Born on 9 December, 1922 in Brisbane, John Rigby was a well-established and respected Queensland artist based primarily in Brisbane. As a child he also lived at Palen Creek, south west of Brisbane, and at the Glass House Mountains at the Sunshine Coast in the early 1930’s.
Regarded as one of Queensland’s most influential and important at identities, Rigby worked as an artist and art educator and enjoyed a remarkable career with numerous solo and group exhibitions in Australia and overseas, extensive travel and painting excursions, and success both as a commercial artist and as an exhibiting full time painter, with solo exhibitions and being a finalist and winning in dozens of major prizes (Rigby was a finalist in the Archibald 24 times, often in tandem with the Sulman and Wynne Prizes), as well was being represented in many private, corporate and public collections.
Rigby was particularly known for his colourful Australian tropical and bush landscapes, but equally enjoyed and drew his inspiration for a great variety of sources. His working method was generally to paint on site and to work directly in front of his subjects.
Speaking of his working method, Rigby said: “Working on a site with inconveniences teaches the artist to economise and adopt approaches. Using broad flat areas of colour, I have striven for a more monumental statement.”
Rigby’s style was varied, and as well as landscapes, he also created many portrait, nude and figures scenes, still lifes, cityscapes, seascapes, floral motifs and even abstracts. Many of his major awards were for portraits and genre paintings.
After leaving school, Rigby studied art at Central Technical College in Brisbane from 1937 to 1938. After completing his studies, from 1939 to 1942, he worked for the Victor Day & Sons signwriters, and then as a commercial artist for National Advertising in Brisbane, creating artworks for major clients such as Castlemaine XXXX beer. During this time, in 1941, Rigby also presented his first public show at the Royal Queensland Art Society’s annual exhibition in Brisbane.
In 1942, when Rigby was 19 years old he enlisted with the Australian Military Forces and until 1946 during World War II was based in Townsville and Marreba in Queensland and then in New Guinea and New Britain where he was involved in Intelligence with collecting, collating and assimilating information on troop movements and topographical map production for the Pacific. During his spare time he painted for his widely circulated weekly cartoon strips on army life.
After military service, Rigby returned to commercial art, working as a freelancer in Brisbane at National Advertising and as the sports cartoonist for The Sunday Mail.
Between 1948 to 1950, Rigby took on more art studies at East Sydney Technical College under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. Two fellow students during his time at ESTC were the artists John Coburn and Jon Molvig. Rigby and Molvig were to become long-time close friends. Whilst completing his studies at ESTC, Rigby also met and married in 1949 his first wife Shirley Walker but they were later to separate in 1951 after Rigby returned to live in Brisbane.
On his return to Brisbane, Rigby continued to paint and freelance in commercial art at Campbell Advertising and then Noble Bartlett (later George Patterson Noble Bartlett). In the early 1950’s he contributed to mixed exhibitions at the Marodian Gallery and The Johnstone Gallery.
In 1953, Rigby’s career took an exciting turn when he became a finalist in both the Archibald Prize (with a portrait of his friend and artist Jon Molvig) and the Wynne Prize. Also in 1953 Rigby married Margaret Shaw Auld and presented his first one-man exhibition at the Johnstone Gallery, as well as conducting private art classes at St Mary’s Church Hall in Kangaroo Point. His first son Mark was also born.
1954 saw another one-man exhibition at Johnstone Gallery and the accolade of another Archibald finalist piece, a self-portrait, and more finalist pieces in the Wynne and the Sulman Prizes.
In 1955 Rigby won the Dante Alighieri Society/Italian Government Travelling Art Scholarship with his painting “Italian Family (North Queensland)”. Taking up the scholarship, on 26 August 1956 Rigby travelled abroad with wife Margaret and son Mark to live and paint in Italy. He extended his time abroad by visiting England for several months, as well as travelling to France before returning to Australia in late January 1958.
Her resumed working in commercial art and as a painter and by the end of 1958 had exhibited major shows of his Italian works in Sydney and Brisbane. In September 1958, Rigby also won Australia’s richest art prize at the time, The Australian Women’s Weekly Art Prize for best portrait (of wife Margaret). His daughter Renee was born late in 1958.
Rigby continued to win prizes in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s including the Caltex Art Prize in 19589, Centenary Year RNA Prize, the Redcliffe Centenary Art Contest and the prestigious Sulman Prize in 1962. He also became a Founding Executive Member of the Contemporary Art Society (Queensland Branch), and welcomed his second son Anthony into the world. In 1963 he won the Melrose Prize awarded by Art Gallery of South Australia.
In about 1966, Rigby established “Rigby Studio”, an advertising art studio with staff.
