Penleigh Boyd was born on 15 August 1890 at Penleigh House at Westbury, Wiltshire in England at his mother’s ancestral home “Penleigh”, during a time when his parents, the renowned Australian artists Arthur Merric Boyd (1862–1940) and Emma Minnie Boyd (née à Beckett) (1858-1936), were studying and visiting the galleries of Europe.
Penleigh was Arthur and Minnie’s second son and the “star-turn” for his parents. He was quick and clever with good looks and very talented, and before his fifteenth birthday had won a number of awards for his drawings and paintings.
He went on to become an accomplished painter and etcher, and was one of the founders of the Boyd artistic dynasty. Penleigh’s brothers included the ceramicist Merric Boyd (1888–1959) and the novelist Martin Boyd (1893–1972). Penleigh’s son Robin Boyd (1919–1971) became a famous and influential architect, educator and social commentator, and his nephews Arthur Boyd (1920-1999), Guy Boyd (1923-1988), and David Boyd (1924-2011) became prominent artists.
Penleigh and his family arrived back in Australia in 1894. They lived in Sandringham until 1907, before moving to Yarra Glen.
In 1907, when he was 17, Boyd began studies at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, tutored by the great impressionist artist Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917) and Bernard Hall (1859-1935). He won a number of awards for his work at the school, and was also known amongst his peers as an accomplished flirt!
In 1908 Penleigh had his first exhibition with the Victorian Artist’s Society when he was 18 years old. After completing his studies at the NGV in 1909, he set up a studio in Melbourne and developed his skill in watercolours, holding an exhibition in Melbourne, where he netted himself the princely sum of seventy pounds – an extraordinary achievement for a nineteen year old painter.
In 1910 Penleigh exhibited again at the Victorian Artist’s Society. His painting “Winter’s Eve” was offered at 100 guineas – a huge sum for a young painter.
At this time Penleigh’s health faltered and it was discovered that he suffered from a weak heart. Undeterred, in early 1911 Penleigh set off for travel studies to the United Kingdom and Europe. On arrival in London, he was met by his cousins, the Chomley’s, and rented a studio in Chelsea, but spent most of his time in London socializing with his cousins.
In the winter of 1911-1912 Penleigh moved from London to the artist’s colony at St. Ives in the south west of England where, at age 21, he painted a work ‘Springtime’ which was accepted and hung for an exhibition at the Royal Academy, thus emulating his parent’s earlier success at the Academy in 1891.
Following his success at the Academy, in May 1912 Penleigh left for France, and studied at the Academie Colarossi in Paris. He rented a studio that adjoined the house where Australian artists Emanuel Phillips Fox (1865-1915) and his wife Ethel Carrick Fox (1872-1952), were living. Emanuel introduced Penleigh to the work of the French modern school and plein air painting techniques which were to become a notable feature of Penleigh’s painting style.
In Paris, Phillips Fox also introduced Penleigh to his friend, the beautiful and cultivated Brisbane-born artist, Edith Susan Anderson (1860-1961), who had modelled for some of Emanuel’s paintings and was noted for her beautiful red hair.
Edith was herself a skilled painter who had exhibited with the Queensland Artist’s Society. She came from an educated family. Her father had been Director of the Queensland Department of Public Instruction, her brother Arthur was a prominent doctor, and her eldest sister Maud was of one of the first women to graduate with a B.A. degree from the University of Sydney (and was possibly Queensland’s first female university graduate).
When Penleigh and Edith met, he was 22 and she 32, and despite their age difference, they fell in love and were engaged within weeks, and returned to London to plan their wedding. They married in Paris on 15 October 1912, with Emanuel Phillips Fox as a witness, and guests including fellow Australian artists Rupert Bunny and Bessie Gibson.
In 1913, Edith and Penleigh ventured back to Australia, with Penleigh painting on the home voyage. Their first child, Pamela was born in the Spring of 1913, but sadly died within two weeks.
In 1913, Boyd was awarded Second Prize in the Federal Capital Site competition in Canberra, for his painting of the site of the new national capital.
