When international adventurer Augustus Earle stumbled upon the Illawarra in 1827, he took one look at the region’s rugged, lush escarpment, looming over the stunning coast, and knew he had found something special.
Inspiration struck almost immediately. With paintbrush poised, he devoted the next few months to capturing dark, dramatic scenes of Cabbage Tree Forest, the region’s mountains and its sweeping coastline.
That was nearly 200 years ago but the Illawarra has continued to be an artist’s dream, with its beaches, towering peaks and thick, green vegetation.
While 19th-century romantic artists focused on the region’s escarpment, today’s artists are all about the beach. Sand, sun and surf have filled their canvasses, in colourful depictions of Aussie culture and the Illawarra’s beaches at their best.
'The Illawarra is just amazing. For me, that view from Sandon Point looking north is just incredible. I’ve travelled a lot and I’d be struggling to find a better view.'
Wollongong art historian Dr Joseph Davis has studied the Illawarra’s art scene and the painters behind some of its most well-known depictions. He believes the region’s proximity to Sydney, along with its one-of-a-kind views, has long made it a favoured artistic spot.
‘‘In the early days, the landscape was sublime for that romantic ideal,’’ he said.
‘‘You had huge cedar trees, a lot of dark forests, it was just gorgeous. We had some really big names come here wanting to capture those scenes.
‘‘Wollongong was one of very few places where you could have a mountain and the sea in the same image and then you had all this different vegetation and the escarpment. There was so much to work with.’’
Earle, a travelling oil painter, was the first artist to paint the region, capturing scenes of locals being dwarfed by the escarpment and its huge trees.
Surveyor Robert Hoddle visited the Illawarra in 1831, using his work to indulge his love of drawing. He sketched Pumpkin Cottage, the first family residence of Marshall Mount’s Henry Osborne, along with images of the beach near Bulli and Kiama. His name is commemorated in Hoddles Track, which runs from the summit of Saddleback Mountain down to Foxground.
Austrian landscape painter Eugene von Guerard spent several years painting the region, at the request of a wealthy Melbourne family who wanted ‘‘nice pictures of the coast’’, Davis said.
And von Guerard delivered; his paintings of Lake Illawarra, circa 1866, breathe warmth into the popular lake and the then surrounding farmland.
Albert Henry Fullwood, one of the most successful artists of the era, spent time in the Illawarra as part of his work on the Picturesque Atlas of Australia, the first edition of which was published in 1886. He created a series of postcards of scenes across the region.
Fast forward to the 1920s and it was all about the ladies.
Women like Grace Cossington Smith and Margaret Preston were among the first female artists to paint the Illawarra and create more modern depictions of the region’s landscape.
Preston was the first Australian artist to incorporate Aboriginal motifs into her work, evident in her Shoalhaven Gorge and Flying Over the Shoalhaven.
In the 1980s and 90s, the Illawarra artscape took another turn, entering what Davis dubbed its ‘‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll phase’’. Artists like the infamous Brett Whiteley, who died of a heroin overdose in a Thirroul hotel in 1992, and Garry Shead started to experiment with more abstract techniques – and the ‘‘fame’’ side of being an artist.
Their works often paid homage to the region’s northern suburbs, a popular muse for many of today’s local artists, including Paul Ryan.
Davis believes Ryan is one of the first artists to tap into the heart of the region, rather than just its physicality.
‘‘For me, Paul is the only Australian artist who has really captured the essence of the region’s coastline,’’ he said. ‘‘He’s spent so much time looking at the escarpment. He has seen that same view from his surfboard over and over again; his paintings really show that intimate connection with the landscape.’’
Ashley Frost also knows the addictive, spellbinding quality of the coast.
The Sydney-born artist spent hours ‘‘really looking’’ for the first time around his adopted Thirroul home late last year when he realised his seachange had brought more than just a new home.
‘‘I’d had a few exhibitions in Thirroul and Scarborough over the years and I always showed urban landscapes of places like Redfern and Parramatta,’’ he said.
‘‘People kept saying to me ‘When are you going to paint the Illawarra?’ and that was the push I needed. I started fresh late last year and just went outdoors and really started looking at the coast in a totally different way.’’
His latest exhibition Coastal, which opened at Thirroul’s Egg & Dart Gallery on Friday, pays tribute to his new-found fascination with the region’s shores.
‘‘The Illawarra is just amazing. For me, that view from Sandon Point looking north is just incredible. I’ve travelled a lot and I’d be struggling to find a better view.
‘‘It’s still exciting for me. Sometimes I look out and I still get this feeling of ‘How good is this’. It takes my breath away.’’
The coastline has also allowed the artist to indulge his love of light and shade, an attraction for any painter keen to create a certain gleam in their work.
‘‘My interest has always been painting light and darkness,’’ Frost said.
‘‘Looking at the light on the water at first light or when the sun is going down is just amazing. We’re so close to the water that you get the most incredible colours and shades.’’
For Coledale artist Moira Kirkwood, it is not so much about the region’s surrounds but her reaction to it.
She describes her works as more ‘‘inward-looking and intuitive’’, focused on finding ways to infuse her own love and excitement for the area into her art.
‘‘Artists like Brett Whiteley responded to the region in a very intense way. You could see his relationship with the area and his joy for the place in his work,’’ she said.
‘‘My paintings might not look like the Illawarra but the exuberance and excitement I get from living here is in there; it’s all about the response to the landscape.’’
Her work is part of the exhibition My Illawarra: Urban Landscape, currently showing at Wollongong’s Project Contemporary Artspace.
Created by members of the gallery, the exhibition aims to illustrate what it’s like to live and produce art in the Illawarra.
‘‘I didn’t sit down at the easel and say ‘Right, today I’m going to create a landscape of the Illawarra’. I don’t work like that,’’ Kirkwood said.
‘‘I go to the easel and it’s just totally intuitive. I empty any expectations and plans and just go with whatever happens; my work shows how I’ve responded to the Illawarra in an intuitive way. We can’t help but be influenced by where we live.’’
Kirkwood, also an art theory teacher, believes the region’s picturesque landscape has long been the drawcard for budding artists but they quickly realise there is much more to the city.
‘‘The landscape is that visual thing that excites the eye but there’s something interesting in the decaying industrial areas, too,’’ she said. ‘‘It really adds to that visually rich mix.’’
‘‘Living in Coledale, I’m always taken by the physical beauty of the beachscape but when you add that with the visual interest of these post-industrial areas and the different people, it’s exciting.
‘‘We’re seeing this cultural momentum of art spaces and expressions and it makes the Illawarra a better place to live in.’’
The diversity of creative types has also created a more broad-ranging art scene, according to Kirkwood, a far cry from the carbon copy paintings of the 19th century.
‘‘We’re seeing humour in paintings; the work is much more subversive,’’ she said.
‘‘There’s a work in the Project exhibition that shows what would happen if the region was taken over by giant ducks. It’s very kooky. People are much more ready to have their own opinion, take the piss and question things and that’s great to see.’’
Kirkwood and Davis agree the region’s ‘‘paradise-like’’ landscape will undoubtedly provide inspiration to the next generation of artists.
‘‘Not a day goes by that I’m not bowled over by this place. I never take for granted how fortunate I am to live in the Illawarra,’’ Kirkwood said.
My Illawarra: Urban Landscape runs until June 29; Coastal runs until July 11.