Born in Auburn, Victoria in 1922. A painter, graphic artist and print maker, Ray Crooke was first introduced to drawing by his father. Crooke spent most of his life in Northern Queensland, and was deservedly one of Australia’s most popular and best loved artists. He is well known for his portrayal of the people and places of Australia’s tropics. Art writer James Gleeson has said that: “nothing invokes the character of tropical Queensland more immediately than a Ray Crooke painting” and describes Crooke as a provincial artist in the most exact sense of the word.
As a young man, Crooke spent hours pouring over books in the Melbourne State Library which dealt with the Pacific. After enrolling at Melbourne’s Swinburne Technical College, Crooke’s preliminary studies were interrupted when he enlisted for army service in World War II. His time in the army took him to Western Australia, North Queensland and Borneo and provided him with his first glimpses of the Pacific when he was 21 years old.
Ray Crooke’s first contact with the tropics at places such as Cape York Peninsula, Thursday Island and Borneo had an extraordinary impact on him and have inspired much of his subsequent art. Ray Crooke has said of Cape York Peninsula: “This made a tremendous impression on me (although) it was to lie dormant for years, at least ten, before I attempted to paint this experience. Next would be Thursday Island … the colour, the island people, the history, made an indelible impression. I am still able to recall the sensation – though the physical character (of the landscape) would have changed, in my mind it is as I first saw it in 1943”.
During the war, Crooke read widely and came into contact with other artists and new trends in Australian and American art, perusing the work of other Australian Wartime artists such as Donald Friend and Russell Drysdale. (Crooke was later to meet Drysdale briefly in Sydney in the 1940’s.) During the war Crooke also undertook a correspondence course in drawing under Douglas Dundas through East Sydney Technical College.
When the war ended, Crooke returned to Melbourne and concentrated on drawing and etching while completing his art training at Swinburne from 1946-1948 with Roger James and Allan Jordan. Although he was on friendly terms with other artists, Ray Crooke began his lifelong pattern as a solitary artist, seeking his own direction and working on ideas for compositions taken from his wartime drawings.
In 1949 Crooke set off again for Cairns and Thursday Island and stayed for a time with an Islander family living at St. Paul’s Mission on Moa Island, an outer island in the Torres Strait. On Moa and Thursday Island he kept a detailed journal filled with written entries, drawings and descriptions of the people. These diaries and his memories of Thursday Island have inspired many paintings – a process Crooke has followed all his career with subsequent diaries from his travels to Fiji, Hawaii and Tahiti. In fact Crooke has said that the importance in his art for him has been the recording of personal experiences in the places he has lived.
During his time on Thursday Island, Crooke spent two years working for the Diocese of Carpentaria and towards the end of his stay he signed on for eight weeks as a diver on a trochus lugger which worked the reefs scattered throughout the Strait. While working on the lugger he met his future wife Jane Bethel. They married in March 1951 and had three children – Susan, Diana and David but tragically, Susan died in 1975.
During the 1950’s Crooke consolidated his style and after extensive painting in Ferntree Gully, Crooke enjoyed a major career breakthrough with successful exhibitions at the Australian Galleries in Melbourne and the Johnston Gallery in Brisbane in 1959 and 1960. His tropical Thursday Island subjects quickly became popular and since the late 1960’s Crooke has concentrated on producing mainly his Pacific Island pictures together with Australian landscapes, urban subjects, still life, some European subjects and portraiture.
An interest in nature and its relationship with humanity has been a strong theme in Ray Crooke’s work for over 50 years. A lover of nature since he was a child, Crooke’s paintings represent an admiration for the lives of the islanders who he paints as existing in simple harmony with nature. Art critics often speak of the special stillness evoked in Ray Crooke’s work – rather than creating a narrative, Crooke concentrates on the immanence of the present moment and finds mystery in familiar people and landscapes, allowing them to speak for themselves. As Crooke says of his work: “There’s the stillness, that moment caught, and then I like the painting to be well constructed, to contain the eye and also to have passage which one can move across.“
The art critic James Gleeson acknowledges this quietness in Crooke’s work, pointing out the deliberate and premeditated nature of the artist’s technique: “he is an original artist because of the particular temperament his paintings reveal to us. His paintings reflect a mind that is intensely serious, thoughtful, and in sympathetic harmony with nature.”
In general, Crooke’s work shows a very carefully thought out organisation of forms which combines with a highly developed decorative style, a beautiful sense of colour and particular attention to the fall of light. Drawing and composition are important sub-structures in Ray Crooke’s work and this is evidenced in his fascination with silhouette and the placement of dark shapes against light, particularly when he utilises dramatic tonal leaps. Characteristically, Crooke often composes a darkened interior to contrast against the blazing tropical light and colours of the outside landscape.
Colour and tone are important components of Ray Crooke’s work and while he emulates some of Gauguin’s complementary colour harmonies, Crooke’s colour and subject are more conservative and less sensual than Gauguin. Crooke prefers to establish a scale of tones from light to dark and his subject matter focuses on real human experience, rather than myth.
After his first successful exhibitions of 1959, Crooke continued to make frequent painting trips to remote areas such as Cape York Peninsula, Mornington Island and the Kimberley’s in North West Australia in the 1960’s and 70’s. In 1963 his work was included in London’s Tate Gallery Exhibition of Australian Art. He continued to exhibit frequently in leading galleries in most capital cities with his work also included in a number of significant group exhibitions and further exhibitions in London. Crooke also served as an official war artist during the Vietnam War.
In 1969 Ray Crooke won the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture with a character study of the writer George Johnston. He was also the winner of the Wynne, Pring and Sulman Prizes from the Art Gallery of NSW in 1982 and in 1970 and winner of the Blake Prize in 1980.
Ray Crooke was awarded a member of the Order of Australia in 1993 and his work is held in important public collections such as the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, all State and many Regional galleries, the Vatican collection in Rome and Australian corporate and private collections. In November 1997 Crooke’s important travelling Retrospective exhibition “North of Capricorn” toured public galleries in Townsville, Cairns, Gladstone, Rockhampton, Brisbane, Campbelltown, Canberra and Melbourne.
Ray Crooke passed away in December 2015 when he was 93 years old.
Rosemary Dobson, Focus on Ray Crooke, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1971
James Gleeson, introduction Ray Crooke, Australian Artists Editions, Collins, Sydney, 1972
A & A 10/3/1973 (John Henshaw, Ray Crooke Drawings)
A & A 10/4/1973 (John Henshaw, Ray Crooke Paintings)
Sue Smith, North of Capricorn – The Art of Ray Crooke, Perce Tucker Regional Gallery, 1997