Still Life with Oranges, 1966
David Edgar Strachan (1919-1970)
oil on canvas
signed upper right, ‘David Strachan 66’ titled & annotated on stretcher, 8261, STILL LIFE WITH ORANGES Cat 1. David Strachan
75 x 126.5 cm
Macquarie Galleries: The New Gallery Exhibition, Sydney, 9th March to 21st March 1966
Private collection, Sydney
Private collection, Sydney
Still Life with Almonds and Plumbs, 1966 50 x 100.5 cm, The New Gallery Exhibition, Sydney, 9th March to 21st March 1966, gift of Margaret Olley 2002 to the Art Gallery of New South Wales
In 1966 the year this luminous still life was painted, David Strachan was 47 and had been a successful artist in Australia, the United Kingdom and Europe for almost 30 years. Born in 1919 in the UK to an Australian army doctor father and art-school trained English mother, Strachan had moved with his family to the country town of Creswick, Vic aged four. After secondary schooling, he became a student of London’s Slade School of Art.
For the next 34 years he would live and work between Creswick, Victoria, Melbourne, Sydney, London, Paris, Italy, Switzerland and Spain until his untimely death in a car accident in NSW in 1970.
Associated with the Melbourne-based George Bell modernist group of painters in the 1930s, in the 1940s he lived in Sydney where he worked alongside fellow artists including William Dobell in a camouﬂage unit in NSW, Qld and the NT, exhibited with the New South Wales Society of Artists, the Contemporary Art Society and the Contemporary Group, held many successful solo exhibitions and won a number of prizes.
His numerous artist friends included the abstractionist Godfrey Miller, Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend and Peter Purves-Smith. He was especially close to Miller, as well as to Margaret Olley and the painter Jean Bellette and her husband, editor and art critic Paul Haefliger with whom he spent time at the NSW mining town of Hill End and later at their house in an orange grove in Majorca, Spain.
An inveterate collector of everyday objects, Stachan was drawn to old snapshots, used kitchen utensils, and lived-in interiors. Artistically and psychologically he was most interested in classicism and the work of old masters as well as the role of the unconscious, evidenced by a period of study at the Cart Jung Institute in Switzerland.
His paintings – whether landscape (for which he won the Wynne Prize twice), portraits, mythological scenes or still lifes – are notable for their combination of classical formality and poetic surrealism in which figures, objects and landscape juxtapose, or float, as in a fragment of a dream half remembered.
They also often feature every day objects. As he said: “ To me the subjects that we see around us all the time – the first subjects that impress us as children – have got something of an archetypal quality that I feel is important in life today, because everything is getting more complicated and done with machines, and our feet are getting moved more and more from the earth, and it is there we must return.’ 1
A smaller companion piece to this painting – Still Life with Almonds and Plums – in the collection of AGNSW shows a careful selection of such objects – a simple earthenware jug, lush foliage with deep purpled plums against a white bowl.
In contrast to that work’s cooler tones, Still Life with Oranges, unseen in public since its first gallery showing in the late 1960s, pulsates with a suffused but brilliant light. With its vibrant oranges and soft blue/greens it pays homage to the fruits, light and lands of Spain and the Majorcan orange grove home of Strachan’s close friends Bellette and Haefliger and also to the great tradition of Spanish still life painting – especially Francisco de Zurbaran’s 1633 masterwork Still life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose.
Here, rhythmically positioned against a scrubbed wooden table, the fruit and its receptacles glow with the patina of age and a sense of timelessness that stirs both memory and imagination.
As emeritus gallery director, author and curator of Strachan’s 1973 Art Gallery of New South Wales retrospective, Daniel Thomas notes: ‘ Like many artists before him, Strachan explored the idea of a Golden Age… an agricultural paradise, in the remote past, a world of perfect innocence. … Unlike many other artists, he also knew that everyone has a ‘golden age’ within reach, namely his own childhood. … “
“Strachan’s golden earth, golden flowers, golden fruits…have a timeless enchantment. They are, as he has told us, memories of first loves’. 2.
David Strachan’s works are well represented in AGNSW, NGA, NGV and other Australian state gallery and regional gallery collections. They have been the subjects of two major touring public gallery retrospectives (1973 and 1992) and have appeared in numerous significant survey exhibitions. A monograph on his work by Lou Klepac, Barry Pearce & John McDonald was published by Beagle Press, 1993.
1. Interview with Hazel de Berg (National Library of Australia’s recorded artists archive) quoted in Daniel Thomas, David Strachan, Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1973. p.3
2. Daniel Thomas, David Strachan, Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1973. p 7