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Gary Shead: The Knighthoods

The Artist

According to the  Philip Bacon Galleries website, Gary Shead,  is one of Australia's most celebrated contemporary figurative painters, with his work steeped in allegory and symbolism, inviting spiritual, philosophical and historical interpretation. Based in regional New South Wales, Shead remains one of the country’s most distinctive artists, whose rich career spans film making, cartooning, writing, printmaking and painting.

While studying at the National Art School, Sydney in the early 1960s, Shead’s cartoons were published in several publications including The Sydney Morning HeraldThe Bulletin and Oz magazines. Later that decade, after leaving his studies at the National Art School, Shead worked as scenic artist with ABC TV between 1963 and 1967. It was during this period he began travelling, with his initial trips to Japan and Papua New Guinea leading to later, more extensive travels abroad. It was while travelling in the New Guinea Highlands the artist first read the letters of the English novelist and poet, D.H. Lawrence.

Shead’s first solo commercial exhibition was held with Watters Gallery in Sydney in 1966. Previously, his work had been hung in the Archibald Prize, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1961), and later, in 1965, it was shown in the group exhibition Young Minds, curated by Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne. In 1967, Shead won the Young Contemporaries Prize, Sydney.

Shead’s great interest in D.H. Lawrence was shared by his friend, Brett Whiteley, and in the early 1970s the pair travelled to Thirroul, NSW where Lawrence had briefly stayed on his travels to the United States with his wife Frieda. It was in Thirroul, in the early 1920s, that Lawrence completed the novel Kangaroo. The pair worked collaboratively on a portrait of Lawrence, the proceeds of the painting’s later sale allowing Shead to travel and work in Paris with his family. In late 1991 Shead completed a collection of drawings based on Kangaroo, and in March 1992 began work on a series of oils that proved to be a watershed in the artist’s career – the celebrated D.H. Lawrence series. These were exhibited with Philip Bacon Galleries in 1993.

The success of the D.H. Lawrence works was later matched by Shead’s next body of work The Royal Suite, produced and exhibited in the mid-1990s. The series depicted a young Queen Elizabeth II in the Australian landscape and were informed in part by the artist’s own childhood experience of being taken by his school (as were so many youngsters) to Sydney’s showgrounds to welcome the young Monarch during her national tour of Australia in February 1954. Shead had actually depicted Queen Elizabeth II earlier in his career, when she was the subject of several cartoons published in Oz in 1962.

Hung as a finalist in the Archibald Prize many times, in 1993 Garry Shead won the prize with a portrait of his friend Tom Thompson, a Sydney based publisher. The following decade, in 2004, the artist won the Dobell Prize for Drawing, AGNSW.

Shead’s work is represented in numerous public collections including the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; National Portrait Gallery, Canberra; Australian War Memorial, Canberra; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Newcastle Region Art Gallery, Newcastle; University of Western Australia, Perth; Tweed Regional Gallery, Murwillumbah; QUT Art Museum, Brisbane; and the National Museum, Budapest, Hungary.

The Knighthoods by Gary Shead

The Work of Art

As noted above, The  Knighthoods is a significant work in the University's art collection having formed part of Gary Shead's  Royal Suite. The work was painted around 1995 using oils onto hardboard. It depicts the young Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh standing behind in the outback knighting a group of kangaroos. This picture is a great conversation piece.  Significance has been  given to the work for its republican  tones  at a time when  republican sentiments were in the foreground. Why is Australia  governed by a monarchy twelve thousand miles from the country? Is the action of knighting kangaroos merely poking fun at  the idea of  the awards system?