In the mid 1970s Fred Williams spent a couple of weeks on Flinders Island, Tasmania, (in the Bass Strait between Victoria and Tasmania). He painted a series of gouaches from Vinegar Hill on the island ‘overlooking the ocean to the point where the waters of Bass Strait meet the Pacific ocean’. From these he produced a small number of oil paintings of Potboil shoals. One of these paintings was included in the major exhibition, Fred Williams: Infinite Horizons at the National Gallery of Australia in 2011. During the exhibition the High Court’s Potboil shoals painting was hung in the atrium of the Court, making a link between the two buildings and drawing attention to the small but significant collection of Australian art in the High Court.
The High Court acquired its version of Potboil shoals before the building opened, through the encouragement of James Mollison, the inaugural director of the National Gallery of Australia. Mollison advised the High Court on the acquisition and commissioning of contemporary work at the time.
Williams was initially primarily interested in the landscape. In a diary entry for 10 January 1968, he acknowledged ‘I always find the light disconcerting at the beach – but find it just the opposite in the landscape – I have become very interested in the actual look of water – I guess this should have interested me long ago but it never did’. The handful of Potboil shoals paintings are amongst a considerable body of work produced in the early to late 1970s focussing on the relationship between the land, ocean and sky (at various sites along the Victorian coastline as well as on Erith and Flinders Islands in Bass Strait) in which the composition is built up layer upon layer, in horizontal bands. As Deborah Hart says ‘.. they allowed Williams to follow his interest in multiples in a single work’.
In rendering this seascape Williams used a long narrow format that conveys the vastness of the view, and emphasises the continuity of the lines that mark the change from land to sea to sky.