Frederick Ronald Williams was born to Albert and Florence Williams on 23rd January 1927 in Richmond, Melbourne. Albert was an electrician and Florence a housewife. Albert hoped that his third child would become an architect but at age 16, Fred signed up for evening drawing classes at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School. From the age of 14, he had been apprenticed to shopfitters T.S.Gill & Son, where Fred worked in the drafting office.
Fred learned to draw in the traditional manner, copying from plaster casts but in 1945, he enrolled in the school full-time for the life-drawing and painting modules. Renowned portrait painter William Dargie had been appointed headmaster that year, a post he held until 1953. In January 1960, Dargie was awarded the OBE as a ‘Member of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board’. He was also awarded the Archibald Prize eight times.
In 1947, Fred was awarded the National Gallery of Victoria Travelling Scholarship. The winner travelled and studied the art of the ‘Old Masters’ in Europe. Over the course of the three years of the scholarship, the recipient was expected to paint a copy of an Old Master, complete a nude piece and an original composition. The award was discontinued in 1968.
From 1948 to 1950, Fred also attended Saturday morning life-drawing classes under George Bell, a founding member of the Contemporary Art Society which was founded as an antithesis to the conservative Australian Academy of Art that Robert Menzies established in June 1937. Bell’s school taught French modernism and Fred wanted to learn more about technique, composition and art history than the National Gallery school could offer.
In 1951, Fred sailed for London where he signed up for evening life-drawing classes at the Chelsea School of Art, managing to find regular employment with Savage’s Picture Framers, established in 1905. Living in a bedsit in South Kensington and with little cash to spare, Fred would make gouache sketches on paper and cardboard offcuts from the framers. He became interested in etching from studying prints of Rembrandt and Goya at the British Museum and in 1953, he signed up for a night course in the subject at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. For three years, he drew and etched plates which he printed at the Chelsea Art School.
His work was included in two exhibitions, the ‘Recent Australian Painting’ exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the ‘Australian Painting: Colonial, Impressionism, Modern’ at the Tate Gallery.
Between 1952 and 1956, Williams spent many hours in the music halls, making 53 etchings. His Music Hall Studies – Dancer in crayon and wash sold for A$3200 in April 1994. A similar work, Music Hall Study – Young Woman in High Heels sold for A$3500 at the same sale.
The British Museum showcased many of these works in the 2004 exhibition Fred Williams: From Music Hall to Landscape.
Fred suffered from chronic asthma and he took the opportunity to return home when his family bought him a reduced-price ticket on board a ship taking visitors to the 1956 Olympic Games, held in Melbourne. He started to move away from his mainly figure-based work to painting landscapes. Fellow artists including John Brack and Arthur Boyd had created their Antipodean Manifesto, which preferred expressionist painting rather than the established European art that they felt was too large an influence on emerging Australian artists. Williams was of the latter school of thought and he was excluded from the sole Antipodean exhibition held at the Victorian Art Society in 1959.
The following year Fred was invited to submit entries for the Helena Rubinstein Travelling Art Scholarship which at that time offered £1000 prize money with an additional £300 for travel expenses which would allow the winner international experience. Williams did not win that year but was awarded the scholarship in 1963; his win allowed him to give up part-time work and also saw Sydney art dealer Rudy Komon sign Williams up. Entry to the competition required five works and Williams submitted Landscape with a steep road (1957), Landscape with a building I (c. 1957–58), The forest pond (c. 1959–60), Sherbrooke Forest (1960) and The St George River (1960). The etching Landscape with a Steep Road sold for A$2400 in August 2010 and The Forest Pond sold for A$2000 in June 2016. His oil on board sketch for Sherbrooke Forest (1959) sold for A$78 000 in June 2000.
In January 1960, while he was painting in Sherbrook, a small settlement in Victoria (the 2006 census counted a population of 196), Williams met Eve Lynette (Lyn) Watson. They married in 1961, moving to South Yarra and produced three daughters, Isobel, Louise and Kate. In 1963, the family relocated to Upwey, in the Dandenong Ranges, approximately 35km east of Melbourne.
In 1964, Fred and Lyn travelled through Europe for six months on the proceeds of the Rubinstein scholarship.
Having returned to Upwey, Fred painted several works of the area; his oil on canvas Upwey Landscape painted in 1965 sold for, what was at the time, April 2006, the second highest recorded price for any work sold at an Australian auction; A$1 600 000. Another piece also painted in 1965, Landscape with Water Ponds sold for A$1 550 000 in September 2007. A record sale price was reached in November 2009 when Evening Sky, Upwey (1965) sold for A$1 150 000.
Upwey Landscape also won Williams the Wynne Prize in 1966. This is an annual award for ‘the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours or for the best example of figure sculpture by Australian artists completed during the 12 months preceding the [closing] date’. The prize was established in 1897 by Richard Wynne and is one of Australia’s longest-running awards.
In the Sixties and Seventies, Williams painted a number of works of the You Yangs landscape. The You Yangs comprise granite ridges between Melbourne and Geelong, encompassing an unremarkable lava plain. He would begin by painting en Plein air in gouache, completing the works in oil back in his studio. Williams painted the landscape from an aerial perspective, with no focal point. His oil on masonite You Yangs Landscape 1 (1963) sold for A$1 875 000 in June 2013. You Yangs Landscape (1974) sold for A$90 000 in June 2003 and was re-sold for A$220 000 in August 2007.
