Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A note on Herbert Badham

My main post yesterday was A morning at NERAM - Flora, Cobcroft and Badham's Observing the Everyday. Back in March 2008 (Australian History and the art of Herbert Badham) I featured Herbert Badham (1899-1961) in a brief piece on Australian art. I had actually forgotten that piece, but was reminded of it by my enjoyment of his work in the exhibition at the New England Regional Art Museum.

I couldn't find a lot on-line, but did ab interesting piece in an auction catalogue from Bonhams relating to the sale of Travellers. I am repeating it here for reference purposes. 

Christine France writes:

Herbert Badham's Travellers 1933 is remarkable in that Badham manages to include two major aspects of his work in the one painting. His keen eye for portraiture is combined with his rich chronicle of Australian city and suburban life in the 1930s and 1940s.

His gentle realism is precise and unlike some of the Melbourne realists of the 1940s is free of ideology, either left or right, so no hints of class conflict intrude upon his images. Instead he concentrates on the uniqueness of the everyday, geometrically constructing and patterning his subject matter into a deeply satisfying painting.Badham Travellers

Herbert Badham was born at Watsons Bay, Sydney, in 1899. On completing his schooling he worked briefly as a clerk before joining the Royal Australian Navy in 1917. In 1921, along with William Dobell, Douglas Dundas, Charles Meere and John Kilgour, he commenced his art studies at the Sydney Art School where he was taught by Julian Ashton, George Lambert and Henry Gibbons. This was a traditional art training based on the primacy of draftsmanship and leant strongly towards English realism. To this Badham added a modernist interest in perspective and curvic spaces that fascinated him both in terms of universal laws and as a means of structuring his work.

In 1932, the year before he painted Travellers, he was runner up for the New South Wales Travelling Art Scholarship, which was awarded to William Dobell. (Whether this disappointment had any reflection on the subject of the 1933 work is unknown.)
In these years Badham seldom exhibited his work, but in 1933 Travellers and two other of his paintings were exhibited in the Sydney Art School 1890-1933 retrospective exhibition held at the old Education Department Gallery.

From 1934 he exhibited regularly with The Society of Artists and in 1936 his painting Breakfast piece was purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

His first solo exhibition was in 1939 at the Grosvenor Gallery, Sydney. It was opened by Sir Marcus Clark and was favourably reviewed by the critic Howard Ashton who, at a time when Australian art was dominated by rural landscape, wrote "Mr Badham paints aspects of Sydney life which very few painters have the courage to tackle".

He is of course referring to the content of everyday life and it is this content which, today, gives us such a rich insight into the times. In painting pub interiors, street corners, beach holidays, fairs and town bands, Badham has given us an accurate account of the life, fashion, architecture, interiors and social values of his time - a point which has led to his work being included in many major exhibitions and collections.

Travellers 1933 is one such work, in which he places his triple portrait in the impersonal but everyday situation of riding home in a toast-rack tram. We quickly note the fashions of the day – a time when men wore hats, while the geometric print of the women's hats date it firmly in to the deco period of the 1930s, as does the simple day dress of the central figure and the fact that smoking was permitted on public transport.

The string holding together the small globite suitcase with travel stickers speaks of the depression era when things were kept, mended and cherished. Evening papers were bought from the paperboy on the street corner and read on the tram going home. Tram drivers and conductors wore neat navy blue uniforms complete with hat. Outside the hillside of suburban houses with red tile rooves and liver brick or stucco walls again locate the period, as does the small bunch of flowers worn by the central figure - these were sold by men with baskets in Martin Place or the top of Rowe Street, Sydney. In choosing to present the central figure frontally and the two side figures in profile, Badham creates a snapshot immediacy which is also conveyed by the juxtaposition of the three hands and matches in the lower centre of the painting.

Although the figures are placed in a situation of casual observance they are in fact people close to Badham. The central figure is his sister Nina, his brother Maurice is on the viewer's right and a yet to be identified friend is on the viewer's left. 3 Badham's daughter relates that her aunt would have been quite young at the time and perhaps not quite so socially relaxed as the two men. She also commented that the striped jacket worn by the standing figure on the right was similar to an I Zingari cricket blazer worn by Badham's English father.

Although not as adventurous as his later works, the painting clearly shows Badham's interest in geometric structure: the work is vertically bisected while connecting diagonals run from the crook of the two men's arms. The quality of Badham's paint is smooth as is his almost photographic modelling, and like his teacher Lambert he enlivens the surface with highlights of white.

There is often a teasing sense of humour in Badham's work. In Travellers the penalty notice is bent over, leaving us to guess what might be the offence which incurs such a substantial fine for the times. Likewise we are left wondering if the sign above the driver's head is the tram's destination or a no-smoking sign?
In order to support his family Herbert Badham taught at the East Sydney Technical College from 1938-1961 and is remembered as popular teacher, but also one who gave his students a good grounding in perspective. His book A study in Australian art, published in 1949, does as Nancy Underhill points out 4 pose very interesting and to date undervalued views on Aboriginal art, patronage and the purpose of art in society. He admired Aboriginal art because it was central to life, and in many ways it was an attitude that was central to his own work.

Travellers 1933 remains one of Badham's finest and most interesting paintings, important as a social document and an example of modernist realism.

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