Hugh Sawrey

Along with Pro Hart, Sawrey (1919-1999) is arguably one of Australia’s greatest bush painters and undoubtedly one of the best ever painters of the horse. He has been listed by the directors of London’s Tyron Gallery as one of the top ten horse painters of the world.

Vibrant images of fiery steeds punching through the thirsty dust of a drought-ridden land are synonymous with Sawrey. True to the tradition of history painting in Australia, he was particularly inspired by the heroic effort of people to wrest a livelihood from the unyielding Queensland outback.


A figurative impressionist painter of the outback along with Pro Hart, Sawrey (1919-1999) is arguably one of Australia's greatest bush painters.  Undoubtedly he is one of the best-ever painters of the horse.  When he exhibited at the Tryon Gallery I, London the directors listed him in the top ten horse painters of the world.  Vibrant images of fiery steeds punching through the thirsty dust of a drought-ridden land are synonymous with Sawrey.

Sawrey was true to the tradition of history painting in Australia. It wasn't the epic poems of the Greeks that inspired him but Australian bush-poets.  It wasn't high moral values that were espoused but the values of mateship and it wasn't the heroism and valour in long ago battles. Rather, it was the heroic effort to wrest a livelihood from the unyielding Queensland outback.  Many of Sawrey’s oil paintings depict Queensland and the Northern Territory and cattle stations on which he worked early in his life.

No stranger to the hardship of the Australian outback, Sawrey worked for many years as a stockman droving and mustering out past the Cooper and Diamantina, and as far west as W.A.  Drought took his own mob of cattle in 1947 and he nearly broke his back splitting posts, ring-barking and clearing with his mother, on a small property of their own, a property too small, too harsh and unyielding.  He scribbled sketches and painted on anything that he could find.  In his earlier days he would take a piece of charcoal from the campfire and draw on the camp shovel.  It was in this arid land that he developed a talent for painting bush scenes drawn from his personal experience, experience that was evocative and sharp.

Sawrey's first significant works were a series of murals at the Kogan Creek Hotel based on themes from AJ 'Banjo' Paterson's poems - in 1959. The Kogan Hotel murals were auctioned at Tia Galleries, Toowoomba, 26 July 1981 after failing to sell at the Hotel on 23 August 1980.  He completed two murals for nearby Tara's Commercial Hotel in 1960, You'll Come a Waltzing Matilda with Me and Clancy's gone to Queensland Droving.  During his early years Sawrey executed other murals in regional hotels in exchange for accommodation including Paterson's Bush Christening in the lounge of a hotel in Barcaldine and In Defense of the Bush for a hotel in Emerald.

The positive reception of these murals inspired him, like many promising artists of the period, to enter art competitions in Brisbane. Sawrey submitted two works to the Redcliffe Art Contest and to the HC Richards Prize at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1961.  He went to Brisbane in 1963 to try to break into the local art scene, participating in an art competition organised by Lawrie Quinn, the host of the Royal Hotel, Queen Street where his Stock Camp Boys won 1st Prize.  Near the premises of Queensland Newspapers and The Courier-Mail was the Royal Hotel, journalists' preferred watering hole.  It was here that Sawrey met Lawrie Kavanagh who was to be his principal chronicler. The acceptance of his work by the bar's habituates inspired Quinn to commission Sawrey to paint a series of 5-metre long murals based on Paterson’s Geebung Polo Club and Mulga Bill's Bicycle on the walls of the public bar.  The hotel was demolished in 1968 to make way for Post Office Square but the murals were saved by architecture student Colin Barnett.

Apart from his paintings inspired by the 'bush poets', Sawrey broadened his range to include portraiture. Among his portraits was a painting of a well-endowed and blowsy woman which he submitted to the first Johnsonian Club Art Prize in 1963.  Sawrey was furious when his work was treated disrespectfully and thought of giving up his attempt at an art career but was mollified when it was purchased by a group of members of the Club's committee for the substantial sum of 35 guineas.

Sawrey painted all the facets of life he knew as a stockman.  His desire was to show townspeople what went on beyond the city lights.  A billy boiling near a rolled out swag, the scent of gum trees and the gentle jingle of hobble chains were as familiar to him as the clear night sky.  It is under this sky that he sat sketching and painting the events from a day's droving or a picture based on a mate's yarn. Lifetimes of outback stories are related by Sawrey in his works with an honesty that is valued for its merit throughout Australia.   His charcoal sketches drawn for the Courier Mail, where a lifetime of outback stories is depicted in each work, have become archival.

In 1985 Sawrey provided the illustrations for 'The Banjo's' best-loved poems, a book of works which were selected by his grand-daughters.  In 1994 he achieved a greater profile when his series of twelve paintings depicting the theme of Waltzing Matilda celebrated the poem's centenary in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia opened by then Prime Minister Paul Keating.  Subsequently the display toured around Australia in Boeing 727 jet plane owned by Ansett-ANA decorated with Sawrey's painting of Waltzing Matilda. Sawrey's appreciation of popular literary culture extended to CJ Dennis as he was commissioned to paint a series on his poem The Sentimental Bloke.

In 1981 Sawrey published a book The Art of Hugh Sawrey, which was launched by Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen and which included a series of the exploits of the early explorers.  As the decade progressed he shifted from works with a literary inspiration to paintings which connected with his experiences in the pastoral industry in Queensland and the Northern Territory.  His freely executed and sketchy 'impressionist' style gained his work a popular following.

In 1986 Sawrey's largest painting, Tilbooroo cattle along the Paroo River was included in his exhibition at Galloway Galleries in Brisbane with then Arts Minister, Peter McKecknie, lobbying unsuccessfully for its purchase by the Queensland Art Gallery. Sawrey said of his work and this painting in particular:

'I think I've chronicled the whole outback. It is the genuineness and stark reality of the bush that I love.  The basic things inspire me, the bush itself.  It absorbs my interest because out there you realise you are just nobody, just a cog in the whole business.' (The Courier-Mail , Brisbane, 16 July 1986)

Sawrey was awarded several art prizes during his career including the Queensland Industries Fair Gold Medal and in 1989 he was awarded a CBE for services to the arts.  He exhibited in most of Australia's major galleries and also in London at the Tryon Gallery.  His work is represented in important public and private collections in Australia including the Queensland Art Gallery, the Robert Holmes a Court Collection, the Sir Rupert and Lady Clarke Collection, the Lady Fairfax Collection and the Robert Nesen Collection.  He’s also represented in overseas collections such as the Dunedin Gallery in New Zealand, the Australian Embassy in Paris; Rothchild Collection, Paris; the Lord T. Remnant Collection in Britain; King Ranch, Texas, USA and the Mitsubishi Collection in Japan.

Hugh Sawrey was founder and chairman of the famous Stockman's Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre at Longreach, Queensland.  His works are held in many national and international galleries and private and corporate collections.

“In my paintings and drawings I have tried to be honest and factual above all things because Australia is an honest land"

The Art of Hugh Sawrey, John Hooper, Albion Press 1981
Top Horse Painters of the World; the Bulletin, 6 April 1982, Sydney
Outback, L Cavanaugh & H Sawrey, UQP 1993

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