The son of a teamster working in the logging and timber industry, Hugh Sawrey was born at Forest Glen near Buderim in Queensland on the 3 March, 1919.
As a young boy, Hugh was fascinated by the folklore of the outback, filled with the exploits of rugged cattlemen, their horsemanship and their epic droving feats.
Hugh is renowned as a figurative impressionist painter of the outback. He was mainly self-taught but also studied intermittently with artist Max Meldrum and Caroline Barker. Sawrey is arguably Australia’s greatest bush painter and undoubtedly one of the best painters of horses in the world. Vibrant images of horses and cattle, the dust of the outback and station life are images synonymous to Hugh Sawrey. In addition to his skill as a painter, Hugh Sawrey is also highly regarded as a writer and poet and illustrated four books.
Hugh Sawrey’s love of the Australian bush stems from his childhood. His father died when Hugh was only three years old and Hugh moved from Forest Glen with his mother and brother to live in Brisbane. After one year of secondary schooling, Sawrey took to the bush when he was 14 and began working, sending money back to assist his widowed mother during the bleak days after the Great Depression. Sawrey’s mother worked as a shearer’s cook.
Hugh Sawrey was no stranger to the hardship of the Australian outback. He became an expert horseman and all-round bushman when working as a head drover, rabbiter, axeman and shearer.
Sawrey travelled extensively throughout the interior of Queensland and the Northern Territory, often befriending Aborigines and occasionally being rewarded with access to remote tribal sacred places. Many of his paintings of aboriginal stockboys and cattle mustering were inspired by his travels from Alexandria Downs in the Northern Territory to Tiberoo Station, out from Eulo. His droving experiences took him mustering out past the Cooper and Diamantina, and as far west as Western Australia.
He enlisted during World War II and experienced active service in Papua New Guinea. When the war was over, Sawrey used his service pay to buy a small mob of cattle which he ran on his mother’s small and harsh property on the Darling Downs.
Unfortunately, his cattle were wiped out in a drought in 1947 and Sawrey moved back to work in the interior. During this time, he scribbled sketches and painted on anything he could find. In the earlier days he would take a piece of charcoal from the campfire and draw on the camp shovel. In this arid environment he began to develop his talent for painting bush scenes and his subject matter was drawn directly from his own personal experiences and observations of the outback. His work is evocative and foremost it presents an honest representation of the way the bush is. As Hugh simply said: “I paint what I see.”
In his impressionable years as a stockman and developing artist, Sawrey mustered cattle on many of the runs known to Kidman and his men. Everywhere he went, he carried scraps of paper in his saddle-bag to sketch the life around him and he began to paint all the facets of life he knew as a stockman. Ever present was his desire was to show town’s people what went on beyond the city lights. Sawrey said: “In my paintings and drawings I have tried to be honest and factual above all things because Australia is an honest land.” A lifetime of outback stories and experiences are related by Sawrey in his works, which are a valuable narrative about life on the land in Australia. Sawrey lived the life he painted and up until he was 46 years old he was still shearing.
In 1965 Sawrey decided to become a full-time artist and he set up his first studio in the Royal Hotel in Queen Street, Brisbane. Since then he prospered and became a renowned Australian painter with his paintings being actively sought by collectors and investors. In his latter years, Sawrey lived with his wife Gill in Victoria where they established a renowned quarter horse stud. Along with breeding and training quarter horses, Hugh painted from his studio on the property.
Hugh Sawrey was actively inspired by the poetry of Australia’s bush poets, particularly A. B. Paterson and William Henry Ogilvie. Ogilvie was born in the late 19th century and drawn by his love of horses, arrived in Australia when he was only 20. Ogilvie spent 12 years droving and horse breaking and his poetry depicts his nostalgia for outback Australia. The final stanza from “The Gulf” parallels one of the many journeys Sawrey made whilst driving cattle in the outback.
“Store cattle from Nelanjie! Their breath is on the breeze;
You hear them tread a thousand head in blue grass to the knees;
The lead is on the netting-fence, the wings are spreading
The lame and laggard scarcely move – so slow the drovers ride!
But let them stay and feed today for sake of Auld Lang Syne;
They’ll never get a chance like this below the Border-line;
And if they tread our frontage down, what’s that to me and you?
What’s ours to fare, by god they’ll share! For we’ve been droving too!
Sawrey exhibited widely throughout Australia. During his career his works were exhibited in many of Australia’s major galleries, as well as John Cooper’s Eight Bells Gallery at the Gold Coast, Grand Central Galleries in Brisbane, Southern Cross Galleries in Melbourne, Galloway Galleries in Brisbane, Schubert Galleries at the Gold Coast and Tiffany Jones Fine Art Gallery at the Sunshine Coast.
Hugh Sawrey also exhibited in London at the Tryon Gallery and his works were included in “Top Horse Painters of the World” exhibition in London.
Sawrey was also a founder and former chairman of the famous Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame at Longreach – home to a magnificent self-portrait by Sawrey, which was donated to the Hall of Fame.
Sawrey was awarded several art prizes during his career including the Queensland Industries Fair Gold Medal and in 1989 he was awarded a CBE for services to the arts.
His work is represented in important public and private collections including the following collections in Australia: the Queensland Art Gallery, the Robert Holmes a’Court Collection, the Sir Rupert & Lady Clarke Collection, the Lady Fairfax Collection and the Robert Nesen Collection.
Hugh Sawrey’s work is also represented in overseas collections such as the Dunedin Gallery in New Zealand, the Australian Embassy in Paris; Rothchild Collection, Paris; the Lord T. Remnant Collection in Britain; King Ranch, Texas, USA and the Mitsubishi Collection in Japan.