Penleigh’s painting efforts proved successful and his early landscapes and seascapes showed great brilliance, particularly with respect to light, with art critics impressed by the lyrical and poetic qualities exhibited in his paintings.
In 1914 he won Australia’s most prestigious art prize for landscape painting, the Wynne Prize awarded by the Art Gallery of NSW. In October 1914 he exhibited at the Athenaeum Hall with paintings of Venice, Paris, Sydney, Tasmania and Victoria.
With his painting career flourishing, Penleigh purchased a 14 acre block of bushland nestled on the Yarra River at Warrandyte, 24 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. The site was chosen for its natural beauty and the beautiful wattle trees that fringed the river.
The Boyd’s built a charming attic house and studio there, they called “The Robins”, and in 1915 their second child John á Beckett Boyd (known to all as Pat) was born. Pat became a painter and a test pilot.
In November 2015, soon after Pat’s birth and with the outbreak of World War I, Penleigh enlisted in the AIF as did his brothers Martin and Merric. Penleigh enlisted with the A.I.F. and served with the Australian Mining Corps. He was soon promoted to Sergeant and joined a special Army Engineer unit, the Australian Electrical and Mechanical Mining and Boring Company. This unit provided and maintained the equipment required to light, ventilate and de-water the extensive tunnel and dug-out systems along the entire length of the Western front. Penleigh detailed lorry drivers and the distribution of stores and equipment.
He served in France until September 1917, when he was badly gassed at Ypres. He was repatriated to Wiltshire in the UK to convalesce. His brother Martin Boyd visited and together they went to Penleigh House, the home after which Penleigh had been named and where he’d lived as a child when his mother Minnie had been an owner of the a‘Beckett estate.
As one of Australia’s earliest deployed artists into France, Boyd took the opportunity to become an unofficial war artist capturing impressions and images of the war. Before being repatriated back to Australia, he published his book “Salvage” in London in 1918 with British Australasian. The book which included 20 of Penleigh’s black and white ink-sketches of army scenes together with a racy text.
Boyd returned home aboard the Euripides in March 1918 and settled back into life, resuming his painting career from his home “The Robins” at Warrandyte, an environment which he said induced an atmosphere of tranquil detachment from external and material things, which he believed was necessary to produce great art.
During the post-war years Penleigh worked prolifically to re-establish his place as a leading Australian painter, and despite suffering from permanent lung damage, he presented with great success, his first post-war exhibition in Melbourne in November 1918 at the Victorian Artists Society. More solo exhibitions of his watercolour and oil paintings continued in 1920, 1921 and 1922.
In January 1919, Penleigh & Edith’s second son Robin Gerard Boyd (1919-1971) was born. Robin became a distinguished and influential architect and writer, and also served on important committees, including the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria.
At “The Robins” Penleigh was inspired by the natural beauty of the property and the nearby river and he began to paint landscapes with wattle trees flowering in of glorious, blazing yellow – paintings for which he became particularly renowned.
The beauty of these paintings was was quickly recognised by the National Gallery of Victoria who acquired through the Felton Bequest his oil painting, “The Breath of Spring” (1919) a cascade of golden wattle massed on a riverbank and reflected in still water. Critics were ecstatic in their praise, but the painting also provoked much public discussion, for and against, and when hung in the Gallery, became known as ‘the scrambled egg painting.’
This institutional purchase was complemented by the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ acquisition of “The River” (1919) a dreamily evocative watercolour, and in 1921, Penleigh presented to the Castlemaine Art Museum, his wattle painting “Spring Fantasy” from 1919.
The wattle was a powerful and patriotic symbol, considered to be Australia’s national flower and incorporated into the design of armorial bearings of the Commonwealth of Australia. The symbolism of wattle gained in significance during World War I, when Wattle Day badges were sold to raise funds for the war effort. The potency of wattle was most pronounced in the popular wartime song When Blood will Stain the Wattle.
