24 May 2022

Drawing with light: Roger Beale on painting, activism and the art of concentration

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Flower painting

Poppies in the field at Floriade are a source for several paintings in the exhibition. Image: Supplied.

It’s a slightly startling admission for someone who held some of the most senior posts in the Australian Public Service.

But Roger Beale AO, former Secretary of the Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories from 1996 through its transition into the Department of the Environment and Heritage in 2004, is upfront about how he managed multiple high-level meetings requiring concentration, focus and discipline.

He drew people.

“I’ve sat in cabinet meetings and drawn. I’ve sat in meetings at the Academy of Sciences, with Foreign Affairs and high-level delegations and drawn,” he says, proffering a notebook filled with meticulous sketches of people and places that were subsequently washed in watercolour.

“That’s from a meeting in Beijing. The portrait is of Li Keqiang, who is now the premier of China, and you can see the notes from the meeting on the other page.

“The drawing has been a diary of my life, effectively. I found that I could draw and think at the same time. I don’t know whether I’m using different hemispheres in the brain to do it, but it seems to enhance rather than detract from the processes of thought.”

Man in wheelchair with paintings

Roger Beale with some smaller flower studies. Photo: Genevieve Jacobs.

Beale is long retired from his senior bureaucratic roles, but his energy and activism continues. A polio survivor from childhood, he has been outspoken about disability rights and the decision to exclude the aged disabled from the NDIS.

The Royal Commission on Aged Care cited his submission, recommending that the aged disabled receive equivalent support but that has not been accepted by the government.

Beale describes the situation as “a very plain moral choice for the government and the opposition – the human rights of the disabled aged versus tax reductions for those who are well off. I don’t buy this as a choice between compassion and the economy”.

The clarity of his thinking is reflected in the artworks on show in his current exhibition at Humble House Gallery in Fyshwick, The Magic of Light.

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Always an artist by inclination, he studied in Queensland, including with the legendary National Gallery of Australia director Betty Churcher and renowned Australian painter Jon Molvig. Retirement has sharpened his artistic focus and many of the works in this show are drawn from years of travel overseas.

It’s been his lifelong practice to take a sketchbook everywhere, often with watercolours, and record a scene en plein air [painting outdoors]. Ideas can take a long time to gestate: a small sketch of the Luxembourg Gardens took 20 years to develop into a much larger work in oil pastels.

Garden painting

Diana the Huntress in the Luxembourg Gardens. Image: Supplied.

Often a work begins with a pen and ink or pencil sketch and moves through several iterations. Sometimes, Roger uses a photograph to prompt his memory, but “there’s always a point where the photograph gets thrown out; it’s only ever the start. Drawing is always better because you look more closely”.

Landscape and portraits are both frequent subjects, and in this exhibition, there is a particular focus on large scale representations of flowers, examining how light falls on the blooms.

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The major works come out of the experience of the pandemic and lockdown, and his wife’s serious illness during the same period.

“I was thrown back on the resources I had in the studio,” he explains. “I couldn’t get out to do plein air painting or drawing and I became quite determined that I wasn’t going to paint a series of gloomy pictures.

“I wanted to make a show that said that there is hope and redemption available to us all. There will be another spring, there will be light. To create life and light, you often have to have dark as well.”

rose painting

Detailed images of individual blooms are a feature of the exhibition. Image: Supplied.

There are a number of large paintings of flowers in their natural environment, including Floriade blossoms across the suburbs and a series of closely detailed flower studies, notably, a pair of huge matching poppies on contrasting black and white backgrounds.

The velvety backdrops in many paintings are reminiscent of the Dutch interiors, which strongly influenced Roger’s last exhibition. This time the imagery is simplified and glowing, focused on how light travels across petals and creates folds and shadows.

“They’re capable of sitting in a traditional context or in a very modern context,” Roger says. “The same techniques could easily have been used for paintings of princes or saints. It’s all about the light.”

The Magic of Light, a solo exhibition by Roger Beale AO, is at Humble House Gallery at 93 Wollongong St Fyshwick until 29 May.

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