The critique

John McDonald, art critic, The Sydney Morning Herald

Waiting c1963
unsigned, oil on Masonite 30 x 35cm, TJA Cat 464
Wildflowers 1 (1971)
signed, oil on masonite, 35 x 43cm, TJA Cat 796
Floating pear (over landscape) c1972
unsigned, oil on masonite 66 x 101cm, TJA Cat 639
Lambertia (in dappled sunlight) 1974
signed, gouache on paper, 40 x 30cm, TJA Cat 875

There may be a touch of romance associated with Australian country towns, but they can be dispiriting places in which to spend one�s formative years. I can speak with some authority because, like William Fletcher (1924�83), I was born and raised in Bellbird, a small community four kilometres from Cessnock, in the Hunter Valley coalfields. Like Fletcher, I attended Bellbird Primary school and Cessnock High before escaping, not to the Navy, but to the city.

Although Cessnock is not all that far from Sydney, it is very distant from any kind of art activity. For many years the highlight of Cessnock�s cultural calendar was the annual floral carpet in the Civic Centre. Busloads of school children would be ferried into town to admire a vista of Dutch windmills, fields of tulips and people wearing bonnets and clogs, all made from flower petals. Did Fletcher ever see a floral carpet? I don�t know whether it was a longstanding folk tradition or a short-term fad among community arts enthusiasts.

Either way, it is strangely appropriate that one of Australia�s finest flower painters should have come from a town that favoured the use of flowers in large-scale installation art in those days when the word �installation� usually referred to a washing machine or a TV antenna.

William Fletcher is almost certainly the most important artist to hail from Cessnock, and if ever the city starts a regional gallery his paintings should be the first items on the acquisition list. Yet despite the passionate support of friends and collectors, Fletcher remains a neglected figure in the history of Australian art. His works are rarely hung on the walls of museums, and there are few references in the standard publications. Flower painting is usually seen as a minor art form, and Fletcher as a minor painter. Yet this is a shame and an injustice, because closer acquaintance with Fletcher�s work reveals him as a talented and very surprising artist.

Fletcher owes part of his neglect to his own inward-looking habits. In his early days he seems to have been shy and introspective, perhaps a little intimidated by the glittering conversationalists and self promoters of the Sydney art scene. He was largely self-educated, with the fastidious technique and insatiable curiosity typical of those artists who find their path outside of the incubator of the art schools. In later life he became reclusive, unwilling to enter art prizes and reluctant to exhibit his work. His long-term partner, Trevor Andersen, describes him as a �hoarder�. He tended to stockpile his own work, revising and completing pieces over many weeks or months.

Fletcher was a perfectionist and an idealist, who never saw art as a means of material gain. Although he occasionally earned a living by painting ceramics or decorative flower pieces, one has to draw a line between these tasks and the more considered work of his nature career.

Over the years Fletcher showed himself proficient in many different genres, but much of this work has a second-hand feel. He could paint and draw figures with the facility of Donald Friend, but without ever going beyond those associations with the School of Paris or British Neo-Romanticism that threw invisible boundaries around the work of a large number of Sydney artists. He dabbled in Cubism and forms of quasi-abstraction, and painted urban street scenes that bear comparison with Sali Herman�s depictions of Woolloomooloo and surrounds, and perhaps ]effrey Smart�s early works. All these paintings have a melancholy feeling, but Fletcher�s streets are the loneliest and most desolate � which may reflect his own state of mind during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

It was in the mid-1960s that Fletcher embarked on the series of wildflower studies that became his best-known works and his lasting claim to fame. Such subjects are more readily associated with female artists such as Ellis Rowan or Margaret Preston, who made distinctive but contrasting contributions to the genre. Both these artists tended to make viewers revise any preconceptions that saw flower painting as a genteel, specifically �feminine� art - Ellis through her adventurous field trips and her practice of setting flowers in exotic landscapes; Preston through her experiments in modernist stylisation and different forms of print-making.

Fletcher�s work represents another stage in the evolution of Australian flower painting. He would paint the flowers themselves with the most painstaking care and attention to detail, but was supremely indifferent to the scientific aspects of a work. In a single picture he might combine flowers that were never found together in nature, or those that bloomed at completely different times. He was ultimately much more concerned with the poetics of composition than any search for scientific accuracy. He had favourite motifs, such as the flannel flower, which he would interlace with many unlikely peers, in promiscuous juxtaposition.

The flannel flower peeps out from the left-hand corner of one of Fletcher�s most extravagant compositions, Wildflowers 1 (1971) � a cornucopia of different specimens arranged into a surreal snapshot. Each flower is so delicately painted and so clearly defined that one reads the picture as a group of strong personalities all competing for attention. This sense of super-animation is repeated time and again in Fletcher�s flower studies, and with each repetition one becomes more aware of the underlying affinities with Surrealism.

In this, he has a precursor in Adrian Feint (1894�1971), who dabbled in flower painting, Surrealism and Neo-Romanticism, but Fletcher is a more fastidious and skilful craftsman. In Australia, Surrealism often took the form of a vague dream-like atmosphere, with none of the floating blobs of protoplasm or shock tactics that characterised the work of the European artists. In this, Fletcher�s flower paintings fit the bill: his blooms and blossoms often seem to be suspended in air, or rising like serpents from some abstract realm of pure painting.

Fletcher announced his debt to Surrealism most explicitly in his Floating pear (c 1972), in which the familiar piece of fruit hangs suspended over a nondescript, grassy landscape like a hot-air balloon waiting for a breeze. This playful homage to Magritte was also a form of cryptic self-portrait. Whenever he painted this motif, his preferred variety was always a William pear.

Although at first glance they may look like exercises in decorative flower arrangement, Fletcher�s compositions have an unsettling quality. They use elements of the natural world for unnatural purposes � one feels that he is telling stories about himself, indulging in private jokes, or finding oblique ways to relate his interests to the changing face of modern art. Fletcher was a dedicated conservationist, and his flowers often seem like heroic structures raised in defiance of the bleak and forbidding landscapes that he provides as a backdrop. The spattered and scumbled backgrounds in works, such as Patersonia (1973) or Lambertia (in dappled sunlight) (1974), are also reminiscent of the abstract paintings being made by a large number of Sydney artists during the sixties and seventies. One might suspect Fletcher of pastiching the fashionable styles of the day, and imprinting his own vision of nature, always fresh and self-renewing, over the top.

Even if we were to approach Fletcher as nothing but a flower painter, or a man of narrow botanical interests, there is no denying that his works have a compelling quality. They sustain our interest in a way that purely decorative pictures never do. One recognises the visual intelligence of his compositions, the desire to let each flower achieve its own, idiosyncratic identity. His pictures have a sure sense of colour, a beauty and directness that sets them apart from so many works of that era, obsessed as they were with the latest international trends. In this reclusive, self-effacing artist, one may identify a painter of rare integrity and ability. His flowers may be attractive in their own right, but they are only the visible outgrowths of a fertile imaginative world.

From the book William Ernest Fletcher 1928–1983: Australian Wildflowers, Still Life and Streetscapes (2006)