d always find Joe the Greek, he’d be open.

JAMES GLEESON: Was Joe the Greek in your painting? It wasn’t at West Wyalong?

SIR RUSSELL DRYSDALE: No. But it was just like that.

JAMES GLEESON: Yes. It was like that, characteristic of it.

SIR RUSSELL DRYSDALE: He ran a café, as they call it. God bless them.

JAMES GLEESON: Yes, exactly. But, Tas, it seems to touch on something a little bit more specific than that, something almost universal, the sense of loneliness and isolation and emptiness. This is a town that’s deserted except for this one mysterious light at the end of the street.


JAMES GLEESON: Did you feel this?

SIR RUSSELL DRYSDALE: Well, it was unusual one because it wasn’t a straight-through-town street.

JAMES GLEESON: No. That bend.

SIR RUSSELL DRYSDALE: It bent around because it followed the old bullock tracks on the diggings when they were there. But the point about these towns is this: that they have the grand areas in the frontages, they’re all false fronts.


SIR RUSSELL DRYSDALE: You know. Behind them there is a different thing. You get those beautiful pediments that are built up, you know, on wood or rather, you know—

JAMES GLEESON: Concrete, yes.

SIR RUSSELL DRYSDALE: Yes, bits of concrete and things like that. Behind them of course it’s a different story. Everyone all used to have a kind of a backyard, just like any other place had.

JAMES GLEESON: All the way through your art—I might be wrong but I don’t think I am—is this sense of the vastness of the country and the loneliness that this implies. You must be conscious of that, and it certainly seems to come out in a painting like West Wyalong. There’s a township there but it’s empty. There’s not a soul in sight. The only sign of human existence are the buildings, dead, except for that one light.

SIR RUSSELL DRYSDALE: But this is kind of pretty true of the life about. I mean, you can travel across vast areas of this country and you won’t see a thing moving. You can travel right across Western New South Wales which produces, I think, over a quarter of the nation’s wool clip and has millions of sheep in it, but you could travel over that all day on the way down to Adelaide and never see a sheep.


SIR RUSSELL DRYSDALE: It’s very big. It’s like searching for needles in a haystack. It’s the same with the wildlife. The wildlife lies up at daytime. But this life, there’s masses of life. I think I once said in something I wrote that at night time it’s rather different. You can put a hurricane lamp down in the northern plains in the Mitchell grass and, God damn it, the things that move out of that grass are fantastic. There’s a tremendous life going on. Small moths, lizards, all sorts of things come out of it, which are absolutely absent in the daytime. It’s true of the marsupial life. So what it has is a strange emptiness, but at the same time it’s peopled by all sorts of things.