Other artworks

  • Not on public display
  • (1927–82)
  • Potboil shoals, Flinders Island
  • 1974–75
  • oil on canvas
  • Collection of the High Court of Australia

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.

About the artist

  • Melbourne was Fred Williams’ place. There in the 1940s he attended the National Gallery School (1943–47) and the George Bell Art School (1946–50). He first exhibited in 1951 with colleagues Ian Armstrong and Harry Rosengrave at the Stanley Coe Gallery in Melbourne. In the 1950s Williams went to London to study. During this time he produced the Music Hall and London genre paintings and etchings which are an important part of his early output. Back in Australia landscape painting became the dominant theme for Williams and his career began to blossom. He was awarded the Helena Rubinstein Travelling Art Scholarship in 1963 and began to win various competitions, including the Transfield, Muswellbrook and Robin Hood Art Prizes in 1964, the Georges Invitation Art Prize, WD and HO Wills Art Prize, John McCaughey Prize and Art Gallery of New South Wales Trustees Watercolour Prize in 1966. He won the John McCaughey Prize again in 1971 and the Wynne Prize in 1967, 1976 and 1977. Williams served on various boards including the Commonwealth Arts Advisory Board and the Visual Art Board of the Australia Council. His work was included in major exhibitions within Australia and internationally, including a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (and touring) in 1976, the same year in which he was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). In 1980 he was awarded Doctorate of Law, LLD (Honoris Causa) by Monash University, Melbourne.

    Fred Williams was a relatively young man when he died in his early 50s. His achievement was formidable and his ability to interpret the landscape was already recognised as visionary.