In May 1969 Rigby was appointed by the Governor of Queensland as a Trustee of the Queensland Art Gallery, serving in this position for 18 years until 1987, and helping to guide the move of the Queensland Art Gallery from its original Gregory Terrace building to the purpose-built facility at Southbank in 1982.
In 1972, when he was 50 years old, closed “Rigby Studio” and retired from the world of commercial art and advertising to take up full time painting and part-time art lecturing at the Queensland College of Art. Also in the 1970’s, the Young Australian Gallery presented a major commercial retrospective exhibition of his works completed from 1948 to 1968.
In 1974, he was appointed Officer in Charge of the School of Fine Art, Queensland College of Art (now part of Griffith University) and he taught as Senior Instructor for ten years.
In 1980, Rigby’s work was featured in UNICEF’s “Queensland Men of Achievement” photographic exhibition. In 1981 Rigby toured US galleries with fellow artists.
In the mid 1980’s be began exhibiting at The Town Gallery with art dealer Verlie Just, as association that lasted until 1998.
In January 1984, Rigby retired from the Queensland College of Art and returned to full-time painting. With retirement from the academic sphere, Rigby began a period of painting trips and resulting works shown regularly at the Town Gallery, various other Queensland galleries, and Wagner Art Gallery in Sydney and Hong Kong.
His painting excursions in 1984 and 1985 took him to Lord Howe Island, Kakadu National Park under the “Artists in the Field” program run by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, and the Whitsunday Islands. In 1985, he also began recording extensive interviews on his life with Barbara Blackman (writer and first wife of acclaimed artist Charles Blackman) for the National Library of Australia.
From 1987 to 1990, Rigby undertook more painting trips to Tasmania, and an extended trip with his wife Margaret throughout the South Pacific to Western Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands, then Greece, England and France. In 1992, he painted on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait.
In 1994 Rigby was awarded an Honorary doctorate for services to the Arts from Griffith University, followed by more travels from 1995 to 1997 to Egypt, Central Australia, Bali, Port Douglas and the Daintree National Park. In 1999 he visited Spain and Italy and revisited places throughout Italy that he’d first seen during hin 1956 and 1957.
In 2000, Rigby painted in Fiji; and was awarded the Watling-von Bibra $20,000 Art Award at the Gold Coast. Following a dispute over the conditions, Rigby returned the prize.
In 2003 Rigby was again in northern Queensland, painting in the Whitsunday Islands on St Bees and Keswick Islands. That same year the book on his life ‘John Rigby: Art and Life’ by John Millington and Mark Rigby was launched at the Queensland Art Gallery.
In his later decades, Rigby showed a significant shift in his style towards colour pieces, revelling in colour for its own sake.
In 1993, writer John Millington, co-author of the book on Rigby’s life, wrote in the Gold Coast Weekend Herald: “Rigby has always, better than any other artist, living or dead, encapsulated the “Queenslandness,” the tropicality and the different pacedness of this much blessed state. Rigby is essentially a colourist, one of the best. Come to think of it, given Australia’s lifestyle, climate and light, we have remarkably few genuine colourists.
In an interview with Courier Mail writer Andrea Pooley in July 1990 Rigby said: “I don’t want my work to become softer, I want my work to get stronger and richer. I want it to be different … a retrospective of art expressed through shimmering pools of colour that burst into flames of red and orange, completely devoid of any meaning other than to offer pleasure and joy to those who view them.”
“Art has no need of certainties. In this changing world, art in whatever form is the material manifestation of an inner and spiritual activity and the question of reality and the place we occupy in it. To me, the actual creative act … is perhaps more important than the result … enjoyment should come into it, spontaneous joy.
“Express yourselves freely for where there is no feeling there’s no life and where there’s no feeling there’s no art.”
In 2004 a survey exhibition of several decades of his portrait pieces, ‘Portraits: John Rigby’, was held at the Museum of Brisbane, City Hall, which included many works he had entered into important portrait competitions, such as the Archibald Prize, Doug Moran National Portrait Prize, and the Australian Women’s Weekly Portrait Prize.
Rigby continued to present various exhibitions from 2005 to 2009 at the Gold Coast, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, and in 2009, at the age of 86, completed his final painting and presented his final solo exhibition in Sydney.
John Rigby passed away on 18 October 2012. His paintings are represented in various public collections, including: National Gallery of Australia, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the Art Gallery of Western Australian, Art Gallery and Museum of the Northern Territory, Tasmanian Art Gallery, Commonwealth Art Bank, the Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane, university and regional galleries, and many corporate and private collections in Australia and overseas.