GALERIE DÜSSELDORF: 25th Anniversary Year Exhibition

- A Dedicated Tribute : Howard Taylor 1918 - 2001 -

Exhibition Dates : 11 November - 16 December 2001

Link to Intro Howard Taylor Web Page

Howard Taylor in Northcliffe Studio WA : Photo John Austin

Scroll down to read Obituaries by Tony Russell, Daniel Thomas and Dr David Bromfield


1918 - 2001

(by Anthony K Russell A.M)

Howard Taylor lived the most perfect, most complete life of art, and his unique personal vision from the beginning went far beyond the conventions of self-expression. It was as if he sensed the extraordinary power and purity of that vision was to become a life task which placed on him intellectual demands and a creative discipline which was to shape and define his creative life for more than fifty years.

That he lived this extraordinary life, as an Australian in Australia, and for the greater part in comparative obscurity, adds an enormous feeling of poignancy to his passing because he, more than any other Australian artist, perhaps even of any other naturalist or scientist or compassionate interpreter of the magical Australian landscape, sought and found the very essence of that landscape. It is that extraordinary enunciation and richly orchestrated revelation of the life, structure, rhythms, light, colour and movement of that landscape which not only gave us his revelations but, in its making, some of the most stunning and original visual images of the past century.

The Artist as Craftsman

In the 1950s and early 1960s, few, if any, of his contemporaries comprehended his unique images and even less his apparent obsession with the craft of making art. The sheer integrity that he demanded of his making and doing skills at every stage probably discomforted many of them, especially at a time when artists were being easily seduced by modern quick fix materials and where speed and convenience of art working in search of instant gratification was becoming the norm. Whilst that would have been reason enough for this consummate master to follow this road, his inspiration sprang from a much more profound source and that was his passion for the perfection of the subject matter of his art. It was as if his subject was in continual dialogue with him, constantly demanding that he push the limits of his creative skills until he had effected that most perfect closure to the visual problem, or it was set quickly aside for another time. It was here in his beloved bush block of Aldersyde at Bickley where this gentle man, a father of two girls and a boy, with his lifelong soul mate Sheila lived their lives and shared in the magic of those achievements.

Yet it was also here, in this isolated, sun drenched corner of the Western world, that this remarkable man in the second half of the twentieth century, in his quest for the most perfect crafting of his art and his interpretation of the life force which filled his vision, undertook a personal voyage of rediscovery of the most intimate craft skills embedded in the art of early Europeans.

He sought out the most intricate secrets of the great Mediaeval painters and craftsmen in order to help coax into life the response of his available materials to the demands of his artistic vision. As his deepening knowledge and understanding of the dynamics of light and colour took him further into the Australian landscape, so too did his exquisite preparation for painting reach to higher and higher levels. This period saw the completion of a remarkable series of bush studies all painted after the exact manner of the early European egg tempera masterpieces, but his genius lay in the way in which he had exploited the capacity for this medium and technique to solve and advance his constant struggle to capture the most subtle phenomena of light and colour.

The architecture and foundations of those brilliant early years shines through every subsequent period of his prolific artistic development. Whilst he showed his work at frustratingly long intervals during the first three decades, this was not, as many suggested, part of the eccentricity or other-worldness of the man. These intensive periods of development could be likened to passionate love affairs, intensive, totally demanding, but like any deep commitment, they were not publicly declared until they had fully run their course. Each exhibition was like a journey through the mind of the artist and for the growing numbers of followers they became exquisite books of instruction.

The Artist in Public

It was inevitable that Taylor would escalate the scale of his works. Whilst he retained his lifelong love of making small, intimate and ephemeral studies, his sheer capacity for spatial investigation led him to make increasingly larger constructed paintings and then the large free standing works. As in all other things, his purpose for sculpture went far beyond those of his contemporaries, and in many ways those strongly held convictions made for nervous patrons.

One of the countless personal pleasures this wonderful human being gave me during our lifelong friendship was the opportunity to commission, or oversee the commissioning, of several of his major works of art in public. It is a sad reflection on the continuing lack of sensitivity of too many of our civic leaders, politicians and even many professionals that the Taylor public sculptures were never accorded the duty of care they deserved. They were, like everything else he touched, works of exquisite simplicity but also of subtlety and strength. Again the legacy of his artistic craftsmanship, truth to materials and processes placed his work at the forefront of Australian achievement.

