The James Gleeson oral history collection
James Gleeson interviews Australia's major artists
Hector Gilliland: Well, they were mainly watercolours. I was doing a few oils, one of which is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection, Summer morning, which was a painting on Kay's farm, now covered by the lake. That, by the way, was recommended by Bill Dobell for purchase by the gallery. I wasn't doing any large-scale work in oil, mainly because of the business of having to cart stuff around on a bicycle. But I was doing enough to send the occasional oil down to Sydney for exhibition. But it was mainly watercolour. I think there were two reasons for that. You know, one was the matter of convenience that I mentioned. The other one was that I was feeling in a particular way about my awareness of nature and landscape, and watercolours seemed the right medium for me to be using.
James Gleeson: I see, yes. Were you aware of, you know, of Cézanne's work at this stage? Because I notice a little later in those Kingston paintings, there is a quality that seems to me to be reminiscent of Cézanne, I suppose.
Hector Gilliland: Yes, I was, as a matter of fact. At that particular time Paul Haefliger, I think–yes, I'm certain–once remarked in a review of work in the Watercolour Institute that the mantle of Cézanne rested lightly on my shoulders. He was apparently singling me out as a promising watercolourist at least. But he made that particular remark. I think it was a little bit wide of the mark because I have never got around to attempting to understand what Cézanne was all about. But I do recall while I was in Sydney, and this would be in the very early days of the war when we had that French exhibition out here.
James Gleeson: Oh yes, yes.
Hector Gilliland: I was working as a draftsman then at the Registrar-General's Department, and every lunch hour for a week I went down to the gallery and I looked–
James Gleeson: Was this 1939 or the one after the war?
Hector Gilliland: No. It would be the ‘39 one because, if I remember rightly from my reading, the exhibition had to be put in the basement of the gallery, it couldn't be sent back.
James Gleeson: Yes, the Murdoch Age won the (inaudible).
Hector Gilliland: Well, there was work by Cézanne in that, and there was one landscape which attracted me particularly and I spent a week of lunch hours just looking at it, you know. In the first place it attracted me because of its surface quality, although I couldn't have used these terms at the time. I recollect it having something of the surface tension of impressionism, but going right beyond it. The surface of the painting, you know, the combination of the shapes and values and their interactions, was the thing that made me sit down and just look with a sort of open contemplative gaze at the thing. Gradually I got the feeling that here was an example of new knowledge, of a new structure, and a totally new feeling for landscape. I was only just getting the sort of general impression of landscape and then the detail of landscape. Well, it was only relatively detailed but sufficiently for one to be able to identify trees and rocks and what have you. Gradually I became aware of that. I distinctly recall that not one sort of awareness or stimulus replaced another. That each succeeding one has been added to the first, you know, so that finally at the end of the week I'd had the richest experience I'd ever had looking at a work of art.
James Gleeson: It was an extraordinary exhibition all told. But that was the picture in it that–
Hector Gilliland: That was the picture which made the exhibition for me. As a matter of fact, I can't recall any other painting in the exhibition. I must have looked at the whole show, of course, at some stage or other. But when it came to, well, say remarks like Paul Haefliger's about the mantle of Cézanne resting lightly on my shoulders. Well, what I was on about, although I was aware of the sort of Cézanne image, I knew that I didn't see landscape the way Cézanne saw it. But the way I did see it in spatial terms probably caused me to make physical statements with my brush which could have been related to the sort of thing Cézanne did with his brush. But what I sensed at the time was that my awareness of nature was essentially one of space, although I did deal with the identities in landscape of tree and water and rock and cloud and what have you. It was always the quality of space which had, even before I went to the centre at one stage, a vastness and a timelessness. It meant that even in one stage at Canberra when maybe I was influenced by Cézanne in the sense that I became more aware of tensions between things in the landscape and began to geometricise the shapes in the landscape, the sort of thing which hadn't happened at the stage of the two watercolours we were looking at. What was I on about? The influence by Cézanne, I suppose, in that sense; there was a certain geometry began to emerge. But at the same time, although I was making a more for me dynamic statement about landscape, I still sensed that there was a stillness in–this was the timelessness and the universality–in what I was looking at and in what I was putting down on paper.
James Gleeson: Yes, yes.
Hector Gilliland: No matter how active I try to become with my drawing of shapes, I still sensed that there was a–
James Gleeson: A timelessness, a stillness.
Hector Gilliland: A timelessness and a stillness.
James Gleeson: That's a quality that comes out very strongly in your later work.