Clifton Pugh (1924-1990)
Clifton Pugh was an avid environmentalist known for his hard-edged gaze on rural Australia; his paintings were both commentary and a call to action. Pugh grew up in the city and after a brief service in the military, he purchased a plot of land in Cottles Bridge, Victoria.
In tandem with his art practice, Pugh dedicated most of his years to developing the surrounding area of his Cottles Bridge home, restoring the natural ecosystem derailed by agriculture and invasive flora and fauna. Located on the rural fringe of developing Melbourne, it was close enough to entice city-dwelling artists to immerse themselves in the rugged bush landscape. Pugh’s property soon became a mainstay for the likes of John Olsen, Fred Williams and John Perceval.
Dead Wool, 1957 was considered by the artist to be a cornerstone piece in his body of work. He casts a thoughtful counterpoint to Tom Roberts’ iconic painting Shearing the Rams, 1890, in which the shearers are championed in the Australian psyche as hard-working, boisterous larrikins. Pugh’s iconoclastic painting reveals an unsentimental facsimile of masculine labour. His focus was much more on geographical actuality as opposed to the nationalist view of his predecessors. It held a mirror to the depression and desperation facing rural livelihood – men and youths would scavenge wool from rotting sheep carcases for -cash. It was grim and cheerless resourcefulness for those rugged countrymen down on their luck. The figure stoically contends with the crows who’ve claimed the flesh for themselves. ‘Much of Pugh’s work is the outcome of a deeply held belief in the interdependence of life — plant, animal and human. He has been inspired throughout by a spiritual affinity with the Australian desert landscape; at times he has used the battle for survival there in metaphorical ways…’1. Dead Wool is a testament to the harsh duality of existence for man and beast in 1950s rural Australia.
Well documented and widely exhibited, this work is an iconic example of Clifton Pugh’s ability to draw on the depth and complexity of the Australian bush where ‘the landscape is moulding into sharp patterns from a chaos of grass, rocks, trees, and his stylised animals and birds provide a dramatic counterpart.’2 In composition, texture and colour palette this work is punchy and provocative, his intuitive ability to witness and contexualise our coexistence with nature is what makes Clifton Pugh’s work so exceptional.
1. Rosemary Crumlin, Images of Religion in Australian Art, Kensington,
NSW, Bay Books, 1988, p.92
2. The Australian Painters 1964-1966: Contemporary Australian
Painting from the Mertz Collection, 1967, p. 19