Yet also this field of achievement revealed the gentleness, compassion and sensitivity of Howard Taylor and his modesty. Where so many others, irrespective of their creative excellence, felt impelled to impress their ideas and demands on their patrons, he always gave his total and abiding commitment to the making of the art itself. He deeply appreciated the honour and joy of making the work and such was the quality of his proposals that they spoke for themselves, directly and compellingly. He never compromised, he never had need to, but if things went wrong, as they did from time to time, he patiently made it right or accepted the outcome with quiet forbearance.

The Artist as Teacher

Too little is known of this man’s contribution to the lives of many young artists, craftspersons, designers and architects. Yet he played a decisive role in the reformulation of art and design education throughout the late 1950s to the mid 1960s in Western Australia when our friendship began as teachers in the rusticated studios of the old Perth Technical College. Whilst it was to become my lifework as the architect of the new programs and the rapid growth of a modern art and design education which created the later schools first at the Western Australian Institute of Technology, and later Curtin University, it was the presence of this fine colleague which gave me the courage to pursue the course I took.

Whilst I was deeply impressed with the artist as teacher, it was not until I spent my first time with him and his family at the rambling homestead of Aldersyde and saw the first of his many works in progress that the extraordinary artistic dimension of this quiet and retiring man revealed itself. It was not simply the presence of so many art works in all their diversity, paintings, drawings, constructions and finely wrought maquettes, but the way in which the idea of his command and ownership of this fabulous domain of inventions and ideas overtook one’s senses. He talked gently and sparingly about his work, and only when a direct and simple question was asked, but his language was as incisive and economical as any of the lines in the many thumbnail sketches and studies that demanded investigation at every turn.

Every piece of work and every stage of work in progress commanded one’s attention and it was never a fleeting or transient encounter. Each visual encounter was transformed into an elegant instruction and often one that would reappear with subtle variations in other works, as if in dialogue, one with the other.

When he was with students, an air of extraordinary peace and warmth pervaded the atmosphere, as he gently coaxed their ideas into expression, but his finely tuned craftsmanship never allowed them to get away with any slipshod or flashy responses to problems in art. At a time when slick, synthetic materials and short-cut methods of preparing to make art were finding wide acceptance, he prepared a series of intricately designed panels which not only physically demonstrated every nuance of the potential behaviours of correctly planned and prepared palettes, but also analysed the actual performance of every kind of pigment, on every kind of ground under the specific climatic conditions in which Australian art was made.

The first systematic and effective teaching program on colour theory and practice was also brilliantly devised by this superb teacher, in the form of a three-dimensional demonstration model which went far beyond the then existing rigid, theoretical models of Ostwald and Munsell. Grounded in his own painterly crafts, it represented the outcomes of his many years of tireless and disciplined investigation of the phenomena of light and colour. For those students who had the wit and integrity to acknowledge his authority and unique insights, these were truly precious experiences.

Whilst he often protested his role as a teacher, his generosity in sharing his creative energy with others included other disciplines, such as architecture, within the embryonic Western Australian Institute of Technology, where the academic leadership then had the creative sensitivity to recognise the originality and designerly powers of this teacher and artist. Although he was by now beginning to reduce his contributions to formal education as his personal practice absorbed more and more of his energy, he sustained this activity for several years, even travelling to Perth after the dramatic move from Bickley to Northcliffe, to ensure that these interdisciplinary links were sustained and that the critical creative links between art, design, and the built environment were restored.

His Place in Australian Art

Howard Taylor was an Australian and his brilliant gifts and stunning vision was totally focused on the depiction of his beloved Australian bush. His vision, however, went far beyond the focus of any painter before him, in that none of them, irrespective of their unquestioned brilliance, ever interrogated and captured the complexity of structure, the ephemeral quality of its light and colour, or the rich and subtle patina of its living forms, as he did.

From the first days of my encounter with him, surrounded by his work at the idyllic bush home and studio at Aldersyde, and then with the unfolding of each of his exhibitions, I realised that this vision was not an Australian vision, either, but came from an intellect and spirit that was totally uncluttered by any artistic convention, let alone the myths and folklore of Australian art. He was a universal artist who possessed a serene faith in his own creative strength and the truth of his vision. He had no conceits and made no claims or demands on his society and he lived a life of perfect harmony with his work, his lovely wife Sheila, and three sturdy Australian kids, Brett, Hilary and Penny.