In 1970, Williams began a series on the West Gate Bridge construction project, designed to link Melbourne and Geelong. On 15th October 1970, a 112m span collapsed into the Yarra River, killing thirty-five construction workers. Williams had planned to paint the entire river length, but Lyne Williams said Fred had ‘lost heart’ in his undertaking following the tragedy.
By 1971, Williams had developed his technique of painting separate horizontal strips of one scene, depicting varying times of day with its subsequent changes in tone and colour. His gouache on paper Queenscliff (1971) was painted looking down from a cliff onto the beach below. It fetched A$28 000 in November 2001.
Williams went to Erith Island, an unpopulated granite atoll in the Bass Strait with fellow artist Clifton Pugh and two historians, Stephen Murray-Smith and Ian Turner in March 1974. The group could not depart the island as planned, due to bad weather. Williams again utilised his horizontal strip painting format to create numerous works in gouache of the location. Williams was an avid diarist and wrote between 27th-28th March 1974, “I do ‘strip’ paintings of the beach using sand glued on – but the wind has worn me to a ‘frazzle’ … My final half doz. strip paintings are my best.”
Williams won the Wynne Prize for a second time in 1976 with Mt. Kosciusko. This sold at auction for A$45 000 in April 1999 and for A$55 000 less than a year later, in August 2000.
He was also awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1976.
A highlight of Fred’s career was being the first Australian to be invited to give a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1977. The exhibition was a retrospective of Fred’s gouache works and entitled Fred Williams: Landscapes of a Continent. Four New York dealers submitted invitations to represent him, but he rejected all their approaches, preferring to return to Melbourne. It was his first visit to New York, but he claimed that “I will never paint anywhere but in Australia because I know Australia … I must be inside looking out, not outside looking in”.
In 1977, Williams was able to undertake his first light aircraft flight, over Weipa, a mining town on the Cape York Peninsula in Queenstown. It had long been an ambition of his to do this. His subsequent work Bushfire at Weipa, gouache on paper (1977) sold for A$50 000 in June 2007. Two years later he made two further trips to the Pilbara in the north of Western Australia as a guest of mining company Conzinc Rio Tinto. He made numerous gouache studies but only completed oil paintings from these in 1981. His Dry Creek Bed, Werribee Gorge I (1977) was included in Quintessence Editions Ltd. 2007 edition of 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die, as was a later work Drifting Smoke (1981). His work is also represented in the book 100 Masterpieces of Australian Landscape Painting (1981) which includes contemporaries such as John Glover, Hans Heysen and Sidney Nolan.
The Werribee Gorge series is considered to be one of Williams’ most important periods. Werribee Gorge 1 (1977) sold for A$200 000 in March 2006; Werribee Gorge II (1978) sold for A$420 000 in June 2011 and then for A$620 000 in September 2015. Werribee Gorge IV (1978) sold for A$410 000 in September 2011. The works are a birds-eye view of the bleak landscape of the Werribee Gorge State Park in Victoria. He used a limited palette of tertiary ochres and siennas highlighted with complementary colours.
William’s Lal Lal polyptych (1979) depicts the Lal Lal Falls (running water in Aborigine) on the Moorabooi River near Ballarat. The work comprises 4 oil on canvas panels illustrating changes in the light and landscape, painted after a visit to the historic site officially discovered in 1837. Williams was inspired by Austrian artist Eugene von Guerard’s work Waterfall, Strath Creek (1862), situated in the Mount Disappointment State Forest in Victoria.
In 1980, Monash University awarded Williams an honorary Doctorate of Law; the distinguished tribute dates to the 15th century, when Oxford University presented the first to Lionel Woodville, later the Bishop of Salisbury.
Williams was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in November 1981 and he dies only a few months later, on the 22nd April 1982, aged only 55 at his home in East Hawthorn. Lyn Williams administers his estate from what was a factory in Melbourne that she purchased in 1989. She has kept and catalogued his most important works as well as displaying his easel and brushes with the diaries he kept throughout his life.
Williams held more than 70 solo exhibitions both in Australia and internationally. His work can now be found in numerous galleries in Australia including the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and the National Gallery of Victoria. He is also featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Gallery, London. He was noteworthy for not only being a prolific painter but is also celebrated for his etchings. In March 2014, the Queensland Art Gallery held an exhibition ‘Fred Williams: Painter, Printmaker’, showcasing more than 90 examples of Williams’s work. Included were pieces from his early years in the ’40s and ’50s and from his portfolio ‘Fred Williams lithographs 1976-1978’. Independent writer Julie Ewington noted in her blog on 25 February 2014 that the exhibition was “a reassessment of a kinda way for audiences to revisit Williams’s extraordinary achievements, as both painter and printmaker”.
At Williams’s funeral, fellow artist John Brack noted in his eulogy that “Fred brought us a new vision of Australia’s landscape at least as valid and impressive as any of the two or three major illuminations which went before it. He changed the way we see our country: an achievement which will live long after all of us are gone”.