Ray Crooke – artist and recorder of life was born in Auburn, Victoria in 1922. Most of his life he lived in the far north Queensland and Cairns. He lived to paint and throughout his long life, he continued to paint, right to the end.
Although he is best known for his landscapes, he also painted some stunning portraits. He became one of Australia’s most popular, well-loved artists, recording his travels with a sensitive and enduring passion. He especially painted the people and places of the Australian tropics, imbibing their character with a stillness that was almost his own trademark.
Ray’s early life
His father introduced the young Ray to drawing. Ray developed a great interest in the Pacific and spent hours in the Melbourne State Library, looking at and absorbing the books on this subject. He studied at the Melbourne’s Swinburne Technical College for a while, until the war interfered with his studies. Yet, in fact, the war provided opportunity and stimulus which inspired his works for years afterwards.
The war years were not wasted
During the war, Ray travelled to Western Australia, North Queensland and Borneo. This was the first time he saw the Pacific – and he was entranced – he was just 21 years old. He visited Thursday Island, Borneo and Cape York Peninsular – and in his own words, “This made a tremendous impression on me. It was to lie dormant for years, at least ten, before I attempted to paint this experience…the colour, the island people, the history, made an indelible impression. I am still able to recall the sensation – though the physical character would have changed, in my mind it is as I first saw it in 1943”.
In addition to exploring new territories, Ray read widely during the war, looking at the works of wartime artists like Donald Friend and Russell Drysdale. He also took a drawing course by correspondence from the East Sydney Technical College, taught by under Douglas Dundas.
After the war
Crooke returned to Melbourne after the war and resumed his studies at the Swinburne Technical College with Allan Jordan and Roger James from 1946-1948. He was concentrating on etching and drawing at this time. He was drawing on his wartime experiences rather than following the trends of other artists – and indeed, he tended to be a solitary artist, working out his own ideas based on his own lifetime travels.
In 1949, Crooke returned to Cairns and Thursday Island. For a time, he lodged with a family who lived at St. Paul’s Mission on Moa Island, an outer island in the Torres Strait. During this time, he recorded the life around him with drawings, written notes and descriptions of the people. This journal was invaluable to him and was the inspiration for many of his subsequent paintings.
This was the pattern of the way he lived and recorded what he saw. He did the same when he visited Fiji, Tahiti and Hawaii. It was his way of making a record of his own travels and experiences, later to enlarge on his provisional notes in his art.
His family life
While he lived on Thursday Island, he worked for the Diocese of Carpentaria for two years – and towards the end of his time on the island he worked as a diver, for a trochus lugger. These crafts, unique to Australia, trolled for mother-of-pearl and the trochus shell, from sea snails, which has a pearly inside to the shells. The work is dangerous and poorly paid – but no doubt, Ray found inspiration for his art from this episode.
He met his future wife while he was working on the lugger. Jane Bethel married him in March 1951. They were blessed with three children, Susan, Diana and David. Sadly, Susan died in 1975.
Exhibitions, prizes and honours
Crooke exhibited his work at the Australian Galleries in Melbourne and the Johnston Gallery in Brisbane in 1959 and 1960. These exhibitions were very successful and lead to his paintings of tropical islands becoming well known and popular. And since 1960, his work is mainly pacific islands and Australian landscapes with some portraits and European subjects as well.
He often made trips to remote areas like Kimberley’s in North West Australia in the 1960s and ’70s. He continued to record diaries and journals of his trips provide material for his work later.
In 1963, the Tate Gallery, London put on an Exhibition of Australian Art and included some of Crooke’s work. It was he who painted the murals on the walls of Australia House in London. In fact, most capital cities exhibit his work. He won further prizes in the Art Gallery of NSW in 1982 and in 1970 – and he was an official war artist during the Vietnam war.
In 1969, he won the prestigious Archibald prize for his portrait of his friend, the novelist George Johnston, although portraiture was not one of his most usual themes. However, there are three of his portraits in the University of Queensland: Xavier Herbert, Professor Emeritus Sir Zelman Cowen and Sadie Herbert. The fall of golden light highlighting the portraits makes for a powerful image.
Crooke’s paintings are in the Vatican Collection and in many private collections. There are 25 of his paintings in the Cairns Regional Gallery – of which he was a generous supporter. A retrospective exhibition, “North of Capricorn” toured Australis from Cairns to Melbourne in 1997.
In 1993, Ray Crooke was awarded a member of the Order of Australia “in recognition of service to the arts, particularly as a landscape artist”.
A stillness in his work
After a full and varied life, Ray Crooke died peacefully at his home in Palm Grove at the age of 93.
Crooke’s work shows attention to form and silhouette, dark shapes against light backgrounds, careful organisation of the piece together with careful drawing and a lovely colour sense. The paintings speak of the reality of life without overemphasis.
In his works, Crooke focussed on the immediate moment in time. He himself explained, “There’s the stillness, that moment caught, and then I like the painting to be well constructed, to contain the eye and also to have passage which one can move across.” He recorded the moment and let it speak for itself, lending a quietness and a stillness to his paintings. His depiction of the people and of nature is one of harmony.