He was warm and generous to students and concerned for the well being of all of his teaching colleagues. I never ever heard him engage in the temperamental and hurtful behaviours that so frequently plague the company of many ambitious and self-congratulatory artists in our society. That many people on discovering this precious human being in their midst for the first time should have found this serenity, kindness and humanity incongruent with the magical artistic achievements of the man, perhaps serves to underline the universality of his art and the uniqueness of his gifts and vision.

He was a true friend and loving, generous mentor and in this moment of loss I give my deepest thanks to Sheila, who shared the journey with him, for her courage and selfless support through the long years of the world’s neglect; for Hilary and Penny who each in their own way gave their love and constantly expressed their appreciation, support and pride, what a wonderful childhood they lived with such a man; and for Brett, whose strong hands, and brave heart worked side by side with his father to help create so many of the major works, father and son together, I thank you too, for you must be so proud.

Australia has lost its greatest artist, a truly visionary human being, the like of which we may never see again.

Anthony K Russell A.M. August 2001

Tony Russell was for many years Head of the School of Art & Design (WAIT and Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia)


View/Download scan of Obituary as above size 247k jpg file

[Howard Taylor, for Time and Tide, The Australian, 2 August 2001 - by Daniel Thomas]

Howard Taylor

Artist. Born Hamilton, Victoria, August 29, 1918. Died Perth, July 19, aged 82.

Howard Who to much of the eastern-states art world, but long adored in Western Australia, Howard Taylor was one of Australia’s greatest artists.

His stature was fully revealed in 1985 when the Art Gallery of Western Australia presented a major retrospective by curator Gary Dufour. The Australia Council’s Visual Arts Board promptly created its Emeritus Awards for inadequately-appreciated senior artists and gave the first to Howard Taylor.

Fellow artists promoted him: the British Op Art painter Bridget Riley, visiting Perth, organised his 1978 show at Coventry Gallery, Sydney. But it was an isolated appearance.

The eastern art market saw little of the work that, over 50 years, sold very well from his many exhibitions in Perth. The Art Gallery of WA owns 281 works (216 Sculpture Maquettes were gifted to the Gallery by the artist late last year), the Holmes à Court collection 33, and Kerry Stokes ten.

Moreover, the paintings were always too austere, aristocratic and subtle to be popularised through reproduction, whereas in the intimate presence of the sensuous surfaces, the exact colours and tones of the actual work, viewers always fell in love with it. Nor did his difficult, complex public sculptures come across in photographic reproduction.

And if the work was never brash and attention-seeking, neither was he. He did not schmooze, seldom attended his own exhibition openings. He lived out of town, first on sixty acres of bush in the hills; then in 1967 he became even less accessible, 400 km away near Northcliffe in giant karri-forest country, a short drive from the wild, bald granite coast of the Southern Ocean. Forest and ocean and the sun fed his art.

Double self-portrait, 1959, demonstrates an art full of doubletake reversals and surprising transformations: arms are raised to become aircraft wings, shirt stretched to beome tree-trunk woodgrain; an eye framed by fingers forcibly emphasises that works of art might look back and scrutinise us. Forest figure, 1977, repeats the theme in a wall-hung painted sculpture: a red-veined green tree yearns to be human, and then to fly.

The painting Sun figure, 1989, an at-first-sight reticent white disk on yellow, changed under curator Mary Eagle’s gaze: “No colour is quite itself...the white disk glared. It became a shocking pink, then mauve. The yellow arc wobbled, fattened...moved shockingly from side to side. A white ring like fire ran around the edge of the mauve.... It was the same an ancient one relating to the sun [when we] have transgressed natural law, looked into the sun...and been blinded”.

Real sun-glare obliterated the horizon of a shifting sand-dune when Taylor, his wife and two very close friends were being driven along his Southern Ocean shore in high summer 1992. Their landcruiser suddenly fell off the world—into a vertical descent. The transgression cost them serious injury and a spell in Manjimup Hospital. The two friends were Magda and Douglas Sheerer, his devoted gallerists. In 1995 they opened beautiful new premises for their Galerie Düsseldorf, built specially to showcase installations of Taylor’s light-and-space-hungry works of art, beginning with a huge abstract three-rectangle construction titled Winged figure, a cool white angel facing a hot, dark sun disk titled Light source reverse.

