Wednesday 21 August 2013

Tom Thompson Mural

Tom Thompson, Mural, Parramatta City Council, 2013
Hidden away in the old Council Chambers Building at Parramatta, is a colourful mural by Tom Thompson.  It depicts various colonial views and significant historical figures of Parramatta.  The mural is very large measuring 632 cm (w) x 183 cm (h), painted in watercolour or gouache straight onto an internal plaster wall. The mural was commissioned in 1957 to celebrate the opening of the Council Chambers building in May 1958.

The artist was born in Narrabri NSW, 1923.  He learnt to paint as a child and before embarking on tertiary art study, served in World War Two as a tank gunner in Bougainville.  While studying at East Sydney Technical College (1947-1950), he was awarded the Diploma and College Medal.  After finishing his studies, he went to England where he worked for the National Gallery in London.  After a period overseas, he taught at the South Australian School of Art from 1952 to 1955, followed by a teaching role at the National Art School.  He resigned in 1976 as the Head of the School of Art and Design.  After resigning from the National Art School, he concentrated on painting in his studio at Braidwood, NSW and spent a period of time at the University of Newcastle as Artist-in-Residence.

His work has been exhibited widely including the Tate Gallery of Australian Art in 1963, and various Australian shows.  In 1981 and 1984, retrospective exhibitions were held at the Artarmon Art Gallery showcasing Thompson’s work between 1950 and 1981.  His work is held in the National Gallery of Australia, State galleries in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, and Wellington, New Zealand. [1]

Interestingly, he is well known for two other murals – a tempera mural done in three panels that showcases Australian industry, sciences and the arts.  It has hung in Australia House, London since it was commissioned in the 1960s.  In an interview with the ABC (Barlow 2009), Thompson commented that he wanted this mural painted in a folk style and very colourful because it connected to the historic building. [2]

From the description, it appears to be done in a similar style to the Parramatta Council mural.  Our mural is painted in strong, colourful tones using a primarily orange and blue colour palette.  The figures depicted are represented in a folk art/naive style to represent the various activities that took place at the time.

The mural at Kingsford Smith International Airport was created for the 1997 opening of the International Terminal.  It is approximately 11m wide by 5m high.  It is constructed in five panels of varying size and portrays well-known aviators and Australian aircrafts.

Jocelyn Maughn and Robin Norling, who were taught by Thompson at the National Art School, say that there have been a great many artists over the past century, and Thompson is one of them.  Norling states that ‘they (the greats) have a timelessness, they have a brilliance, they have a devotion to detail and yet a devotion to the grandeur of the whole composition.” [3]

There seems to be a popular perception that Tom Thompson is the hidden gem of Australia art.  He doesn’t seem to have courted the art world and in an interview with the ABC (Barlow, 2009) Thompson states, when discussing his mural at Parramatta City Council, that “I have been able to work better, quietly.  I have been offered opportunities by some of the best sponsors in art in Sydney…no names, no pack drill and very honest people and I said I am too slow.  I could not provide all the work that you would require.” [4]

Barlow sums up the interview by saying that “his murals are miraculous, yet he is an artist that many Australians will be hard pressed to recall.”[5]

Alison Lykissas, Cultural Collections Officer, Parramatta Heritage Center, Parramatta Council

Campbell, Jean, Australian Watercolour Painters: 1780 to the Present Day.  Craftsman Press, Sydney 1989
Germaine, Max, Artists and Galleries of Australia, Volumes 1 & 2, 3rd Edition, Craftsman Press Sydney
Parramatta City Council Archives, Letters between Mr Buckland and Parramatta Council, 1957

[1] Germaine, Max, Artists and Galleries of Australia, 1990 pg 523
[2] Barlow, Karen Lateline (ABC News). Retrieved 8 August 2013 from
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid

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