Hugo Shaw belongs to the ‘Port Willunga school’ of artists which includes Ivor Hele, John Dowie, Anton Riebe, Horace Trenery, Kathleen Sauerbier and Dorrit Black.
“They are people who lived, painted and swam at Port Willunga,” says Shaw, who has spent the best part of his life doing the same.
“Port Willunga is a very particular beach. The colours are bewitching – when it rains the cliffs darken, when the sun sets in the summer there’s a golden glow in the cliffs, and the sea is forever changing.”
Look up the works of any one of those artists and, like the Heidelberg School who painted in the impressionist tradition, it is evident that the quality of the light playing on the cliffs, the sand, and the water at Port Willunga is something they sought to capture over and over again.
“It becomes part of your visual library,” says Shaw. “It becomes part of you. It’s become part of my DNA.
“I’ve made hundreds of paintings about Port Willunga – the cliffs and the old jetty are my most painted subjects.
“I try to be very accurate about how many wooden pylons are left – they have been slowly diminishing over my lifetime and I think when the last one goes, I’ll go.”
Shaw began his career in art straight after leaving school when he studied commercial art at the South Australian School of Art. “After that I worked in advertising as a visualiser,” he says.
“My job was to work out what the advertisement would look like; that’s where I learnt all that order and that was when I met Ivor Hele.
“Hele wanted someone to teach and I would see him at the end of each month with a body of work. With Hele as my mentor I used to work three hours each night for at least six days of the week and I did that for four years.
“He taught me to look at the body, to understand bones and muscles and three dimensional form.”
Like many young Australians, Shaw went to London in the 1960s. “London was abuzz; it was the centre of the art world,” he says.
“I went to the Byamshaw Art School where a man called Maurice de Sausmarez was the principal and a painter – he knew Picasso and Braque.
“I saw David Hockney’s final year work at the Royal College and the very early Brett Whiteleys. I saw Nolan’s Africa series, and at Sotheby’s I handled Rembrandt etchings.
“All of that gave me an idea about what it might be like to be a fine artist.
“During that time I was asked if I wanted to teach at my old school – being a teacher was far from my consciousness, but being an artist, you need a job and you need to support a family, so I took up teaching and I had the holidays to paint. I just loved it.”
Shaw worked as an art teacher at St Peter’s College for 23 years before retiring to paint fulltime in 1987. “I’m not driven,” he says. “Painting is just what I do. I think about it all the time. It’s not just landscapes, it’s figures, it’s everything in the visual world.
“If you want to listen to music, you have to go to a concert. If you want to eat, you have to go to a restaurant. But if you’re visual, it’s all there for you all the time.”
Shaw paints with oils in an unmistakable impressionistic style. “What I do is paint the light and the paintings I paint are right up to my feet and the foreground is as close as that.
“It’s intimate and it’s being there and I like to think that my paintings will let other people be there too.
“Actually, a client who bought a painting at my last exhibition told me she can smell the sea each time she looks at it, which I took as a compliment.”
Art is definitely in Shaw’s DNA. His father Dick Shaw was an accomplished potter and his sister Julie Shaw is also.
“A relation going way back into great, great uncle territory went sketching with Turner,” he adds. “I saw his sketch book when I was in England in the ‘60s and he could draw well – two of Turner’s sketches were in that sketchbook – so there’s something there.
“As Turner said: ‘Art’s a rum business’.
“I don’t think people in general place that much importance on art and artists, but as the centuries go by art and architecture is all you’re left with.”
Shaw held an exhibition at the Hanrahan Studio earlier this year showing 46 paintings, mostly larger canvases, but his new exhibition which opens today is much smaller. “This time I am showing 15 new works and a large number of those will be 9 X 5s (nine inches by 5 inches in dimension),” he says.
“The Australian impressionists painted a lot of 9 X 5s because that was the size of cigar box lids. Cigar box lids provided nice cedar panels which were good for painting outside ‘en plein air’ because they were small enough to complete in one go – they must have smoked a hell of a lot of cigars!
“The ones I’ve done are from sketches I have made at Port Willunga which I work up into small canvases.”
Hugo Shaw’s work is again showing at the Hanrahan Studio, this time as part of a mixed exhibition curated by Susan Sideris and includes works by Bronwen Roodenrys, Megan Roodenrys, Greg O’Leary, Judith Brooks, Barbara Hanrahan, Ruth Tuck, John Olsen, John Dowie, Nora Heysen and many more.
During exhibition hours the Barbara Hanrahan collection of more than 200 original prints and her partner Jo Steele’s prodigious sculptures will also be available for viewing.
The exhibition opens tomorrow and runs until Sunday, and from December 10 to 14, at the Hanrahan Studio, 48 Esmond Street, Hyde Park. Gallery hours are from 2pm until 6pm.
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