Howard Hamilton Taylor’s middle name is his birthplace in the Western District of Victoria. It was his mother’s home town, to which she returned from Adelaide to her own mother for the birth of the last of four children. The artist’s first exhibition, and only that one, was presented under his full name. Perhaps, at his artistic coming out in 1949, he was signalling that he would always be intensely concerned with mythic and emotional particularities of place, as well as their peculiar visualities.

The Adelaide years left little, he said, but the memory of a pungent scent: pepper trees in hot schoolyards and at home. The remark suggests that besides working on our senses of sight and touch, his paintings and walk-in sculptures, deliberately structured to give optical after-images, colour-changes and dissolutions, might be allowed also to conjure up fragrance—not to mention non-sensory levels of spiritual aura.

But he resisted talk about the spiritual. Aged thirteen, he had disapproved of his father, trained in Adelaide as an architect, a practical man, going west to Perth and going spiritual, as a minister of religion. Only grudgingly, deep inside Ted Snell’s 1995 book Howard Taylor: Forest Figure, after saying his art “is the result of practical procedures” Taylor conceded that “when not this, [it] is simply the old fumble.... The more intangible aspects are not encouraged...suspect—known [but] kept quiet”.

The boy liked intricate machines, made model aircraft, enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force in 1937, graduated top of his class, and transferred to the less well-trained Royal Air Force in Britain, preparing for war. Shot down in 1940 over Alsace Lorraine he spent five years incarcerated in German camps. To fill the days he made drawings of his fellow-prisoners, and the extremely sight-conscious airman started turning into an artist.

In 1945, convalescent in London, Taylor met the gorgeous Corporal Sheila Smith and married her next year. He studied at the Birmingham College of Art, acknowledging no particular formative influences though the best English artist of the time, Paul Nash, was a semi-surreal painter of sacred-grove landscapes. Back in Perth in 1949 they settled at Bickley in the Darling Range.

He supported his family by teaching as little as possible, part-time and in the evenings, so that he could spend the days making art. From 1951 he taught painting and drawing at Perth Technical College, then, 1965–1970, added sculpture to his classes in the School of Architecture at the W.A. Institute of Technology (now Curtin University). He is remembered as an excellent teacher, and as a key reformer of the College Art School with Tony Russell. His art-making ran through 30 solo exhibitions 1949–2000, fourteen major public art commissions 1960–89, and 46 group exhibitions 1949–2001.

The last was ‘Phenomena: New Painting in Australia’, currently on display [ed. NB, till 12 August 2001] at the Art Gallery of N.S.W. Taylor was positioned there as Australia’s best present-day abstract painter, the touchstone for a moment when both abstract art and the medium of painting seem to be re-emerging as of interest to the avant-garde. (Some, including the present writer, believe that after the death of the very different and much more erratic Arthur Boyd, Taylor was our best artist of any kind.)

His contribution to ‘Phenomena’ scored a rave review from art critic Benjamin Genocchio: beyond abstraction there was also “masterful interpretation of landscape”, “real emotion, mystery and intrigue”, “climactic ecstasy”. Similarly in 1999 a solo show at Annandale Galleries, Sydney, drew raves from art critic Bruce James: a god of some kind was present in these images of water turbulence, foliage and skies, and Tree fork fragment was a “totemic translation of Taylor’s own torso into woody being.... An artist of the sacred”.

Following a bad fall, airman-artist Howard Taylor was transported in early July to the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, Perth, by flying doctor. Complications ensued, and death.

He is survived by his wife Sheila, their daughters Penny Hammond and Hilary Halse, an artist, and son Brett, a forester, and collaborator on his father’s public commissions, currently re-constructing the outdoor timber piece, Way through, for Curtin University—and by twelve grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren. At Karrakatta cemetery Brett and the five grandsons, all very handsome, carried Howard Taylor back to the earth.

Honours included an AM in 1989, the same year that Parliament House, Perth, commissioned a major wood sculpture as a gift to New Parliament House, Canberra; Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of WA, 1993; Honorary Doctor of Technology, Curtin University, 1998. In 1999 the WA Government designated him a State Living Treasure.

