Hans HEYSEN | Bronzewings and saplings

Germany 1877 – Australia 1968
Australia from 1884; Europe, England 1899-1903

Bronzewings and saplings 1921
watercolour on paper
56.7 (h) x 76.4 (w) cm
South Australian Government Grant 1937, Art Gallery of South Australia


Heysen’s finest and most spectacular composition in watercolour produced during 1921 was Bronzewings and saplings. He had been exploring the subject of turkeys since about 1914, exhibiting at least five finished turkey subjects in his 1915 exhibition in Melbourne.[1]  That exhibition was opened by Dame Nellie Melba and included Heysen works lent by her, one of which was a watercolour of turkeys. 

It is an extravagant and richly painted composition, in which turkeys promenade through a labyrinth of thin saplings.  The unusual colours of the turkeys—white, bronze, royal blue and red—are striking and contrast with the earthy tones of the Australian bushland. Although similar in arrangement to the earlier Mystic Morn, where cattle gracefully move through twisting eucalypt saplings in soft morning light, Bronzewings and saplings is a much more dynamic composition and displays a stronger clarity of light. The result is dazzling and is an extraordinary achievement in design. The compacted space, with its high horizon line, its cropped saplings extending beyond the framing edge and its overcrowding by the turkeys, is busy and rhythmic. Heysen wrote about its complex arrangement: ‘The picture is treated in the manner of a mosaic—& each mass of colour is laid down freshly with a crisp edge’ and later: ‘... quite a lot of trouble and study went into the making of it.  In fact I can easily say it is the most complicated piece of design I have tackled.’[2]

Rebecca Andrews

© Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2008
Andrews, Hans Heysen, exhibition book, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2008, p 82

[1] This point was first made in Julie Robinson, Hans Heysen: the creative journey, Board of South Australia, Adelaide, 1992, p 13. See also ‘Catalogue of pictures by Hans Heysen’, Athenæum, Melbourne, 4 March 1915

[2] Heysen letter to Lionel Lindsay, 30 June (1921?), La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria, MS 9242