PETER BOOTH: Unveiling the Darker Shades of Humanity

Painting (1977) - Photo by National Gallery of Victoria

Think dark fantasy, surrealist, figurative or abstract art and you probably have Peter Booth in mind.

Booth was born in Sheffield, England to working-class parents. His father was employed in the local steel mills and his mother was a cinema usherette. Sheffield was the major producer of steel products in the 19th-century but had been noteworthy for its knives and swords forged from its vast local iron deposits for the previous 500 years.

In the 1930’s, Sheffield’s steel factories were rejuvenated from the effects of the ongoing recession by producing weapons and ammunition in anticipation of the looming Second World War. Its importance to the war effort was understood by the Germans and the city was bombed by the Luftwaffe between 12th and 15th December 1940, causing hundreds of deaths and the destruction of thousands of houses, as well as massive damage to industrial sites.

Peter Booth – Photo by Zan Wimberley | Art Collector Issue 72

Peter Booth was born on the 4th November 1940, into this maelstrom of fire and devastation. For years Sheffield continued to be bombed as a strategic target. This atmosphere, together with the smoke and embers discharging from the industrial furnaces of the steel mills was to define Booth’s art. His escape from what he considered a claustrophobic environment was to spend weekends cycling the local moors with his father.

After leaving school at 15, he worked as a copy boy for a local newspaper. In 1956, he signed up at the Sheffield College of Art for drawing lessons, which he attended until his family emigrated to Australia in 1957. They settled in the rural town of Altona, Melbourne where Booth found work as a labourer. In 1962, he enrolled at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School; artist John Brack was his mentor there, having been engaged as the institution’s head that same year. In 1964, Peter won the prize for subject painting and was also co-winner of the Bernard Hall prize for figure painting.

After graduating in 1965, Booth began teaching painting at the Prahran Technical College in Melbourne, where he stayed until 1969. During 1967, he also conducted part-time drawing classes at the National Gallery school.

Untitled painting 1966-1967 – Photo by National Gallery of Victoria

The National Gallery of Victoria’s new building in St Kilda Road opened in 1968 with ‘The Field’ exhibition, which included a selection of Booth’s architectural, geometric coloured block paintings. He was employed by the gallery between 1969-1975 in the Prints and Drawing department, where he was exposed to and influenced by artists including Goya and William Blake. The latter was a 19th-century poet and gothic artist. He is reported to have seen visions from a young age and was also inspired by the Bible, both having a profound effect on his work. Booth also admired Spanish painter Goya whose etchings commented on contemporary greed and corruption as well as the horrors of the Napoleonic wars. Notable authors including Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Gabriel García Márquez were also to have a significant effect on Booth’s work.

Also in 1968, he was included in Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales ‘Recent Australian Art’ exhibition. His first solo exhibition was at the Pinacotheca Gallery in Melbourne, held from 25th August to 5th September 1970.

Untitled 2002 – Photo by National Gallery of Victoria

In 1973, Peter began keeping a dream diary in bound notebooks (which have since been unbound and separated). His work began to reflect hybrid apocalyptic monsters represented by his dreams. In 1975, Peter was attacked in his home and pushed into a mirror. The incident triggered limbic epilepsy, from which he still suffers. Tellingly, his ‘Painting, 1975’ includes shards of glass. The piece was auctioned by Sotheby’s in October 1993 for A$2 600.

Booth had always drawn images on paper, even on scraps if that was all that was available. He created, and creates, thousands of drawings from which he says his paintings “must follow their own course”.

In 1985, Australian poet and art critic, Gary Catalano, compiled an assessment of Booth’s drawings. He categorised these in four sections; Booth’s pen and pencil drawings of his dreams, coloured works influenced by Blake, the 1970’s drawings of space and circular motifs with grotesque, mostly male figures and lastly, his apocalyptic works which also began incorporating snow.

Drawing (black doorway) , 1972 – Photo by Artnet

Booth’s work can be defined within distinct time-frames; he commenced painting in the late 1960’s with his mostly black, mathematically precise geometric block pieces. From 1970-1974, these evolved into his ‘Black Doorway’ works. The first of these, Untitled, 1970, was auctioned for A$150 000 in June 2018. From 1975, Booth’s work changed again, portraying his dreams which included humanoid monsters in landscapes of devastation. Many of these works also incorporated depictions of bull-terriers, a particular love of his, as well as other animals. His ‘Painting, 1977’ was auctioned in March 2005 for A$140 000. It has been described as “one of the most startling and powerful paintings in the history of Australian art”. The 1980’s saw yet another change in focus, incorporating huge snowflakes into these scenes of devastation, including solitary characters drifting amidst crowds; cannibalism and mutilated bodies were also featured. His 1981 painting ‘Devil and Laughing Man’ was auctioned in Melbourne in June 2002 for the record price of A$150 000. From 1984, his work fluctuated between representing figures and landscapes, on both smaller and larger scales. His ‘Painting (Figure in Burning Landscape), 1984’ sold for A$15 000 in April 2017. Booth had travelled to India and Russia, inspiring his paintings of snowy winter landscapes, a theme which he continues to incorporate in his work.

Painting (Devil and laughing man) , 1981–1981 – Photo by Artnet

Booth was employed by the Victorian College for Arts as a senior lecturer from 1983-1986, after which he resumed painting full-time. He has been featured in dozens of exhibitions, both combined and solo. One of the most notable was a retrospective of his work held at the Ian Potter Centre at the National Gallery of Victoria from November 2003 to February 2004. Entitled Peter Booth: Human/Nature, the exhibition showcased 230 of his paintings.

Ashley Crawford’s blog ‘View from the Booth’ dated 29 November 2003 quotes Peter thus: “A lot of humans forget we are organic entities, the same as every other creature on the planet, and we’ve only been here for a short time. I am very pessimistic about the plight of beings. We don’t learn much, I mean, we’ve been wreaking havoc as they did in the Middle Ages. We also have bigger weapons. One thing I am not pessimistic about is the ability of nature to heal itself.”

“Landscape with Geometrical Patterns”, circa 1986 – Photo by MutualArt Services, Inc.

An echo of Booth’s first solo exhibition at Pinacotheca Gallery was evident in his showing unframed drawings and pieces on paper at the Olsen Irwin Gallery in Sydney in July 2013. Another echo of earlier days was his inclusion in ‘The Field Revisited’ exhibition held at the Ian Potter Centre in May 2018, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the original exhibition.

Enduringly shy, jealous of his privacy and steering clear of publicity, Peter continues to paint from his home in St Kilda in Melbourne.