Howard Taylor permitted a rare television interview shortly before his death. It is scheduled for broadcast on ABC Coast to Coast, Sunday morning 26 August.

Howard Taylor can be
visited at

Daniel Thomas is a former art-museum curator and director. He now lives in Tasmania


Obituary written by Dr David Bromfield for The West Australian July 2001

Howard Hamilton Taylor, O.A. Victoria 29 August 1918 - Perth 19 July 2001

Last week Howard Taylor, Western Australia's most distinguished artist died in Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital Perth after an operation for a broken hip, caused by a fall at his home in Northcliffe. Taylor's career of consistent hard work dignified art in Western Australia for over fifty years. It was, however, only in the last decade that his magnificent achievement received the recognition that it deserved. In part, this was a result of the isolation of all art here, but Taylor's unwavering focus on exploring the relationship between the local landscape and the constructivist ethos which he first encountered in the UK after the Second World War, his insistence on developing his vision and craftsmanship unperturbed by artworld enthusiasms and his indifference to short term success, also contributed to the slow growth of appreciation for his work. He once said that, as well as
ideas, "art is also drudge, drudge, drudge".

Taylor's family moved to Perth in the 1930's where he attended Perth Modern School. His first love was flying. He constructed several meticulously made model aircraft using techniques that were later to influence his approach to sculpture. In 1937 he enrolled for pilot training with the RAAF and served in France from the outbreak of war until 1940 when he was shot down over Alsace Lorraine. He spent the next five years as a P.O.W. , which, he said, "was the most important time of my life artistically because that's when I did accept the fact that I might head that way and I got deeply involved in it".

He returned briefly to Perth in November 1945 for decommissioning and then left to spend two years at Birmingham College of Art U.K. on an RAAF grant. His informal relation to the college left him free to engage with the work of Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson and other prominent British modernists who had fused aspects of constructism and surrealism into a new vision of the landscape. He developed this experience into his own uniquely powerful vision of the Western Australian landscape.

In 1945 before his return to Australia he met an English girl Sheila Smith in 1946 they married and set up home in Birmingham where they had their first child. throughout their life together Sheila remained his most constant and enthusiastic supporter. The family returned to Australia in January 1948 and established themselves in relative isolation on sixty hectares of bushland in Bickley where they stayed until 1967 when they moved to Northcliffe to avoid the increasing urbanisation.

Taylor began his career as a painter in oils and in the highly demanding medium of tempera, in which he first experimented with a constructivist vision of landscape and life in the bush, in works such as Blackboy 1950. His first exhibitions at Newspaper House in 1949 and 1951 were well received but he chose not to exhibit his audaciously modern Double Self Portrait now in the Art Gallery of WA.

The unique private and public sculpture, for which he is best known was developed from these early paintings. In using his painting Stumps and Ash 1951 to develop The Black Stump 1975, which was relocated from outside the AMP building on St Georges Terrace to U.W.A. , Taylor was able to link a modernistic public monument directly to his intimate experience of the local landscape. This was, and remains, a unique achievement. A similar relationship occurred in his massive mural commissions for the Fremantle passenger terminal which featured local flora and fauna.Taylor's considerable public work received great support from local architects, notably John White who arranged his first commission for All Saints Osborne Park in 1950.

Taylor is also revered as an inspirational and enthusiastic teacher. At Perth Tech in the fifties he taught fine and commercial art students and students in the first professional architecture course in the state. Later at WAIT now Curtin University he was both part-time teacher and an honoured artist-fellow who contributed several works to the new campus. Taylor's first show in Sydney in 1978 at the Coventry Galleries was a critical but not a commercial success. It was not until the late 1980's that full national recognition came first with the Emeritus award of the Australia Council in 1985 and then the Order of Australia 1989. Critically succesful sell-out exhibitions across Australia followed.

From the mid 1980's Taylor returned to landscape painting, though now in a far more abstracted form in which the land was represented solely by intensely observed qualities of colour and atmophere. Most of his painting were made on wooden panels which he crafted as meticulously as ever. They offered themost stable base for his extraordinary finely worked surfaces which can seem painted with light itself. The work of his late years is of unsurpassed beauty and elegance. At the time of his death he was preparing new work for an exhibition at Galerie Düsseldorf, Perth in August 2002.

Dr David Bromfield

Link back to Intro Howard Taylor Web Page