Boyd’s images of wattle represented a career pinnacle and a significant moment in the history of Australian art. His wattle paintings captured a unique feature of the Australian landscape and joined other symbolic representations of national iconography in Australian art that included gum trees, mountain ranges, rivers, and sheep and cattle.
Whilst renowned for his wattle paintings, Penleigh was also fascinated by the Australian bush, creating paintings that depicted scenes from regional Victoria, the Yarra River, Portsea, the Mornington Peninsula, Sydney Harbour and the Hawkesbury River. Boyd was also an accomplished etcher.
His was noted for his beautiful impressionist style, reminiscent of Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) and the Heidelberg School. Infused by a passion for colour and his early interest in the painting of J.M.W. Turner and the work of Frederick McCubbin (his former teacher at the NGV school), Boyd’s paintings of Australian landscapes carried great appeal. They were full of the immediacy and atmospheric freshness that came from working plein air and were often dominated by a singular tone, with a highly controlled palette and a masterly depiction of light.
Despite his success, the war seemed to have exacted a psychological toll on Penleigh and he never fully regained his pre-war drive and enthusiasm, remaining disillusioned about the war and its aftermath till his death.
In 1922, Penleigh took the remarkable step of selling “The Robins” and moved his family to Sydney.
Soon after he was enlisted by Sydney Ure Smith as one of the organisers of a major exhibition of contemporary European art, “European Contemporary Pictures”, a government-sponsored loan exhibition of modern British and European art, envisioned to introduce comparative evaluations with the Australian art scene.
In September 1922, Penleigh went with his wife and children to England to select paintings for the exhibition. Encountering difficulties in his marriage, Penleigh returned home alone to Australia in June 1923 and the European exhibition was staged in Sydney and Melbourne from July to August.
Possibly as a result of his involvement in the European exhibition, Penleigh grew disillusioned with his recent work, and destroyed many of his lesser paintings and sold some of his better ones, realising £2,500.
During his wife and family’s absence Penleigh also conducted an open and very intense but short love affair in Australia with Minna Schuler, an artist and writer and daughter of the editor of “The Age”. Penleigh painted her portrait and it was exhibited in the Victorian Artists’ Society Exhibition.
Later in 1923, Penleigh cabled his family to return home, and met them at Port Melbourne with the news that he had bought back their family home in Victoria, “The Robins”. Penleigh had also purchased a fine new Hudson car for the family’s journey to “The Robins”. Sadly he and Edith quarrelled almost immediately, and only four days after his family’s return, Penleigh left Warrandyte for Sydney on 28 November 1923, in the new car with a passenger, Lionel Hurley.
Two miles out of Warragul on the Princes Highway, Penleigh lost control of the car on a sharp bend. The car somersaulted and skidded for some distance. Lionel was thrown clear and survived but tragically, Penleigh died from his injuries. He was 33 years old.
At his death Penleigh Boyd was recognized as one of Australia’s finest landscape painters, and his obituarists compared his work to that of Arthur Streeton, rating him as one of the most promising painters of his generation.
Fortunately for his wife Edith, the combination of the money from Penleigh’s estate (including the proceeds of the sale of “The Robins”, the repaired car, and about 40 paintings) plus a small inheritance from her father and an annual allowance from Penleigh’s father enabled her to support their young sons Pat and Robin without needing to work, even during the depths of the Great Depression.
In later years Edith she wrote several dramas, staged by repertory companies, and radio plays for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in which she took part. She died at East Burwood on 31 March 1961, survived by her two sons, Robin and Pat.
Given his early passing and the rarity of his work, Penleigh Boyd’s beautiful paintings rarely appear for sale on the open market.
His work is widely represented in private and institutional collections that include: National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, National Gallery of Victoria, Australian War Memorial, National Library of Australia, Parliament House Canberra; plus the State Art Galleries of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and Tasmania; as well as regional galleries in Bendigo, Benalla, Ballarat, Castlemaine, Fremantle, Geelong, Latrobe Valley, Mildura, Manly in NSW, Tamworth, and Woollongong; the Mitchell Library in Sydney, the State Library of Victoria, and university collections in Queensland and Melbourne.