John Olsen is a master water-colourist and one of the nation’s greatest living painters, with every major state institution around Australia owning one or more of his paintings. He has been painting for more than 60 years, and is famous for capturing the essence of the Australian landscape.
Around 1963 John and his young family moved into a small fisherman’s cottage at Watsons Bay; he lived there once more in 1967, for a year, then again briefly in 1971. The village like atmosphere and the proximity to the sea influenced his art and brought back childhood memories of Bondi. There are references to Watsons Bay in many of his paintings.
He wrote in 1973: "I've always thought of the formation of Sydney's land forms as a bitch goddess and frankly at times it frightens me. The breasty contours of its hills ... when your [sic] sailing through the heads you feel as though your [sic] sailing through her arms - And when you are coming into her you feel you are going deeper and you are caught in her spidery net."
The Art Gallery of NSW states that 'Five Bells' (pictured here) is widely considered to be one of Olsen's most significant paintings, and yet it was hidden away from public view for thirty-six years, in the house of George and Eva Clarke, who commissioned the work. The gallery purchased it in 1999.
“Five Bells was my first commission to paint in situ to cover a wall. The freedom, scale and scope of the commission challenged me to dare to try for a masterpiece. I didn't hesitate. I brushed a line around the core theme, the seed-burst, the life-burst, the sea-harbour, the source of life. Inside and around this core, I painted images drawn from metaphors and similes in [Kenneth] Slessor's poem of our harbour-city, and from my own emotional and physical involvement with the harbour, and with my young family in Watsons Bay, my ‘Milkwood’ fishing village.
“I wanted to show the Harbour as a movement, a sea suck, and the sound of the water as though I am part of the sea ... The painting says directly what I wanted to say: “I am in the sea-harbour, and the sea-harbour is in me”. So too is much of Slessor's poem of ‘one life, of Joe, long dead, who lives between five bells’. Joe, ‘long sucked away in mud’, has become part of the harbour where ‘the sea pinks bend like lilies’. Among the crabs, anemones, sea urchins, squid, mussels, and seaweeds of the rockpools and the harbour bottom, one can believe one sees a dead friend's 'gaunt chin and pricked eye'.”
- John Olsen 1999
His memories of Watsons Bay are brought to life in an interview with John and his son, Tim Olsen, by Janet Hawley, for the Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend magazine (Jan 8, 2000.)
“John: Tim had this sensuality; he was a very uncomplicated child. At Watsons Bay, the question was, 'Where is he?' He was always Nature Boy, out exploring the beach, watching the fishermen and their catch at the wharf.”
“Tim: My earliest memories of home at Watsons Bay were raucous times when Dad caroused with his mates - Drysdale, Dobell, Donald Friend, Robert Hughes, Barry Humphries - then extreme quiet when Dad was painting. Every morning we swam at Camp Cove. Dad put me on his shoulders and we both sang, 'I'm the king of the castle and you're the dirty rascal.”
References to Watsons Bay continue throughout John Olsen’s life in painting, but “The Harbour” poem, written in 2002, also talks about his beloved “bay”.
Through the heads
Ships each morning slide
Into the harbour of memory;
Their wake is a skin of the past,
Skins that smooth
The hour glass of sand.
Crystal tidal pools awash with
Sliding squids, spotted fish,
Prickled sea urchins and cranky crabs,
In a turning world am I the
Bay that called the world John Olsen
Or John Olsen that became the bay?
John Olsen, Watsons Bay, 2002